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Thursday, June 13, 2024

FAMU Board Of Trustees Unanimously Vote For ‘External Firm’ To Investigate $237 Million Donation

The Florida A&M Board of Trustees convened a meeting on Wednesday to discuss the next steps following a historic $237 million donation that the Rattlers received during their Spring commencement ceremony.

The donation was given by the Issac Batterson Seventh Family Trust and CEO Gregory Gerami, who also served as the keynote speaker for the ceremony.

During the nearly two-hour meeting, the Board of Trustees unanimously voted to commission an external investigation to look into the details of the substantial donation.

The Board of Trustees approved the motion to hire an external firm to:

  • determine what happened regarding the donation
  • perform an independent audit and analysis of the process, policies, and financial controls
  • recommend actions via a written report
  • provide updates to the Board of Trustees “based on a timeline established by the external firm.”

The news comes after days of controversy regarding the donation. Last week, President Robinson announced that the school was putting a “pause” on the gift “pending additional information that’s come to his attention.”

The Vice Chair of the FAMU Board of Trustees, Deveron Gibbons, requested President Robinson and Board Chair Kristin Harper to hold a public meeting to address the lack of transparency regarding a donation.

Gibbons believes that little information has been shared about the nature of the donation.

According to the agreement, Gregory Gerami pledged to donate “14 million shares of stock of intrinsic value worth at least $239,000,000” to FAMU. The agreement also stated that Gerami planned to donate an additional $61 million over the next decade.

Additional details revealed that donor Gregory Gerami had a major donation fall through at a South Carolina university in 2020.

“We don’t know who did what and when it happened. It is my opinion that we need someone who is completely free of involvement with the university to conduct an outside investigation,” Trustee Belvin Perry Jr. said during Wednesday’s meeting.

Trustee Craig Reed said he believed the board had a portion of information regarding the donation but not all of it.

Shawnta Friday-Stroud, Florida A&M University’s vice president for University Advancement and executive director of the FAMU Foundation — also announced her resignation from her vice president role amid the controversy around the dubious $237 million donation. She will, however, remain dean of the university‘s School of Business & Industry.

During the meeting, FAMU President Larry Robinson apologized for any “missteps” and stated that he takes full responsibility for the matter and the fallout regarding the gift. “It would truly be transformational. I wanted it to be real and ignored the warning signs along the way,” Robinson said.

“I wanted it to be real and ignored the warning signs along the way,” Robinson told the board. “The public announcement at commencement was premature at best, and I apologize to all who witnessed it and shared their joy and jubilation.”

“It is my belief that with the guidance of this board, we will arrive at a process much more transparent when it comes to such large gifts in the future,” he added.

He also apologized to Board of Trustees Chair Kristin Harper, who was seen tearing up in the graduation ceremony at the news of the gift.

Moments after Robinson’s apology, Harper blasted Robinson.

“I should have never been put on the spot or used for a convenient photo or video op for a gift that I knew nothing about,” Chair Harper said.

Bounded by a non-disclosure agreement, Harper was not included in the inner circle that knew about the details of the gift. But she did sign the gift agreement and was featured in the promotion of the donation on the university’s social media page.

During the meeting, Harper also expressed her frustration and disappointment for the reason behind Wednesday’s meeting and the implications it could “undoubtedly have on donor trust and confidence.”

“I fully support your decision to cease this transaction. I only wish the decision would have been made during the six months spent on developing the gift and before a public announcement would have been made that could tarnish the reputation of this university,” she said.

The investigation is said to determine what happened during the process that led to accepting the donation and ensure compliance with policies, processes, and financial controls. It will also recommend any necessary corrective actions in a written report under the leadership of the Board of Trustees’ Audit and Compliance Committee chair, Michael White.

Board members are expected to receive regular updates about the investigation once it begins.

During the Zoom meeting, discussions about an external investigation took up all the time, leaving no opportunity for Robinson or Friday-Stroud to provide further information about the gift or answer the trustees’ unanswered questions.

Florida A&M University x Tallahassee, FL
Florida A&M University is a public historically black land-grant university in Tallahassee, Florida.

Board members Trustee Otis Cliatt II and Vice Chair Deveron Gibbons were frustrated and unsatisfied with the turn that the meeting took as they understood the main purpose of convening was to provide clarity on detailed logistics about how the gift came about.

“We are here today to do one thing, and that is to find out the facts related to this particular donation — what happened and when it happened,” Gibbons said. “I’m sitting here with over 100 questions that are written down here right now.”

“This should not have happened and in light of that, we need to get the facts,” he added. “This is uncomfortable, and I’m upset that I have to sit here and be doing this right now when all it took was normal due diligence.”

Cliatt believed that Harper jumped the gun with her proposal for an external audit early on in the meeting before base-level information was shared to understand the scope of the unclear gift situation.

He also shared his sentiments of unhappiness regarding revelations of the major donation.

“I am not happy with the university making that decision, I’m not happy with the president of the university asking the board chair to sit in a photo op and I’m not happy with the board chair for sitting there in a photo op,” Cliatt said.

“We are the governing body. We don’t do things without asking questions. We’re here because the university did things without asking questions.”

When asked by a trustee how the university would respond to mounting questions about the donation, Robinson said he wouldn’t.

“In light of an impending investigation, I will say very little about this,” Robinson said, adding administrators will be pushing out positive news on the university’s impact on students and the community.

As the Board of Trustees moves forward with tackling the still unclear gift situation while an investigation will soon be underway, trustee Kelvin Lawson says facing another elephant in the room — accountability — is on the horizon.

“At the end of the day, it is going to become an accountability issue,” Lawson said during the special meeting. “We’re going to need to make some decisions as a board on how we move forward.”

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