The only unfortunate thing about Florida A&M University president James Ammons' resignation Wednesday is that it didn't happen months ago. It has long been clear that Ammons failed to address concerns about hazing within the famed FAMU band, reacted slowly after a drum major died following a hazing incident in November, and could not effectively deal with a host of other issues. This historically black university is in crisis, and it will take fresh leadership and a firm hand to save it.
It probably is no coincidence that Ammons' resignation came on the same day that the family of drum major Robert Champion filed a lawsuit against the university. Champion died after he was beaten by other band members on a bus following a football game in Orlando. Eleven band members face felony hazing charges, and the family's lawsuit accuses university officials of failing to enforce antihazing rules and properly oversee a band that marched to its own beat. Hazing has been an issue within the band for decades, yet it was accepted as tradition despite complaints from some former band members and parents.
The more the spotlight shined on the band following Champion's death, the worse it looked. It turns out that three of the band members charged in Champion's hazing death were not even FAMU students and should not have been in the band. More than a hundred band members were former FAMU students, or students at Tallahassee Community College or Florida State University who were not enrolled in the FAMU music course required to play in the band. The longtime band director retired in May and claimed he tried to end hazing, but it's hard to believe Ammons was unaware that this was a FAMU band in name only and that hazing was as ubiquitous as the orange and green uniforms.
The hazing scandal is not FAMU's only serious issue. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating potential fraud in the band's finances. A variety of audits distributed to state higher education officials were fake, graduation rates are abysmal, and there are nagging accreditation issues. Gov. Rick Scott was right to call for Ammons' suspension last year, which was ignored by the FAMU Board of Trustees; and Board of Governors chairman Dean Colson was right to send a strongly worded letter to FAMU's board last month outlining the problems and asking for a review of Ammons. The trustees should have fired Ammons in June after they took a vote of no-confidence and Ammons still did not quit.
FAMU has a proud history, a national network of loyal alumni and a tradition of providing opportunities for black students. It has faced challenges before, but this dysfunction and lack of institutional control has reached a new level. The future of the university is at stake. It will require a coordinated effort from a new university president, the governor, the Legislature, the Board of Governors and the university's supporters to ensure that future is brighter than it looks today.