MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, America's Catholic bishops are meeting in Atlanta this week. They're asking whether reforms meant to protect kids from sexual abuse are working and they're facing questions about whether they're crossing the line from principled to partisan in their fight against the Obama administration's contraception mandate. We'll talk about all of that in just a few minutes.
But first we head to the campus of Florida A&M University. That's a historically black university in Tallahassee, Florida with a famed marching band. But the school and the band were in the headlines for all the wrong reasons late last year when drum major Robert Champion died after allegedly being beaten during a hazing ritual.
Just yesterday in Orlando, 11 former band members were formally arraigned on felony charges in connection with Champion's death. The story has brought attention again to the issue of hazing in general and, fairly or unfairly, at predominantly black colleges and universities in particular. There's been significant fallout at FAMU.
The head of the marching band retired under pressure. The school's president James Ammons suspended the band through 2013 and Mr. Ammons himself was the subject of a no confidence vote from the school's trustees this month over the hazing scandal. Still, President Ammons is vowing to stay on despite the no confidence vote and he's with us now to talk more about this. Mr. President, thank you so much for speaking with us.
JAMES AMMONS: Well, thank you for the invitation to be with you.
MARTIN: Do you mind if we just go back to last year? I just wondered when you first heard about what happened to drum major Robert Champion, Jr., do you remember what went through your mind?
AMMONS: This is something that will always be with me. I was sitting with my family and some friends after the game and I got a call from Dr. White that one of the drum majors had collapsed and passed away. I immediately called his mother, expressing condolences of the university and anything that they needed the university we would be willing to do it.
Later that night, much later, I got another call from Dr. White indicating that Robert had passed away as a result of a hazing ritual, something called Crossing Bus C. I was just devastated even more. You know, as I reflect back on this, you know, we had Mother's Day last month and Father's Day is coming up this weekend and my thoughts and my prayers are with Mr. and Mrs. Champion.
MARTIN: Dr. White, of course, is Dr. Julian White, the longtime band director. You know, to this question of hazing, I think for a lot of people, let's just say in the country at large it was kind of a shock to understand that hazing was such a big part of the culture of particularly a band. I mean, people think, well, you know, musicians, artists, you know, sensitive.
They can maybe associate it with, you know, fraternities or perhaps a football team but, you know, a band? But then other people have come forward to say that this has been going on for years and that this is something that you had to know was a part of the culture. I just wanted to ask if you would respond to that.
AMMONS: We go back and we take a look at research by Hank Nuwer. Hazing deaths go back to 1838. In 2005 there was another study done by Elizabeth Allan and Mary Madden that indicated that 74 percent of college students involved in athletics were hazed, almost the same percentage in social fraternities.
MARTIN: And you're talking across the general population, not just specifically historically black institutions.
AMMONS: That's what I'm talking about.
MARTIN: Right. Mm-hmm.
AMMONS: The general population. But I can tell you emphatically I never knew that hazing as we have come to know it as Crossing Bus C was going on, especially involving drum majors. Normally when you think about hazing it is entry into an organization or fraternity, sorority but never had the thought crossed my mind that there would be something like a Crossing Bus C ritual.
MARTIN: You mean the level of violence was surprising to you.
AMMONS: Yes. The level of violence, but also the fact that you have the elite of the elite being hazed. That is, until this, as far as I knew it was unheard of.
MARTIN: Well, you've instituted some new requirements for participation in the band. And I do want to emphasize for people who are not familiar with it, the band has a tremendous history. It's nationally recognized among people who, you know, follow such things. You know, performing at Super Bowls, at inauguration parades, you know, a major draw for the university as well as for the football games as well.
So you've instituted some new policies including that only fulltime students should be allowed entry into the Marching 100. It would limit student participation in the band to four years, stiffen academic requirements for joining, a number of things like this. How do you feel these requirements will change this culture of hazing that seems to have been tolerated?
And I do want to say again hazing was never allowed but it continued anyway.
AMMONS: I think what this new set of guidelines and practices would do is to put in the proper perspective participation in the marching band. It will send a clear message that the student musicians are students first and that hazing, it is illegal, it is against everything that we stand for at Florida A&M University, and anyone involved in this egregious behavior will no longer be a part of this university community.
In addition to that, there is going to be new leadership of both the music department and the marching band as a result of Dr. White's retirement.
MARTIN: The attorney who has been advising Mr. Champion's parents, Christopher Chestnut, says it's time for you to step down. He told the Associated Press in an interview, the fact that it took you six months to draw up an anti-hazing plan, in his view, showed a lack of commitment to the problem. I'd just like to ask you if you would respond to that.
AMMONS: Well, one of the great things about America is that we have freedom of expression and according to you, Mr. Chestnut has expressed his opinion and we're going to continue the work here at Florida A&M University to make this the kind of campus community that we can all be proud of. I will say this - that tremendous thought, tremendous effort, inclusion of various aspects of the university community, of various stakeholders, were engaged in this process.
And this plan represents the best thinking of many, many people who we trusted their judgment to counsel and guide us as we finalized this plan.
MARTIN: And to the no confidence vote, as we mentioned, that the board voted eight to four in a no confidence vote criticizing a number of issues, including your handling of this matter. How do you plan to restore their confidence in you?
AMMONS: As I have since day one. I am focused like a laser beam on the future of Florida A&M University. There are issues at FAMU. There are issues at other colleges and universities all across the country. No place is perfect. We have acknowledged the issues that we have at FAMU and we are now focused and committed to fixing those things so that the real story of Florida A&M University's academic excellence can, once again, come to the forefront.
MARTIN: It does beg the question, though, with such smart kids, you'd have to wonder how they could do something so stupid and I'm wondering what you've come up with by way of explanation just for yourself.
AMMONS: I can't. You know, you're absolutely right and, although I don't know all 400 members of the band, I know many of them because I have encountered them across the campus and they are smart, some of the most talented, gifted musicians that you will find anywhere. And this just baffles me. I can't come to understand.
With all of the things that we have done in terms of talking with them about hazing, it's illegal, you shouldn't be involved in it, you shouldn't haze anyone, you shouldn't let anyone haze you, there are forms - anti-hazing forms that each member of the band signed and it still happened.
But, again, we are learning, too, that hazing is everywhere and, as Hank Nuwer said, it goes back as far as 1838.
MARTIN: Yes. He's been a guest on the program.
MARTIN: Well, you've been very generous with your time, Mr. President. I just - one more thing. Do you envision a time when people can look at that band the same way?
AMMONS: You know, time will tell. But I do think that once the band returns, all of the vestiges of hazing in this period will no longer be associated with the band. We're going to have true student musicians who are highly talented and committed to academic excellence, as well as respect and dignity.
MARTIN: James Ammons is the president of Florida A&M University. He was kind enough to join us by phone from Tallahassee, Florida.
President Ammons, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll speak again.
AMMONS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.