Florida A&M is a leader in training black businessmen
Tallahassee, Fla. — Aubrey Scott is in the hot seat. Literally. A business student at Florida A&M University here, he is the moderator for this week's edition of ''Today's Leaders Face Tomorrow's,'' a university-produced panel-discussion show.
He and three of his fellow students will be questioning John W. Morrison, chairman and chief executive of Northwest Bancorporation of Minneapolis.
Participation in these weekly programs is a regular part of the curriculum for students at the university's School of Business and Industry (SBI). At some point, all SBI students appear on the show, which is seen over local public-access television. What's a little irregular this morning is the technical difficulties in the studio.
As technicians fiddle with their equipment, Mr. Scott and his panelists, who have been sitting under the studio lights for some time now, are beginning to feel the heat.
He dabs his brow with a handkerchief. Their guest has not arrived yet. Retta Gilliam, one of the panelists, a finance major, tries a question out on the empty chair as a studio aide helps her into her dress-for-success pinstriped jacket. Mr. Scott straightens his tie and starts to run through his introduction for Mr. Morrison.
''Stop!'' the director calls. Still more sound problems.
''What did I do now?'' young Mr. Scott asks with a touch of exasperation and self-deprecation in his voice.
At this, Dr. Jean Lambert, the communications professor supervising the taping, hurries out of the control booth into the studio to reassure him that it was a technical difficulty, not his fault. ''Don't take it as something you did - you'll just get nervous behind that.''
This kind of pep talk is as much a part of the learning experience as library research at SBI. The school was established as a separate school here at the traditionally black FAMU, as the university is known, in 1974. Its unique curriculum is in effect an immersion program to get students thoroughly acclimated to ''business culture,'' something young blacks are generally less exposed to than young whites.
SBI has attracted national attention for its successful placement of graduates with all sorts of corporate heavyweights, such as IBM, Xerox, Price Waterhouse, Honeywell, and General Mills, to name just a few.
SBI starts early: Although school officials wax enthusiastic about their new five-year master of business administration program, this is basically an undergraduate school. And so, right from the start, students of 17 or 18 are encouraged to emulate the manners, mores, and attire of Fortune 500 executives. As a result SBI students are rather easy for a visitor to pick out of an FAMU crowd, at least on days when recruiters and other corporate visitors are on campus. (Hint: they are not the ones with Gloria Vanderbilt's autograph decorating their posteriors.)
Among highlights of the program are the professional-development program, and paid corporate internships.
Central to the professional-development program is training in communications. When SBI first started sending its ''product'' out into corporate America, early reports from the field suggested that while the graduates had a good grasp of subject matter - accounting principles or whatever - their communications skills were lacking.
And so students are organized into debating clubs; they are encouraged to correct each other's speech and grammar in ordinary conversation. ''We found they didn't need any more grammar courses; they needed to practice what they knew,'' one administrator says. Like stones tumbling in a polishing jar till all are worn smooth, SBI students help knock the rough edges off one another.
They are quick to stand up, shake hands, and introduce themselves to a stranger in an agreeable mixture of graciousness and salutary self-promotion.
The driving force behind SBI is Dr. Sybil Mobley, an accountant who joined Florida A&M's business faculty in 1963, and has been dean of the school from the start. A woman people find it very hard to say ''no'' to, she recruits students from among the highest black scorers on the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.
''Some schools just send out a printed circular,'' says one SBI student who found himself deluged with such circulars during his last year of high school. ''Here, it's the dean who calls you up. That makes a difference.''
Dean Mobley has also succeeded in recruiting the recruiters. Some 300 firms a year (some nudged in her direction by affirmative-action policies, to be sure) scrutinize her students. About 150 firms take her students on as interns, usually doing fairly substantial assignments. Typically a student will have three internships with three different firms, each in a different section of the country, or even overseas.
Moreover, the school invites a different corporate chief executive to campus every week. The day-long program includes the TV show and a faculty luncheon to help keep professors up with the business world and to help them find out how they can better meet the needs of corporate America. The program also includes a so-called ''forum.'' The visitor makes a brief speech, then fields questions from the students, who often cite Barron's National Business & Financial Weekly, the Wall Street Journal, or Forbes as they frame their queries. ''I can sit in the back of the auditorium,'' says the dean with a laugh, ''and trust I won't hear any question that is absolutely ridiculous or absolutely ungrammatical.''
These visits give students an opportunity to meet a high-powered executive on their own turf, and the resulting contacts often prove useful later on.
SBI students come from all over the country; the school has seen its mission as national, rather than state-wide, in scope. But Dean Mobley suggests that this may be the best way to meet the needs of business in Florida.
''We feel there is no such thing as training state students for state jobs. Successful businesses know no state boundaries, and now they know no national boundaries, so what we have to do is train mobile people.''