FAMU President James Ammons Resigns - Higher Education
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FAMU President James Ammons Resigns

by Reginald Stuart

Florida A & M University’s embattled president, Dr. James H. Ammons, abruptly announced his resignation Wednesday, further complicating the institution’s scramble to restore its tarnished reputation in the aftermath of the hazing death of a drum major in the university’s once-prestigious marching band last fall.

Ammons, 59, told university board members in a brief, one-page note, he was resigning his post, effective October 11. He said he intended to continue working at the university following the presidency as a “tenured full professor” focusing on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) “initiatives.” He became president in July, 2007. The university’s board of trustees, which had a scheduled telephone conference call meeting Wednesday, took no action on the president’s announcement, deciding instead to consider it Monday morning during a conference call meeting.

Ammons’ announcement was among the latest in a head-spinning series of dramatic developments at the university since 26-year-old band drum major Robert Champion died from body blows from some fellow band members during a hazing incident on a chartered bus after a college football game in Orlando.

In addition to the Ammons’ resignation, Champion’s parents on Wednesday sued Florida A&M University (FAMU) alleging that, among a number of claims, school officials did not take sufficient action to stop hazing even though a school dean had proposed suspending the band last year over hazing concerns.

Hazing is illegal in Florida and is considered a criminal offense. Thirteen members of the band have since been charged by a state prosecutor and arrested on criminal hazing charges related to Champion’s death.

After receiving a hail of criticism over his initial handling of the tragic death, Ammons took a variety of actions over the past six months. In December, he placed the FAMU band on suspension for the rest of the school year and put veteran band director and music department chair, Dr. Julian White, on leave (White, who contested the decision, resigned in late May). In January, Ammons imposed a sweeping ban on campus club intake for the remainder of the school year. In March, he announced sweeping changes in the university’s leadership team, including brining former Provost Dr. Larry Robinson back to his old post and dispatching Dr. Cynthia Hughes to her old post as Dean of the School of Allied Health Services.

In May, Ammons placed the university marching band on suspension through the 2012-2013 school year. He fired two music teachers who worked closely with the band and issued a detailed set of rules that would govern band activity in the future and created several new jobs directly responsible for rooting out hazing at FAMU. He also reassigned several top aides.

In the end, Ammons’ actions proved insufficient, given the weight of other developments that unfolded in the wake of the hazing death that weakened faith in his leadership and credibility.

In June, the board of trustees gave Ammons a vote of no confidence. In early May, a Florida prosecutor charged 33 people (including the 13 involved in the hazing incident) with violating the state’s anti-hazing laws. All were arrested and are awaiting trial. Separately, a FAMU band investigation released in May found more than 100 of the more than 400 members of the marching band active at the time of the hazing death were not officially enrolled in the university, despite having full band uniforms, traveling with the band at state expense and participating in band practice. Meanwhile, the campus chief of police retired.

Last weekend, a report in the Orlando Sentinel, based on notes of meetings last fall between the band officials, show the dean of students and campus chief of police had a meeting with the band during which harsh language was used to tell band members their hazing and misconduct were intolerable and had to stop. The notes indicate that the two officials decided before the Orlando trip the band should be suspended and the trip cancelled.

They got no support for their recommendation from their superiors, the report said, and no action was taken to halt the trip or suspend the band.

“I am saddened by President Ammons’ decision to resign, but it is his choice to do so,” said Dr. Solomon Badger III, chair of the FAMU Board of Trustees. “Given all that has transpired, it seems to be in the best interest of the university and I applaud him for putting FAMU ahead of his personal goals.”

Bader’s statement came on a day when the trustees were to meet and action on a report and proposals about how the university would address a $6 million deficit in its athletics department, a situation that could be worsened with the university marching band benched for the foreseeable future. Historically, FAMU marching band participation, during the half time of games in which the university football played, was a sure bet to enhance game ticket sales. The Orlando game, for example, an annual classic pitting FAMU against cross-state rival Bethune-Cookman University, had brought in a million dollars or more in added revenue.

Today, as the 13,000-plus student university tries to focus on its 125th anniversary, it faces a myriad of challenges. It is unclear how it will proceed with a major institutional restructuring precipitated by falling state support. It is looking at questionable game season revenue, at a time when it needs income to shore up its budget. It faces a loss of students who were attracted to the school for its music program offerings and it is trying to fill a number of key leadership posts and joining a crowded field of colleges on the hunt for a new president and band director.

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