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FAMU Turnaround Marches On at Steady Pace

When student recruits for the revived Florida A&M University “Marching One Hundred” band begin practicing in a few weeks, it will be the most prominent sign that a long hoped for and carefully planned internal rebuilding of the historic institution is taking a giant step forward.

Publicly shamed in the months after the death in October 2011 of a 26-year-old drum major who died from injuries inflicted by fellow band members engaged in a hazing activity, FAMU has since been involved in a major overhaul of leadership, policies and practices on a variety of fronts few institutions in the nation have executed so aggressively, yet methodically, in such a short span of time.

It has imposed strengthened “zero tolerance” policies regarding student hazing with new rules imposed covering all organizations on campus. Additional personnel, including a special assistant to the president for anti-hazing, have been hired to make sure the policies are respected, enforced and monitored.

A special FAMU task force is addressing a range of accreditation issues  posed by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). The influential agency, which sets standards for most higher education institutions in the South, last  December placed FAMU on probation, having raised questions regarding student safety (concerns stemming from the 2011 hazing death and other hazing incidents), institutional financial controls and qualifications of some FAMU administrative and academic officers.

FAMU has until December to comply with all SACS standards or risk further punishment. A SACS Special Committee is to visit the institution this fall.

While the band program changes may be getting the most frequent, high-profile news coverage, the overhaul has also been marked by appointment of half a dozen new deans. The university’s athletic director, his department sinking deeply in the red, retired last month. A new campus chief of police was appointed last month, after filling a position vacant for a year.

The university has strengthened its office of judicial affairs, the university office that addresses alleged violations of student conduct rules. Admission requirements have been heightened, and new programs initiated aimed at improving retention, progression and graduation of students.

The chief architect and executor of the FAMU overhaul is Larry Robinson, the widely respected FAMU nuclear scientist who has been called upon twice before to join the university’s leadership in times of need.

Robinson, a 58-year-old Memphis native who is not a FAMU alum, took on the post of interim president this month a year ago and has since been busy devising and implementing plans to right his academic ship step by step.

“It’s an honor and pleasure to serve,” said Robinson, using language that would be considered boilerplate had it come from most any other speaker. That’s just Larry, say those who have come to know him and the fact he rarely uses his academic Ph.D. to his surname to immediately establish his credentials.

Robinson is not a ladder climber or attention seeker, say those who monitor the university on a regular basis. He really is just trying and doing a good job in the task at hand, they say.

“He’s just the kind of guy we need,” said FAMU Alumni Association President Tommy Mitchell, a retired FAMU employee and alumnus. “He is laid back and intelligent,” Mitchell said, echoing others interviewed. “He doesn’t get upset and emotional. Nobody questions his intellect. During all this chaos, we’re still on track.”

Robinson got a major endorsement just last month when Florida’s Board of Governors for state-funded higher education approved FAMU’s revised strategic plan, one it had rejected this time a year ago. System Chancellor Frank Brogan  ended the meeting with words of praise for Robinson, citing his “openness” and desire to work with the board. Brogan noted the collegial atmosphere Robinson has established and maintained since taking over had not always been the case at FAMU.

Robinson has received such praise in the year he’s been in charge that the chants that he be made permanent president grow steadily. It’s not something he’s campaigning for, he said, noting there’s a lot yet to be done in the job he has now.

The SACS issues that he jokingly refers to as “the elephant” in the room are “our number-one priority,” Robinson said. “If we were not accredited, that would cost about $150 million a year in federal aid plus about $50 million in sponsored research.”

While the band is off suspension, when it can begin performing again hinges on a number of considerations, he said, reaffirming his position of last year that he won’t be rushed into deciding.

Robinson was not ready to offer details of the new band plan beyond saying his emphasis will be on “quality not quantity.” Others familiar with the prevailing thinking among FAMU administrators is that “The Marching 100,” which boasted more than 400 members at the time of the drum major incident, will be smaller.

The band will be run by an entirely new team of university administrators and governed by a shopping list of fresh rules aimed at ensuring the FAMU community, from alumni to parents to lawmakers and other financial supporters, understand hazing will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

Several of the students charged with violating the state’s hazing law have pleaded guilty in their cases. Several others await trial. The university and family of the student who died of his injuries in the hazing incident are still in court.

Robinson said there’s nothing he can do to right the errors of the past—from the unchecked student conduct violations to the poor financial records accounting. He says he is taking the actions needed to reduce the likelihood of such things happening in the future.

“We have focused the university on some key priorities,” said Robinson. “Not only have we been working hard, but working smarter.”

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