Commentary: FAMU’s Life or Death Decisions at 125 Years Old

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by Ibram H. Rogers

After wading through the perilous waters that emerged in the aftermath of the tragic, senseless, and shocking death of drum major Robert Champion last November, I began to realize that we are living in one of the most important periods in the 125-year history of Florida A&M University.

I started to envision this historic time some more when I learned two weeks ago that FAMU had begun its search for a new band director. With President James H. Ammons’ departure yesterday, I now know we are living in history.

The two impending decisions—choosing FAMU’s next president and band director—will either facilitate FAMU making history once again, or one day becoming history. 

I am convinced that FAMU will either continue to fall down the hill of progress, or these two people will spearhead the long climb back up to glory that Rattlers shared at the turn of the century.

But there is a glaring problem. I do not see great candidates lining up to fill these two posts—the two most important hires in the history of FAMU. Even as a proud and biased alum, I must admit the obvious.

Who would want to take on a presidency when a crippling lawsuit is hovering over your head, alumni and campus morale is in tatters, financial problems linger, the blame game is being played about hazing, the president’s office has had a revolving door in the last decade, the board of trustees was divided on the performance of the man you replaced, all the while the eyes of the nation are on you, waiting, critiquing, second-guessing?

Who would want to follow a living legend into the directorship of the band when the expectations remain high and the tolerance for impropriety will be at an all-time low, at the same time that you must recruit performers who can not perform for two years and revolutionize the rigid hazing culture of one of the proudest and most powerful artistic institutions in American higher education?

Who would want to do it? Who wants to jump into these pits filled with angry rattlesnakes?

It will take two special people—two people who are willing to take on the challenge of a lifetime, which, if successful, would elevate them to messiah status as the historic redeemer of FAMU and its famed band. I can see the historical line now. When everything was falling apart around its 125th birthday, they appeared majestically and resurrected FAMU.

They must be courageous, self-assured, patient, incredibly innovative, and deeply love FAMU. They must be willing to think outside the box and break outside the box of regressive traditions.  

FAMU needs a band director with the strength, charisma, and personal tools to break down the walls of tradition, the walls that read hazing as the only way to produce the FAMU sound, the walls that integrate seniority and hazing, the walls that read discipline without hazing, excellence without hazing is impossible. The band can make a comeback, but only through the tireless work of the new director, faculty, students, and more than 200 former members of the Marching 100 who are now band directors across the country.

FAMU needs a president who is ready to stand up and stand firm with one mission—to restore the preeminence of FAMU with a willingness to oust and isolate anyone and anything that stands in the way of the climb back up to glory. The institution needs to stop appointing cleaners.

FAMU needs a construction worker for a president, an institution builder who knows how to decimate and construct. No more sweeping under the rug. No more painting over the stains. No more closing off the decadent rooms. No more ignoring the fatal problems. FAMU needs a president to last and an institution to last.

This year, FAMU should be celebrating its 125th anniversary full of life and vigor. Instead, the FAMU community is worn down, wondering what the future will behold, wondering whether pride will once again supplant the shame. 

The life of an ailing FAMU is in the hands of the board of trustees and others conducting these two historic searches. Who will they select? Who will step up to the challenge?

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at University at Albany, SUNY. He is the author of “The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972.”

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