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Resignation of FAMU President Ammons doesn't end controversy

Florida A&M University is preparing to launch another presidential search. It will be the third time in the in the last decade the school has had to look for a new president, after James Ammons announced he is resigning from the post. FAMU is still dealing with the fallout from a hazing scandal prompted by the death of a drum major. But those problems are only the tip of the iceberg facing the university. 

Back In 2008 legendary former FAMU President Frederick Humphries rallied a crowd of supports with FAMU’s Motto on adversity. “When the dark clouds gather on the horizon,” Humphries’ baritone voice boomed out during President James Ammons’ inauguration ceremony.

The message behind the words: don’t give up, even when the odds are against you. At the time of the inauguration FAMU had just received a clean bill of financial health from the state after a string of scathing reports threatened the school’s accreditation. Ammons was brought in to clean up the mess. And for a while, it appeared the former Time Magazine College of the Year was on the way back to regaining some its former glory. But in November, FAMU found itself once again plunged into controversy.

FAMU band drum major Robert Champion was beaten in a hazing ritual and later died from his injuries in November. The case resurfaced a history of hazing in FAMU’s famed Marching 100 band that goes back decades. In the run-up to the drum major’s death, several members had been kicked out the band and complaints made by parents started surfacing. FAMU is facing a wrongful death lawsuit from Champion’s parents that claim school officials failed to act on the hazing claims. Top level  administrators suggested the band be kept from performing.  Whether Ammons knew about that recommendation isn’t clear.

In a recent interview with NPR’s Michele Martin, Ammons said, “I can tell you emphatically I never knew that hazing as we have come to know it as Crossing Bus C was going on, especially involving drum majors.”

As law enforcement officials began digging into the Champion case, they uncovered more things. An investigation into the band’s finances revealed 101 members of the band weren’t actively enrolled at FAMU but were allowed to travel with the group and receive money they shouldn’t have gotten due to their enrollment status. Band director Julian White resigned because of the scandal. He says it wasn’t his job to verify the payments. But the university says he should have known better.  

As FAMU dealt with the hazing scandal two more un-related issues popped up. FAMU fired its audit director after learning he had submitted several incomplete audits to the school’s board. It was an action that recalled the school’s financial turmoil less than five years prior. And then the university found itself dealing with a student-on-student sex abuse case at the charter school it operates.

All of this, put together, led for high-level calls for Ammons to step down. Governor Rick Scott called for his resignation back in December, saying the President had lost control. Newspaper editorials followed. Even the board of governors, which oversees all public universities, chimed in. Still, Ammons remained. He survived a public reprimand from his own board early on. And he also survived an 8-4 no-confidence vote by the same board a month ago. At the time, Ammons said he wasn’t going anywhere. In that same NPR interview, Ammons said. “I am focused like a laser beam on the future of Florida A&M University.” 

So when he abruptly resigned even his top-level staff was shocked. “It took us by surprise. I learned about it today,” said University Spokeswoman Sharon Saunders.

But others, like FAMU Alumni Association President Tommy Mitchell, say they weren’t surprised.

“Dr. Ammons would have stayed and performed his duty had he felt he would have been allowed to do it. It became clear that some members of the board of trustees were determined to have him removed. ” Mitchell says he spoke with Ammons about in the weeks leading up to the President’s decision to step down. Mitchell says during that time it became abundantly clear he couldn’t stay.

FAMU’s Trustees met a few hours after Ammons announced he was stepping down.  And board member Rufus Montgomery, who has been critical of FAMU’s administration, exploded:

“This is not about hazing. This is about leadership or lack of leadership at FAMU. There have been more than 30 issues over the past year that have come before this board about FAMU,” Montgomery said. “So this all came under the watch of the current president. We have the FAMU students on trial this fall, the Champion case. We have no band this fall, we have a drop in enrollment coming. And I read the other day the Florida Senate is investigating the school.”

Throughout this affair, FAMU’ supporters have blasted state officials like the Governor and the Florida Board of Governor’s for political interference. FAMU’s accrediting body has warned that that political pressure could threaten the schools accreditation.

Ammons’ last day on the job will be October 11. He’ll become a tenured faculty member after that. But his decision to step down doesn’t stop mean FAMU is off the hook. Some state lawmakers are considering investigating FAMU—a position the school has found itself in before.

Meanwhile, FAMU’s trustees will meet Monday.  A presidential search committee needs to be formed. An interim president may need to be named. So back FAMU’s saying about “dark clouds on the horizon…” It appears they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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