by Kanya Stewart
NNPA News Service
The Associated Press on Wednesday reported that Robert Champion, the Florida A&M University (FAMU) drum major whose hazing death on a bus Nov. 19 created a furor in colleges and the nation, asked to go through the ritual that led to his death. The report followed a review of 2,300-plus pages of evidence, including statements from students who were there.
Meanwhile, Florida A&M University (FAMU) President James H. Ammons continues to work to lead the institution in overcoming the obstacles of recent hazing incidents. As he does, many wonder how those incidents will impact the future of the university and what steps the university will take to recover. In an exclusive interview with the Capital Outlook, Ammons opened up about calls for his resignation, his rehabilitation plans for the band and how the university plans to deal with the negative attention it has received over the last year.
Q: When asked by reporters why you did not resign, you replied that there are other issues beyond hazing at FAMU. Why do you feel it is important that you continue to lead the institution at this point?
A: My work is still unfinished. One of the most important endeavors is to put in place new anti-hazing initiatives and reform the operation of the band. There are other initiatives that I would like to implement such as increasing the number of graduates in the STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and reducing student indebtedness. I want to increase the number of students earning Ph.D.s in various fields at FAMU and increase the research dollars and research capabilities of the university. We want to expand distance learning programs and improved retention and graduation rates.
We are working on some critical initiatives including the construction of an 800-bed suite style residential facility, the launch of a new satellite campus in Crestview, Fla. and the launch of a $50 million comprehensive campaign. FAMU needs strong consistent leadership, I believe I can continue to provide that leadership. I will be here as long as the FAMU Board of Trustees allows me to serve.
Q: Do you feel that the Board of Trustees is standing behind your decision not to resign?
A: I am unable to speak for the Board of Trustees, but I will serve as president as long as they allow me to serve.
Q: Due to recent (hazing) incidents, students have been harmed, families disappointed, and FAMU's reputation has been questioned. You once said that FAMU should focus on the triumphs and not just the trials. What is your vision for helping the morale to be boosted, confidence to be restored and information to be distributed to get people to focus on the triumph?
A: It is important to understand that all ongoing investigations must be completed before we can fully focus on FAMU's triumphs. Once those are done, we can more effectively move forward on fixing some of the issues that arose and focusing on a variety of positive programs and accomplishments that are underway. To assist us on that front, we are in the process of developing a public relations campaign that will remind everyone what a wonderful university FAMU is.
Q: You have decided to keep the band suspended. When do you feel you would be satisfied that the band and other student organizations are back on track and have learned to move beyond the traditions of hazing?
A: In reviewing the band program since Mr. (Robert) Champion's (hazing-related) death, we believe that we need to put additional controls in place to ensure that something like this never happens again. We need adequate time to implement recommendations regarding the organizational and management structure of the band, membership requirements, travel procedures, assessment of revenue to support the band and the fiscal environment. Our plan is to strengthen oversight, while implementing additional controls, including a separation of duties between the chair of the music department and the director of bands. We also plan to implement NCAA-like rules on academic progression, grade point average and the length of service.
Q: Do you think downsizing the band will assist in the ability to have more watchful oversight over its activities?
A: Reducing the size of the Marching 100 has been recommended as a means for having greater oversight. We will present to the Board of Trustees a succinct plan for addressing some of the short-term issues related to the marching band and the Music Department.
Q: Why do you think the value of FAMU seems to have been overlooked by the general public or media in recent years?
A: I think FAMU had been developing such a solid reputation and had been making such great strides, that some people took it for granted. Also, the mainstream media focuses more on controversy than good news. We are now focusing on creating a communication strategy that gives us the opportunity to tell our own story to the people that matter the most to us.
Q: What is the university's goal to "clean up" FAMU's image among future students, current students, alumni and the general public?
A: First, we must see what the outcomes are of the pending investigations. Until each is completed, the issues related to the Robert Champion incident will continue to surface.
We plan to clean up the university image by making sure an incident like this never happens again. We have taken various measures already and have: Indefinitely suspended the Marching "100" to include the 2012-2013 academic year; appointed an internal crisis management team headed by Dr. Larry Robinson, then-special assistant to the president; addressed members of the FAMU National Alumni Association, the Business Industry Cluster and other stakeholders via teleconference regarding anti-hazing activities; directed that all allegations and criminal activity are immediately brought to my attention; FAMU Campus Housing holds a mandatory meeting for campus residents to discuss campus safety and anti-hazing efforts; temporarily suspended summer band camp and new membership intake for student organizations; announced a $50,000 research initiative for FAMU faculty to study the nature and extent of hazing behaviors among campus organizations and groups; and amended hazing regulation to include a 24-hour reporting rule for faculty, staff and students as well as a provision against retaliation....
At the June meeting (of the Board of Trustees), we will present our plan on how we will bring the "Marching 100" back and the strategy for the music department. In addition, we will also provide details about the guidelines for new membership intake for student organizations.
Q: Is there a plan in place for increased recruitment and marketing campaigns?
A: Yes, we are discussing a campaign as we address some of the issues surfacing as a result of the Robert Champion incident.
There is, however, tremendous momentum at FAMU as we continue to raise the bar for academic excellence, while also striving to attract the best mix of students. Looking at the bigger picture, enrollment at FAMU has increased nearly 11 percent since 2006, while the average GPA of our students has risen more than 5 percent within that time frame.
FAMU was also recently honored as one of "America's Most Popular Colleges" by U.S. News & World Report, a distinction that reflects the percentage of applicants accepted by a college who end up enrolling at that institution.
(Online: FAMU supporters: Rattlers will 'strike' again)
(Special to the NNPA from the Capital Outlook.)