Top FAMU official resigns amid $237M donation calamity

TALLAHASSEE, Florida — A senior official at Florida A&M University stepped down Wednesday over her role in accepting what was initially billed as a transformative gift for the school that abruptly collapsed amid questions about its actual value.

The resignation of Shawnta Friday-Stroud, a vice president at the historically Black university in northern Florida, was announced at an emergency board meeting, as school trustees launched an investigation into how the dubious gift from a Texas hemp farming executive was accepted without their knowledge.

Several trustees blamed President Larry Robinson for the ordeal, who took “full responsibility” for accepting a donation that raised almost immediate red flags once it was announced.

“I saw in this unprecedented gift ways to serve our students and athletic programs in ways unimaginable at that time,” Robinson told trustees. “I wanted it to be real and ignored the warning signs along the way.”

FAMU earlier this month received what was announced as a record-high donation from Batterson Farms Corporation’s Gregory Gerami and the Isaac Batterson Family 7th Trust. The purported $237 million gift was presented as a boon for the school that would almost triple its endowment, benefiting students and faculty for generations. The announcement — made with major fanfare during a commencement ceremony — quickly encountered skepticism and dampened the celebration.

FAMU leaders put the gift on hold a few days later, a turnaround that came as questions mounted over the value of the company’s private stocks. Batterson Farms Corporation appears to be just a relatively small outfit based in Texas selling hydroponic hemp farm products — and FAMU did not have the stocks valued by a third-party, leaving the actual worth undetermined. Gerami’s past dealings also came under scrutiny, including a proposed $95 million donation to Coastal Carolina University in 2020 that was quickly terminated by school officials.

During FAMU’s first public meeting of trustees since the donation, Robinson acknowledged that “missteps” were made in vetting the gift. He announced the resignation of Friday-Stroud, FAMU’s vice president for university advancement and executive director of the school’s fundraising foundation, who signed the gift agreement with him. The move, according to Robinson, was a “gesture of good faith and accountability”

That didn’t stop trustees from venting frustrations about the deal and how it unfolded. They slammed school leaders for signing off on the contract without telling the board and criticized how quickly it all fell apart, pointing to obvious reasons to scrutinize the gift.

“This should not have happened,” trustee Deveron Gibbons said.

While the board voted to investigate the donation, trustees were frustrated by a lack of answers and even raised reservations about having FAMU staff involved in the probe since it’s unclear who at the university orchestrated the contract. At least one board member directly criticized Robinson — and board chair Kristin Harper — for signing the deal without digging deeper and including trustees in the discussion.

“We are the governing body. We don’t do things without asking questions,” said trustee Otis Cliatt. “We can’t apologize in 30 seconds and it’s gone.”

Harper, who signed the donation contract as a witness, credited Robinson for halting the deal, yet criticized him for putting her in an awkward position. The public announcement of the deal “could tarnish the reputation of the university,” she said.

“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,” Harper said.