Former Florida A&M University President James Ammons was appointed this week as the new executive vice president of the Southern University System, and vice-chancellor of its flagship Baton Rouge campus.
His name alone could simultaneously provide confidence and controversy for the embattled campus for a number of reasons. And because of those reasons, his arrival should bring into focus serious conversations about Southern’s stability, and how it is defined by its own stakeholders.
In a statement on the hiring, System President Ray Belton praised Dr. Ammons’ experience as campus CEO.
“Dr. Ammons has distinguished himself in a number of roles at various universities and increased enrollment. We anticipate much from him.”
Dr. Ammons is regarded as both artist and arsonist in HBCU executive management. In stops as chancellor at North Carolina Central University and president of Florida A&M University, he raised money, increased enrollment, constructed brand awareness and extended research capacity.
But he also was a central figure at both schools in whispers of inattentive oversight, particular in the areas of finance and audit. In Durham, Dr. Ammons was implicated in a satellite campus controversy which may have violated state rules on program establishment and conflicts of interest. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Dr. Ammons had to repay more than a million dollars to the federal government for financial aid awarded to students in ineligible programs.
At FAMU, things fell apart after the hazing death of Marching 100 drum major Robert Champion, which exposed Dr. Ammons’ administration for significant issues in internal auditing, administration of student activities and auxiliary accounts, and program management.
And now Dr. Ammons will serve as a high-ranking official at Southern, a campus in desperate need of fundraising, legislative lobbying and administrative culture changing in a campus best known for corruption and administrative failings of epic proportions. Several of the system’s signature degree programs face accreditation loss, several campuses face inquiry concerning personnel management and funding, and state budget cuts threaten its already fragile coffers for capital improvements and academic development.
The last thing the system seemingly wanted to do was to add a reason for negative speculation. But with Dr. Ammons, it did just that. Months after withdrawing from consideration from a search for Southern University at New Orleans’ chancellor, and turning down an offer to become Delaware State University’s provost, Dr. Ammons comes to one of the highest HBCU executive positions in the country and seemingly the prerequisite grooming office to eventually replace current Southern System President Ray Belton.
The choice underscores a question that has flown around Louisiana since the fall of 2015 – where is Ray Belton?
Dr. Belton’s elevation to system president from his post as chancellor of the system’s community college campus in Shreveport was regarded then as a way to stem a tide of anxiety towards the system. Dr. Belton followed controversial splits with former system presidents Ronald Mason and James Llorens, and was viewed as a figure of stability and confidence for faculty and alumni who were becoming increasingly public with their criticism of the flagship campus and the system following several controversies involving athletics, accreditation, and financial management.
But the stability Dr. Belton was supposed to bring to the system soon became outright absence and disconnection. As student protests over higher education budget cuts boiled over in 2015, Dr. Belton was frequently absent from many of the legislative and public square debates on the cuts – despite being the leader of the system most negatively impacted by the legislative reductions.
Some alumni and board members grew increasingly frustrated with Dr. Belton’s absences, and that most of Southern’s legislative interests were better represented publicly by Lousiana State University Chancellor F. King Alexander.
In January 2016, Dr. Belton raised eyebrows when he had to clarify statements he made on Southern potentially closing as a result of legislative budget cuts.
In in the year following the legislative budget crises, Southern has faced multiple scandals and controversies relative to personnel management, oversight, and operational infrastructure.
And for the second time in three years, the Southern University Board of Supervisors has hired a former president to serve as system provost and executive vice-president of its flagship campus, fueling rumors that their plan was always to reward Ray Belton for his years of loyalty to the system and positive relationships through a presidential appointment which required no in-depth work, while effectively running the system and institution through its second-in-command.
Except for this time, the hire brings with him a record of his own controversy and is accompanied by a slate of new executive appointments and new hires.
Southern will always be relevant, but the politics and relationships which have stunted its growth for years are now becoming more apparent and clearly more dangerous. Years ago, money and access were the currency for power brokering in Baton Rouge.
But with less state funding, less tuition revenue and more impatience even from the most true-blue Southern advocates, the margin of error in political and cultural gamesmanship becomes slimmer. There aren’t as many jobs, scholarships or tickets to give to friends and families, and there is more inquiry surrounding usual channels of nepotism and areas of broken administration.
In the end, it’s clear that it doesn’t matter where Ray Belton is or will be in the near future; Southern’s plan, however antiquated and challenged it may be in its sociopolitical construct remains in full effect. That may mean good news for SU in the short-term, but someone who actually cares should let people in power know that preserving the word’s only historically black system isn’t a short-term goal that can survive with politics as usual.