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FAMU Marching Band Suspension Expected to be Costly

The impact of the decision this week by Florida A&M University (FAMU) to continue the suspension of its popular 400-plus student marching band through the 2012-2013 school year is likely to be widespread, possibly costing it and other institutions with which it deals short-term losses on a variety of fronts.

At FAMU, speculation abounds on whether the decision — praised as tough but needed medicine—will cost the school enrollment, particularly among current and college bound students in music. FAMU says it will honor band scholarships held by students in good standing. It simply doesn’t know how many will return this fall since there is no band.

There is also speculation about whether the absence of the popular band at football games, for which the FAMU Rattlers football team is booked this fall, will hurt game attendance and revenue for FAMU and schools it faces. Several institutions and organizations involved with the games say privately they are actively discussing what can be done to fill the void left by the band’s absence.

Historically, attendance during school games and revenue are boosted when football half-time activities feature FAMU’s Marching 100 and the band from the competing school. The FAMU and Tennessee State University bands were to perform during a scheduled halftime game in Nashville this September. FAMU apparently got an extra $50,000 in its deal to play the University of Oklahoma this fall, say sources familiar with the match.

The Atlanta Classic, sponsored by 100 Black Men of Atlanta, has generated several hundred thousand dollars for FAMU and its rival, Southern University, with as much attention paid to the halftime battle of the bands as the game being played. Meanwhile, the Florida Classic, which pits FAMU against Bethune-Cookman University, generates nearly $1 million in revenue, with the drawing power of the FAMU band playing a key role in the event’s success, sources say.

FAMU is set to face Ohio State University in the fall of 2014. Inclusion of the FAMU band in that deal boosted its value by more than $50,000, say sources familiar with the arrangement.  

As is the case with most institutions, with a wide range of intercollegiate programs for men and women, much of the revenue cleared from the football contests is used to maintain and subsidize the budgets of other programs that do not make enough money to cover their costs. That’s among the factors that help explain why the FAMU athletic department is reportedly operating at a deficit.

“The university is still analyzing the fiscal impact of not having the marching band for the 2012 football season,” says Sharon Saunders, chief communications officer at FAMU.

The band suspension stems from last November’s death of FAMU marching band drum major Robert Champion. He died of injuries received during a hazing incident on a chartered bus that was to transport band members to and from a football game in Orlando.

Thirteen individuals, who were members of the band at the time of Champion’s death, face state criminal charges in connection with Champion’s death. Florida has a strict anti-hazing law. Meanwhile, two music professors who were in charge of various sections of the band have been fired by the university. Veteran band director and music department chair, Dr. Julian White, placed on administrative leave last December over his handling of the band matters, retired from the school last week, ending his 40-year career with his alma mater.

On the enrollment front, FAMU officials say it is unclear how enrollment is being directly impacted by the fallout from the hazing death.

“Applications are down from previous years,” says Dr. William E. Hudson Jr., vice president for student affairs.

“However, we see the decline in applications related to several issues including the economy and new enrollment standards implemented July 2011. The band plays a role in the recruitment, but we have not been told by potential students that this situation had impacted their decision,” Hudson explained.

During the band suspension, FAMU officials say they will be taking a hard look at academic standards for eligibility to participate in the band, the length of time an individual may participate in the band, the length of practice time and the number of adults needed to accompany the band on out-of-town trips.

A recent hazing death incident raised many questions about band rules, observers say, including how more than 60 “students” not enrolled last fall were participating in the band at the football game at which the student drum major died from hazing injuries.

One band alumnus says the practice of the band including non-students in performance was common. The alumnus explained students who got uniforms to participate in the university band would keep them, even if they later withdrew or dropped out of school for some reason. There was always an assumption they would soon re-enroll.

Nonetheless, the former student would continue participating in the band, as there apparently was no clear rule and rigid enforcement of any university policy barring non-students from wearing a FAMU band uniform and participating in performances with enrolled student band members.

In various investigations into the band, school officials have determined a total of 101 band members were not actually enrolled last fall.

“The university has a long-standing enrollment verification process for faculty members teaching classes,” says Saunders. “Most faculty (members) abide by the process. Any deviation from this process violates university regulations.”

Several years ago, FAMU band alumni harshly criticized the institution’s then-interim president Castell Bryant for banning students from nearby Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College from marching with the FAMU band. They have been very vocal in making their sentiments known to the current university leadership about the kind of band director and what kind of band rules should be imposed for the future. Band alumni have already expressed their distaste for the idea of recruiting a non-alumnus to replace former band director White.

FAMU alumni, gathering this weekend in Charlotte for their annual meeting, are expected to pepper university officials with questions about the fallout from the hazing death incident.

That’s to be expected, says national FAMU alumni president Tommy Mitchell Sr., a retired university employee who was a member of the band when he was a FAMU student. Mitchell says his message to fellow alums will be to focus on what he described as the bigger picture.

“Nothing has changed academically, we can still rave about it,” says Mitchell. “Now is the time to show people you really love the university,” he says. “We’re going to resolve this; we’re going to do it. We’re going to come up with all kinds of recommendations that ensure we don’t go down this road again.”

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