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After announcing retirement, FAMU's band director speaks

Dr. Julian White, shown here at a memorial ceremony for Robert Champion in December, recently announced his retirement as FAMU's band director

Dr. Julian White has spent more than 50 years at Florida A&M, first as a student band member, then later on, as a music professor under the band’s founder, Dr. William Foster. White was promoted to director of bands and Chairman of the school’s music department. At almost every milestone in the band’s history, from the 1989 Bastille Day Parade in France, to winning the prestigious Sudler award—even playing super bowls and presidential inaugural parades, White has been there. He was even at the helm of the organization the night Marching 100 drum major Robert Champion died after being beaten in a hazing ritual aboard a bus in November.

“I’ve developed the kind of personality where, I’m able to swim in hot grease. But I don’t want to subject my family to that kind of thing, when I don’t know what I’m going to read in the newspaper the next morning,”    White said during an interview Friday at his home.

FAMU officials immediately fired White after Champion’s death, claiming he was incompetent in handling accusations of hazing in the program. But it was forced to rescind its termination after law enforcement officials told the school it could jeopardize their investigation. White put the blame on university officials for not following-up his warnings of hazing.

An investigation into the band’s finances is ongoing, which involves about 101 members of the band who weren’t actively enrolled at FAMU but were allowed to travel with the group to Orlando on the trip that ended with Champion’s death. Those students received per-diem payments—money they shouldn’t have gotten due to their enrollment status.

Sound- “I admit my culpability in some ways, there are some things I should have caught. But being a faculty member, not at the administrative level…if we’re going to give per-diem funds to students, someone should have checked that beyond the band director."

White says it wasn’t his job to verify the payments.

 “When that check is issued, checks and balances says you should verify who these funds are given too, and that was not done. And that’s why the adverse publicity."

But the university contends, in his position as band director, he should have known so many students shouldn’t have been marching. At FAMU, the band is a class just like any other, and students have to enroll in it. White would have access to those roles.

While White was at the helm of the Marching 100 he says he made several attempts at eliminating the practice of hazing. He suspended students, he wrote letters, in the late 1980’s he even formed a task force. But In an interview he gave with news reporters in Tallahassee in December, he admitted that some of the students he suspended from the band for hazing, he also let back in.

 “And sometimes, I have made an exception. I believe in the character of the student and I allow the student to come back. 98-percent of those students given a second chance,did well. A very small percentage, the second-chance didn’t help.”   

Now, he recollects things differently.

"No. Very few, very few. The last group of individuals who were suspended were eventually cleared by the university, but I did not allow them to return. And so, no. There may have been…no more than than five I allowed to return after being convicted of hazing…and the success rate was 100-percent.”  

The keywords here: “convicted of hazing”. Back in 2002, Dr. White removed most of his clarinet section because he suspected them of participating in hazing. But in the fall of 2003, many of those people once again took the field. He now says in hindsight—no one would have been allowed back in, once he kicked them out.

White has maintained that he shouldn’t have been fired over Champion’s death. And he pushes back against the university for dismissing him without a hearing and on the grounds of incompetence for not reporting incidents. White says he’s produced more than 150 pages of documentation to the contrary.

“We had a death by hazing. We didn’t have a death because of any negligence from Dr. Julian White. We had a death because students violated, they planned to have this hazing ritual on Bus C, and I couldn’t have prevented it, because I had no knowledge that it was going to occur.”  

White says had he known, he would have stopped it. The band director’s retirement ends a storied career at FAMU and quite possibly the end of one of the university’s best-known programs. The FAMU Board of Trustees has set a meeting for Monday to discuss the fate of the band amid public calls from state officials, such as University system Chancellor Frank Brogan, that the ensemble remain suspended.

Reflecting on all that has happened to the band in the past several months, White says, he agrees.