Next year was supposed to be a big year for Florida A&M University. The nation’s largest historically black university is scheduled to celebrate 125 years since its founding in 1887.
Unfortunately, instead of talking about the many contributions its faculty and alumae have made to this country, the FAMU community will be consumed by the H and I words. Not high academic scores, not healthcare solutions for the underserved, but hazing and investigations.
As if to emphasize this sad fact, Tallahassee Police on Monday arrested three band members and charged them with hazing for allegedly breaking the thigh of a female band member being initiated into the Red Dawg Order, a band club for Georgia natives.
And on Wednesday, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that its investigation into the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion has led to the opening of another investigation – into fraud at the university.
You can’t make this stuff up.
The alleged assault on the freshman clarinet player took place Oct. 31, almost three weeks before drum major Champion was found dying on a band bus outside an Orlando hotel.
Full disclosure. I work for FAMU. I’m the faculty adviser to the Famuan student newspaper. This story hits close to home. Not just personally but professionally.
Weeks before Champion’s death, the newspaper staff began investigating reports of band hazing. But a wall of silence and defensiveness thwarted the story.
We knew that band hazing was business as usual. We just couldn’t get anyone to say it out loud. Former band members readily acknowledged that band members had their own system of discipline separate from anything that ousted band director Julian White had in mind. Band hazing? That’s an old story.
Everything changed the night a student editor called around 1 a.m., sobbing over the news that Champion was dead. Like me, he must have been convinced that if we had written the hazing story, Champion would be alive.
The death of one student is a steppingstone to so much more trouble for FAMU.
President James Ammons, my boss, is under fire for his handling of the hazing issue and its fall out. He survived a move by several board members to place him on administrative leave, but instead was reprimanded. In his defense, hazing was strongly in place long before he arrived.
For the legions of people who root for FAMU, there is more bad news ahead. Unless the Orange County coroner reverses course and discovers a cause of death that clears band members, more arrests and student expulsions will follow. Each sordid development will trigger a new set of television, newspaper and Internet headlines, recriminations and backlash. Those who wish away HBCUs will see this as evidence to denigrate, undercut and underfund FAMU.
But for those of us who’ve attended HBCUs and are familiar with their mission, this is clearly an opportunity – for real change.
Hazing has been passed down from one generation to the next. It’s not enough for us to end the culture of silence surrounding hazing. That will just leave a vacuum to be occupied by the noisy, cultural detritus that too often dominates the lives of our young people. This is an opportunity to radically change FAMU itself. I often say that if our students studied as much as they danced and strutted, we’d be Ivy League quality. I still believe that.
The Marching 100’s on-field displays showed what hard work, dedication and discipline can accomplish. We need to redirect those energies into the classrooms, labs, hallways and offices at Florida A&M.
After 125 years, it’s time to rediscover the true meaning of why this place was founded. The big H. Higher Education.
Former St. Petersburg Times columnist Andrew J. Skerritt is an assistant professor of journalism at Florida A&M University and the author of “Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South."