By Gary Fineout
ABOVE PHOTO: Brandon Mitchell, left, tries to calm the crowd so that others can speak, in Tallahassee, Fla., last week, Dec. 15, as hundreds of Florida A&M University students and supporters of FAMU President James Ammons bring their voices to the front gates of the Governor’s Mansion to protest Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to suspend Ammons until an investigation is completed on hazing that could have led to a band member’s death.
(AP Photo/Tallahassee Democrat, Mike Ewen)
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida A&M’s president will keep his job after the university board of trustees last Monday rejected a call from Gov. Rick Scott that James Ammons be suspended while the hazing death of a band member is investigated.
The decision comes three days after the state medical examiner ruled that 26-year-old Robert Champion’s Nov. 19 death was a homicide. Officials say he was beaten so severely that he bled internally and went into shock. He died within an hour.
“We will stand firm against outside influence, no matter how well intended,” Solomon Badger, the FAMU board chairman, said during a board meeting that was held by conference call.
Scott said he would abide by the board’s decision.
Ammons and other university leaders have been criticized for not doing enough to stop a culture of hazing within the university’s famed “Marching 100” band. Band director Julian White has been placed on temporary leave and the board had already publicly reprimanded Ammons.
Students had largely stood by both leaders. Students protested outside the governor’s mansion on Thursday to show support for Ammons, and the president of the national alumni association at a news conference Sunday contested Scott’s involvement and recommend that Ammons not be suspended.
Badger said that the board should keep Ammons status unchanged until an investigation with all the “official facts” was concluded. None of the FAMU board members disagreed with Badger.
“I think we all have the number one priority of keeping the university strong as we move through this challenging time,” said Kelvin Lawson, a board member from Jacksonville.
The only action related to the investigations that the board took was to agree to meet weekly for the next day 60 days while the investigations continue. There was scant discussion of the homicide ruling or the opening of a new criminal investigation into the finances of the Marching 100.
Scott said in a statement issued before the meeting that he was not singling out FAMU and called on all universities in the state to examine their hazing and harassment policies. He said he was offering his opinion and counsel regarding Ammons and would abide by the board’s decision.
“I merely suggested it would be wise for Dr. Ammons to step aside until these investigations are completed,” Scott said. “It is up to the FAMU Board of Trustees and Dr. Ammons to determine how to proceed. I have not and will not try to influence their decision.”
Champion died after falling unconscious on a bus outside an Orlando hotel after the school’s football team lost to rival Bethune-Cookman. Witnesses told emergency dispatchers that he had been vomiting.
The medical examiner’s office in Orlando found that Champion had bruises to his chest, arms, shoulder and back and internal bleeding. No charges have been filed.
Champion’s death exposed years of hazing that has plagued the band and left several students injured. In 1998, Ivery Luckey, a clarinet player from Ocala, Fla., was hospitalized with kidney damage after being paddled as part of an initiation to become a member of a group known as “The Clones.” Three years later, band member Marcus Parker was also hospitalized with kidney damage after being paddled.
Ammons, an alum of FAMU, became president in 2007 at a time when the university was under considerable distress. There had been four presidents within the previous six years and an audit in 2007 uncovered 35 findings, including $4.5 million in unaccounted sports tickets and lost equipment. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed the university under probation.
Under Ammons’ leadership, the university’s accreditation was restored and its finances improved. An audit done two years later found the university still needed to do a better job at paying bills on time and keeping a closer eye on employee use of state-owned cell phones, but those problems paled in comparison to the previous report.
But hazing continued to be a problem. White has provided letters of suspension issued to dozens of band members for hazing, including many of which Ammons was reportedly provided a copy.
Less than two weeks before Champion’s death, band member Bria Hunter was hospitalized with a broken leg and blood clots in what authorities say was another act of hazing. Three band members have been charged in the beating.
And two days before Champion died, White sent a letter to alumni, urging them not to “return and perpetuate the myth of various sectional names.”
But FAMU alumni have insisted that the problem of hazing is widespread across the country and that too much attention is being focused on their university.
“Name another university president that suspended a president for hazing,” said Tommy Mitchell, president of the FAMU National Alumni Association. Mitchell also went so far as to question “why is that this hazing has gotten so much attention?”
Ammons suspended the band after Champion’s death, dismissed White and expelled four students in connection with the hazing. White was later placed on temporary leave and the students were allowed to attend class after state authorities urged the university not to take disciplinary action before the investigation was complete.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges has warned Scott’s push to suspend Ammons could affect the school’s accreditation because of “undue influence” on the board from outside.