Florida A&M University got a much-needed booster shot earlier this month when it learned its academic probation had been lifted. The announcement ended two years of bad news for the university, which came under intense scrutiny after the 2011 hazing death of a member of its famous marching band. With the university's accreditation no longer in jeopardy, FAMU needs to keep marching toward rebuilding its reputation, serving its increasingly diverse student body and choosing a leader who will ensure it never makes the kind of missteps that tarnished the university.
Founded in 1887 as the State Normal College for Colored Students, FAMU has long been a leader among historically black colleges and universities. It is one of the nation's largest historically black colleges and was named the 1997-98 College of the Year by Time magazine and the Princeton Review. The university's greatest marketing tool was its Marching 100, a band with membership that swelled to 400 and was heralded worldwide for its superior musicianship, high-energy performances, sharp formations and energetic dance moves. Yet it was that showpiece that nearly crippled the university. In November 2011, 26-year-old Robert Champion died after participating in a brutal hazing ritual in which he was beaten on a band bus in a hotel parking lot after the Orlando Classic football game. The investigation into Champion's death revealed a culture where hazing was rife and institutional controls were few. Amid the scandal, FAMU's president resigned. Its band director retired. More than a dozen former band members were charged with manslaughter or felony hazing. And a family mourned the death of their son, who was a drum major when he lost his life in a bid to fit in. The academic probation levied by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools stemmed from Champion's death and from questionable internal audits at the university.
FAMU responded by suspending the band. It came back in September after 19 months, instituting new rules that put teeth into its antihazing policy and introducing other strict standards for the Marching 100. Now FAMU needs to look ahead. The board of trustees, which plans to pick FAMU's next president in January, should select someone who understands the university's mission and vision, will set ambitious goals for the school and give its students the tools to achieve them. Protecting the university's brand is the responsibility of the new president but also of every faculty member, staffer, student and alumnus. The university has a rich heritage that is so easily sullied if all invested in it fails to protect it. When the crowds return to see the Marching 100, let them find a FAMU on the highest of Tallahassee's seven hills that is united, controversy-free and accountable.