ORLANDO, Fla. – Florida A&M University's Board of Trustees voted Thursday to publicly reprimand the school's president rather than place him on leave following the death of a band member in what detectives say was an incident related to hazing.
The 8-4 reprimand vote at a meeting in Orlando came in place of a motion to put FAMU President James Ammons on administrative leave until the criminal investigation into drum major Robert Champion's death is done. Detectives are probing the role of hazing in the Nov. 19 death.
When asked after the meeting if he thought he had "dodged a bullet," Ammons said, "I heard the bullet loudly and clearly."
Band director Julian White has been put on administrative leave pending the outcome of the death investigation, and board member Rufus Montgomery said Ammons should be treated in the same manner.
Montgomery also criticized the president for accreditation problems with some academic programs and for failing to keep the board informed.
"If the quarterback has thrown seven interceptions, you pull him from the game," Montgomery said at a board meeting in Orlando. "That is what we should do with Dr. Ammons."
Ammons became president of his Tallahasse-based alma mater in July 2007 and recently signed a new five-year contract. He talked to Champion's family the night of the death, suspended the Marching "100" band and fired White before he was forced to put him on temporary leave instead. Critics say Ammons should have been more aggressive in fighting hazing at the school.
Some board members expressed concern about creating a leadership vacuum by putting Ammons on leave at a time the school is facing unprecedented scrutiny over hazing. The Orange County Sheriff's Office is leading the criminal investigation into Champion's death but other probes have been started by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Board of Governors, the state's governing body for public higher education.
"I'm concerned about a knee-jerk reaction until we have the results of an investigation," board member Karl White said. "There has not been an opportunity to have a discussion of what would be put in place if we decided to put the president on administrative leave."
The board's student representative, Breyon Love, said most of the school's 13,000 students would be upset if Ammons was forced to take a leave.
"You will have a majority of those students very unhappy with the decision if this goes forward today," Love said.
Elizabeth Davenport, who heads the faculty union at FAMU, said she was happy board members were discussing Ammons' role in the crisis, regardless of how they voted. She said professors were upset that White, a tenured professor, had been removed. She told members that in her dealings with the administration she had encountered "a culture that accommodates indifference to complaints."
Seeming to anticipate the action against him, Ammons offered a defense of his tenure earlier in the meeting.
He said the university was cooperating with investigators and that changes will be made so that the board is notified of any future hazing allegations. He also said letters sent to his office warning of band hazing only reached him after Champion's death. The letters were notifications that band members had been suspended over hazing allegations.
"Despite the challenges we have, I think we have some things we can be proud of," Ammons said.
School officials said Wednesday that four students who were expelled for their role in Champion's death have returned to classes because the investigation is not finished. The status of White also changed. He had faced termination Dec. 22 but is now on administrative leave with pay. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement asked the university to stop any disciplinary action until a criminal investigation into Champion's death is done.
An attorney for that board informed trustees that Champion's family plans to sue over his death. They have requested the university's insurance information.