Florida A&M students infuriated by Gov. Rick Scott's call for the suspension of university President James Ammons marched from campus to the Governor's Mansion late Thursday by the hundreds (if not thousands), demanding Scott rescind his request amid investigations into drum major Robert Champion's death after suspected hazing.
"I would definitely say that he's overstepped his bounds," said Student Senate President Marissa West, 21, after the most heated parts of the protest had passed. "Our Board of Trustees is more than capable of making this decision."
When asked by a small group of students and prominent alumni inside the mansion why he wanted Ammons suspended, Scott cited Champion's death, the FDLE's announcement of fraud uncovered in its investigation of the incident, and another reason that he could not yet publicly discuss. Scott said it would come out very soon, said former state Sen. Al Lawson, a Florida A&M alumnus who was in the small group.
"We're not privy to this incident that he was talking about," Lawson said.
There were tensions. Scott opened his talk by mentioning how he grew up in public housing, leading FAMU student Ciara Taylor, 22, to yell out, "We're not poor!" It was reminiscent of when he told the same story at a luncheon in February with black legislators, implying they had all grown up poor.
"I guess he was trying to make some type of relation to our student body, as if we had lived in public housing," West said, adding she was offended by his comment.
Students marched en masse from their campus to the Governor's Mansion, about a 2-mile walk, at about 9 p.m. chanting "We are FAMU!" After about 30 minutes of chanting from outside Scott's guarded gate, Chief of Staff Steve MacNamara told West and student body President Breyon Love that Scott had just returned from a trip to Israel and was sleeping, West said. Not long after, she said, Scott came out and ventured into the crowd wearing sweats. He grabbed a megaphone and took part in a Q&A with Love about funding FAMU and worries that it would merge with Florida State. He said he knew nothing about either topic, West said.
But Scott didn't say he would rescind his recommendation to suspend Ammons, so many students remained on his lawn. "This is not the time for FAMU to be without its university president," West said. "We believe in our university president."
Taylor had an exam at 7:30 a.m. Friday, but she planned to stay at the mansion until she got the answer she wanted about Ammons' future. She was still there at 12:30 a.m., even though most people had already left but for a dozen or so Occupy Tallahassee protesters.
"I feel like if I'm not here tonight then we might not have an institution to go back to," she said.
Scott came out a second time and told the crowd that he would meet with Ammons in the morning.
The Board of Trustees decided last week not to suspend Ammons but to reprimand him for his alleged handling of hazing reports in the band before Champion's death in Orlando on Nov. 19.
This week, authorities arrested three FAMU band members for a hazing incident involving an 18-year-old band member from Georgia. Policy said she was beaten with fists and a metal ruler as part of an initiation into a band subgroup for Georgia students.
Lawson and Tallahassee Rep. Alan Williams, a Democrat and FAMU alum, said they stressed to Scott that he could not make decisions for the university. The trustees had already decided on how to move forward, Williams said, so they shouldn't have to decide again. A board meeting is scheduled for Monday to discuss Scott's recommendation.
"This is going to be a true test of institutional authority," Lawson said.
Williams defended Ammons in an interview later, saying he couldn't be expected to control every nuance of the university. He said he told Scott to be very judicious about how he talked about FAMU, as the fallout from Champion's death is "highly volatile," he said.
Champion's cause of death has not been determined. Investigations by the Orange County Sheriff's Office and FDLE are pending. The famous Marching 100 band is suspended indefinitely.