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News Clips 02/07/2013
Lawson eyes bid for FAMU top job
Source: The Florida Current, 02/06/13
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By Bill Cotterell
Quietly, diplomatically, former state Sen. Al Lawson is preparing a bid for the presidency of Florida A&M University -- contending that his troubled alma mater needs a politically savvy leader who knows how to work the Legislature for funding and programs that attract student growth.
He's got a big booster. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, considers Lawson the only potential president who can immediately start to set things straight at FAMU. Florida's only historically black state university is on suspension by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and faces a lawsuit over the beating death of drum major Robert Champion, who died in a hazing ritual aboard a band bus in Orlando in 2011.
"I've never been an academic but, if you look around at colleges and universities today, that's not what's needed so much," Lawson said Wednesday in an interview with The Florida Current. "Definitely, the legislative influence is going to be critical to FAMU over the next four or five years."
Lawson was in the House from 1982 to 2000, then in the Senate until he was term-limited out in 2010. His office walls hold many plaques and certificates from FAMU, where he earned his bachelor's degree. The university has named its large gymnasium complex for him.
"Al would be perfect. He is a man of integrity, courage and confidence, clearly the best person for the job," Gaetz said, when asked about Lawson. "He's someone who can take a real broom with him. He knows the upside, the downside and the underside of FAMU and he could really clean that place up."
FAMU has been in turmoil since Champion's death. Former President James Ammons resigned last summer, after an 8-4 vote of no confidence by the FAMU board of trustees. Interim President Larry Robinson is not a candidate for the permanent presidency and the board has contacted an executive search firm to help find a new president.
Lawson, an insurance executive, ran twice for Congress in the Big Bend district -- losing to ex-Rep. Allen Boyd in the Democratic primary of 2010 and to U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, in November. As he is now beyond the two-year ban on lobbying by ex-legislators, he has been trying to put together a stable of corporate clients, but the FAMU situation is not likely to come again.
Florida universities have a history of politicians in their executive suites. Former House Speaker T.K. Wetherell became president of both Tallahassee Community College and Florida State University after leaving the Legislature, ex-state Sen. and former Education Commissioner Betty Castor of Tampa was president of the University of South Florida, and Frank Brogan, now chancellor of the State University System, became president of Florida Atlantic University after being elected twice as lieutenant governor and once as education commissioner.
Lawson said many FAMU alumni, as well as friends from his three decades in politics, have encouraged him to go for the job. It puts him in a delicate position: Legislators don't want to appear to be pressuring the FAMU trustees and Lawson can't look like he's trying to win the job purely on political points.
His brother Kelvin Lawson is on the FAMU board and his wife, Delores Lawson, is an assistant dean of nursing at the university. Before considering an application of his own, Al Lawson said he told a few potential candidates he would write letters of support for them.
"I haven't talked to any of the trustees, or even with my wife, about it yet," Lawson said.
After graduating from FAMU, Lawson coached at Florida State and earned his master's degree in public administration there. He said he also completed doctorate course work at FSU.
"Although we were of different parties, Al Lawson was always highly regarded by the Republicans," Gaetz said. "Debating him made me a better senator and I think he would force FAMU to become a better university."
Lawson said a FAMU president has to be able to raise money, keep alumni happy and attract students to the campus. Like the other 12 state universities, he said, "FAMU is heavily dependent on the Legislature, and they don't want FAMU to fail."