COMPILED FROM STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS
Florida A&M University President James Ammons resigned Wednesday amid continuing fallout from the hazing death of Marching “100’’ drum major Robert Champion and other issues facing Florida’s largest historically Black school.
A month after he received a split vote of no-confidence from the FAMU Board of Trustees and nearly eight months after Champion’s death, Ammons sent trustees a resignation letter on Wednesday. Ammons had been president at the Tallahassee school for five years.
The announcement came the same day Champion’s family filed a lawsuit in Orlando against FAMU and the company that operated the charter bus in which the hazing allegedly occurred.
In a letter to A&M Trustees Chairman Solomon Badger, Ammons said he wrestled with the decision to step down as the university continued to face a number of challenges related to Champion’s death and other issues that have shed a negative light on the school.
“Now there are new challenges that must be met head on,” Ammons wrote. “I am determined to move all of the major challenges toward resolution and move our university toward success.
“Following the presidency, I will continue my work on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) initiatives as a tenured full professor on our great faculty.”
‘In school’s best interest’
In response, Badger, one of four trustees who did not cast a vote of no-confidence last month, accepted the resignation with regret.
“I am saddened by President Ammons’ decision to resign, but it is his choice to do so,” Badger said in a statement. “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.”
Ammons, who as president earns at least $325,000 a year, said he would stay on until Oct. 11 and remain on campus after that time as a tenured professor.
Champion died on a band charter bus in November after the university’s renowned marching band performed at the annual Florida Classic football game in Orlando. Thirteen band members have been charged in Champion’s death. Of those, 11 face felony hazing charges and could face up to six years in prison. Two others were charged with misdemeanors.
“Our hearts and prayers still go out to the Champion family; we are unable to comment further due to the pending litigation surrounding this matter,” the university’s chief communications officer, Sharon Saunders, said in a statement in response to the suit.
While the hazing case has drawn national attention, some university system officials have been at least as troubled by other issues.
A scathing letter sent to Badger by State University System Board of Governors Chairman Dean Colson alluded to several serious issues. Among those were lower graduation rates, allegations of fraud having to do with summaries of an audit that hadn’t actually been done, and a sexual assault of a minor at the university’s research school.
Then, as the hazing allegations came under the national spotlight, school officials learned that several members of the famous band weren’t even students at the university.
FAMU’s defenders point to a double standard, particularly with regard to Colson.
In 2001, Colson was a member of the University of Miami’s Board of Trustees when 18-year old UM student Chad Meredith drowned during a Kappa Sigma Fraternity hazing ritual. Colson supported UM President Donna Shalala, who did not take aggressive action to eliminate hazing on UM’s campus before Meredith’s hazing death.
According the Rattler Nation blogsite, Colson “continued to be one of her biggest cheerleaders during his tenure as board chairman from 2004 to 2007,” but Colson is now using Champion’s death to dump Ammons.
Shalala is still UM’s president.
Scott pulling strings?
There are also concerns that Gov. Rick Scott pressured FAMU’s board to dump Ammons and bring in a new president of his choosing, with the goal of enacting conservative educational reforms through the State University System, including weakening teachers’ unions and eliminating tenure – starting with FAMU.
Scott has been actively involved – some say interfering – in policies and decisions that only the Board of Trustees controls. His call for Ammons’ suspension enraged FAMU students, who marched by the hundreds to the governor’s mansion in protest. Scott’s attempt to control a board-appointed anti-hazing committee threatened FAMU’s academic accreditation.
Scott also has pushed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to launch its own investigation into Champion’s death, despite the fact that the criminal case was being handled by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. He also pushed the State University System Board of Governors to launch its own investigation in hazing at FAMU, despite the fact that the school had established its own anti-hazing committee.
“FAMU’s board is currently divided into two tiers,” according to Rattler Nation.
“The first tier is made up of the trustees who are in good standing with the governor’s office and are trusted to do what they are told to do. The second tier is made up of the trustees who are viewed with suspicion by the governor’s office and are not given full access to the behind-the-scenes talks of the first tier.”
In a previous meeting, hostile board members focused their criticism on FAMU’s practice of allowing a sizable number of “profile admits” – students who don’t meet the same admissions standards as more traditional students – that reduces FAMU’s graduation rates.
FAMU’s six-year graduation rate for students entering college for the first time in 2005 was 39 percent, the lowest in the State University System and a number that has been flat over the last four years. Only three other state universities – Florida Atlantic University, Florida International University and Florida Gulf Coast University – have six-year graduation rates below 45 percent.
Ammons defended the practice.
“At the end of the day, FAMU has an historical mission even today where we allow students who have the potential to come to the university and have the experience of a four-year college,” he said.
‘Deal with this’
The breadth of the problems require a major change, said university trustee Rufus Montgomery during a meeting of the board Wednesday, a meeting scheduled to talk about budget items before Ammons announced his resignation.
“This is not about hazing. This is about leadership or lack of leadership at FAMU,” said Montgomery. “There have been over 30 serious issues over the past year that have come before this board ….This all came under the watch of the current president. For the last seven months we’ve danced around it week after week, problem after problem….
“We’ve got the FAMU students on trial this fall in the Champion case, we have no band this fall, we’ve got a drop in enrollment coming, I read the other day the Florida Senate’s (considering) investigating the school,” Montgomery continued. “I mean, come on, you all, we need to deal with this.”
Ammons, who came to Florida A&M from North Carolina Central University, did enjoy important successes during his presidency. He was credited with increased prestige for the university’s pharmacy education program, which secured accreditation during his tenure. The university notes that under Ammons’ leadership the school received its first “unqualified” audit in three years from the state, and that the school is about to start a new doctoral program in physical therapy.
Ammons is a Florida A&M graduate, with a B.S. in political science and an M.S. in public administration and a Ph.D. in government from Florida State. He also taught political science at FAMU and returns to the classroom in October.
Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.