FAMU Trustees Refuse Call to Suspend College President James Ammons

Florida A&M University President James AmmonsFlorida A&M University President James Ammons

In the latest of a series of moves days before the school’s winter break, the 13-member Board of Trustees of Florida A & M University on Monday rejected a call by Florida’s governor that President James Ammons be suspended pending the outcome of an investigation into the November death of a school band drum major.

The trustees’ decision came days after a county coroner in Florida ruled Robert Champion’s death a homicide. The coroner’s report cited injuries Champion, 26, received while participating in a hazing. Arrests of the students involved in the incident are expected upon completion of the investigation, which is being led by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).

“As a board, we are vested with the power and authority to govern and set policy for Florida A & M University,” says a statement released by DKC Public Relations, the New York firm hired by the trustees. “To clarify any concern, we are fully aware of our authority,” the trustees’ statement says in an apparent snub to Governor Rick Scott, who issued his call last week. “As is always the case, the board will act with the best interest of the university in mind and will not be influenced by pressure from political or other outside forces,” the statement says.

The board statement says members were holding off on making a decision about the fate of the president and others in the school’s administration … “until information and results from the ongoing investigations are made available to the board, enabling it to effectively conduct a fact-based deliberation on the role of the administration and the president in these matters.”

The decision against suspending Ammons came a week after the trustees voted for a “public reprimand” of the FAMU president over his “response” to the student’s death.

The 8-5 vote in favor of the reprimand came on the heels of announcements by Ammons that he was bowing to the wishes of the FDLE and reversing all disciplinary actions stemming from Champion’s death until law enforcement agents have finished their probe of the incident.

In that regard, Ammons reversed his expulsion of four students—all band members—in connection with the hazing incident. Prior to that, Ammons announced a reversal of his decision to terminate veteran school band director Dr. Julian White.  Ammons said he was placing White on “leave” effective Dec. 6.

Monday’s decision by the FAMU trustees was backed by the school’s alumni association president. It was questioned by band director White’s lawyer who complained of a lack of fairness.

Dr. White should be afforded the same presumptions of compliance and innocence that President Ammons and, ostensibly, band members who are under suspicion for the hazing death of Robert Champion as well as university employees under suspicion for alleged financial improprieties enjoy,” said Tallahassee attorney Chuck Hobbs, White’s legal counsel.

Meanwhile, FAMU Alumni Association President Tommy Mitchell Sr. says the organization supports the trustees’ decision to defer action until the investigation into the student’s death is complete and also as a signal of opposition to the state’s governor inserting himself in the matter.

Further, Mitchell said that, had the board yielded to the governor’s call, it would have “jeopardized” the established “structure” of higher education governance in the state and “infringed” upon and compromised the “academic freedom” accorded institutions of higher education.

Mitchell, an FAMU alumnus, asserts that suspending the president would have been a far more punitive action taken against any college president whose campus has been involved in hazing incidents. “The FAMU president was being singled out,” Mitchell said in a telephone interview on Monday after the trustees’ decision.

Mitchell hastened to add that the alumni support of Monday’s action rebuffing the governor should not be taken as diminishing the seriousness of the situation.

“We do think there should be some consequences for his (Champion’s) death,” says Mitchell. “We cannot dodge that bullet.”