“Curing” a Culture of Hazing: We are FAMU

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” This simple quotation from Founding Father Thomas Paine’s The Crisis was the response that my own father gave when I called him to ask what he thought about the current situation going on at Florida A&M University (FAMU).  Dad was the first Rattler I knew. And I grew up, daily, staring at a 6 ft rattler that is cemented to the back door of the house, and hearing stories about his days at “A&M” (as if there was no other A&M). I grew up in a home where stories about and odes to Jake Gaither, former head coach of FAMU Football team, were weekly occurrences.  Until late Spring of 1996, I was primed and ready to become a Rattler. Had my dorm assignment (Diamond Hall), my roommate, and my tuition had been paid. I then got a full scholarship to Clark Atlanta and my desire to get thee heck out of Florida superseded by innate love for FAMU. But the love has always been there. And always will be. Because I was raised by a Rattler.  It is this love, among other things, that has caused me great consternation with the recent headlines regarding FAMU and the hazing that allegedly caused the death of Robert Champion and the injuries of many others.  And until now I’ve been silent about how I feel about the whole thing. And to be honest, my feelings have changed throughout the weeks since the band-aid was ripped off of this sore that festers in schools across the nation. 

Let me start with a little full disclosure. I matriculated (big, HBCU word) at a Historically Black College/University. I also pledged a Black Greek Letter Organization (BGLO) at this school. I’ve also travelled to and spoken at HBCU’s and majority schools across this country. I have seen hazing. I have known hazing. In 2002, my friend Kristin High drowned in the Pacific Ocean as part of a pledging ritual while pledging Alpha Kappa Alpha.  I am intimately aware of hazing. IT IS A TRAVESTY. But it is not NEW. And it is not particular to FAMU. I keep hearing these sounds bites about “FAMU-style hazing”. Um, hazing is hazing. Period. And it has no special merit or designation because of where it occurs.  A brave man, Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, wrote a piece about the “Brutal Side of Hazing” and although he didn’t say what school or fraternity he was in, Google told it all for him. He vividly described the brutality of hazing by telling his own story about crossing the burning sands.  Many of us have these stories. Few of us will share them. Fewer of us will fight to make sure they don’t repeat themselves and will instead live by the “do unto others as was done unto me” philosophy.  Hazing is ugly and it is wrong. And unless drastic measure are take, it isn’t going away. I’ll get back to that.

Bottom line:  Sad to say but President James Ammons must go.

I made this decision after hearing Florida Governor Rick Scott call for the suspension of FAMU’s President and at that time was totally against it. How dare you suspend this man for something he couldn’t possibly have prevented. But after talking to my father ad nauseam, a classmate of Band Director Dr. Julian White, I changed my mind.  He asked me, if Joe Paterno and the President of Penn State had to go amidst the allegations of sexual molestation of young boys on campus by Joe Sandusky, why doesn’t President Ammons have to go? At first, I was like that is SOOOOO different. But as I began to talk about it, I realized they weren’t so different.  Abuse was reported to the President of the University. The President did nothing. He did not suspend or expel the abuser(s) from school. The abusers remained on campus to abuse again. To discuss the differences between sexual abuse and hazing gets into a story of semantics which as I began to do, immediately cheapened and disrespected the death of that mother’s son, Robert Champion. And so I stopped.

In a letter from his attorney to the University, Dr. White’s 20 year history with FAMU Marching Band is peppered with reported incidents of hazing, the creation of policies about and against hazing, and attempts to curb the culture of hazing at FAMU.  As recent as one week prior to the Florida Classic this year, Dr. White suspended 26 students from the band for hazing. As a part of this suspension, he also went to the administration (READ: The University President) to suggest the band not be allowed to participate in the Classic because of the poor behavior exhibited.  President Ammons made what will probably be remembered as the worst decision of his life and allowed the band to participate due to the financial implications of participating without them.  He was in a no-win situation.  If he didn’t let the band go, there would be hell to pay from students, parents, alumni, sponsors, board members, and supporters.  So he let them go. Not knowing it would end in the death of a student.  But to whom much is given, much is required.  It was an impossible decision that he was forced with making and good bad or otherwise he is responsible for what goes on at his University. And it isn’t fair. But it’s just. This incident, along with others, happened on his watch, on his campus, in the name of his institution.  And he must take a BIG one for the team.

The thought of many is that a new broom sweeps clean, and that is why a new President must take the helm and help eradicate the culture of hazing at FAMU. Well, I say sometimes a new broom just pushes around old dirt.  Hazing is not something you wake up and wave away with a magic wand.  It is born out of a thirst for power and a quest for acceptance into a world of silence and secrecy.  And unless every extracurricular activity, club, and greek letter organization is retired, you will never eliminate hazing.  Unless you create an environment where there are no have and have-nots, you will never eliminate hazing.  As long as there is a caste system where the GDI’s or Interests are always seeking to be included in a membership-only organization or group, there will always be a divide. How does one “cure” a culture? I don’t have that answer. And I definitely don’t think that firing the University President solves the problem. He didn’t create the culture but he was charged with maintaining the University that inhabited it. And perhaps the calling for the suspension of President Ammons isn’t about hazing at all.  Riddle me this.  Since the late 1960’s FAMU has literally been fighting for its life as a separate, distinct university. In 1983, then President Walter Smith fought a merger bill led by State Rep. T.K. Wetherall in what he described was a desire for “efficiency” with the Tallahassee schools.  Again in 2007, the same State Rep. used the same argument to try to get FSU to gain 100% control over the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, claiming that FSU would be better at managing the money.  (Lets all say it together in a whisper: HIDDEN RACISM). Year after year, FAMU has to fight to maintain its history and culture and institutional status.  Maybe the folks at the Capitol have finally found a hook to hang their hat on and it’s called hazing. And President Ammons is a means to an end. The end of FAMU. I fully expect the next legislative session to include a new merger bill and for the presentation to include a discussion of the past few weeks and the horrors that have occurred on that campus. And again our friends in the legislature will again have to fight to save FAMU.

The good thing is that this time, FAMU will not be alone.  The eyes of the world are watching.  And those of us who are paying attention to the drama unfolding at FAMU will be primed and ready to fight. The entire HBCU Family will be behind you. 

FAMU you will not fail. We won’t allow it. We cannot allow it. You will live to march another day. You will remain the school on the hill that you always were. And you will be restored to the glory for which you so greatly deserve.

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About Sweet Nothings

I went to college and majored and Mass Communications/Public Relations but decided to take my passion for promoting others to law school....where i could then learn to promote MYSELF! Kidding. Kind of. Now I'm a lawyer. 8 years later, big whoop and womp womp.
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16 Responses to “Curing” a Culture of Hazing: We are FAMU

  1. Niki says:

    Your best entry yet! Weeks later and I still can’t even begin to fully explain my thoughts on everything. Thank heavens for blogs and journals to help us gather our thoughts. And thank you, Keitha, for standing with us pround Rattler alumni.

  2. Dee says:

    Thank you for your thoughts.

    Dr. Ammons might have to go. But just because Dr. White says he made the changes doesn’t mean he did. And clearly Dr. White’s leadership is NOT changing the atmosphere of hazing in the Marching 100 so maybe it’s time for him go too. The death of Robert Champion happen on his watch and under his leadership too. I really don’t see how Dr. Ammons and Dr. White can both stay at the FAMU. Saying you tried isn’t good enough in the face of death.

    Another thing that I believe is lost is that there is NOT a cause of death yet for Robert Champion. The sad thing is clearly there was hazing on the bus, because of what the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has stated. Prayerfully college students will think twice about participating and putting other students through these barbaric practices. However, this is a part of America’s violent and sadistic side. It’s a scary and hard “tradition” to break. Let’s hope Robert Champion didn’t die in vain.

    -Dee
    FAMU Journalism Grad

  3. Dee says:

    Correction:
    Just after I posted my reply, the Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner’s Office released a cause of death for Robert Champion. This is horrific and I pray that the death of this student will stay on the minds of FAMU students now and in the future. My heart is breaking again for the Chamion family.
    http://www.orlandosentinel.com/features/education/os-robert-champion-autopsy-result-20111216,0,3476923.story

  4. Kalestine says:

    Great article! Coincidentally, after his tenure in the state legislature, Rep. T.K. Wetherall , became the President of Florida State. He retired a couple of years ago. Thanks for your support, you were certainly raised right. But of course, you were raised by a Rattler. I’m a little biased, I was too!

  5. Taralyn Wright says:

    #tear

    Okay, I hear what you’re saying and can understand where you’re coming from. However, I think the drastic difference between the mess @ Penn State and what happened at my beloved university is the President, Coach, and other leadership @ Penn didn’t do anything because they did not want to risk the FOOTBALL program. We don’t know if and what Dr. Ammons did / did not do. We know that he didn’t pull the band the night of the Classic – HUGE mistake – and it’s something he’ll think of for the rest of his life. But I truly believe that larger than football and/or the band is the SUCCESS of FAMU as a University. Pres. Ammons has brought FAM a mighty long way, and it took 6 years to put him and the right leadership in place.

    So, while I hear what you’re saying… I’d have to disagree about Ammons being let go, b/c I fear for what will happen to the University w/o him. Don’t get me wrong – I am definitely NOT saying that the school is more important than Champion’s life as life is the most precious gift that we’re given. But like you said in your post, firing Ammons is not going to “Cure” hazing…

    • Thanks for your comment! I’ll have to disagree wholeheartedly with your Penn State analysis. Penn’s leaders refused to act because they didn’t want to risk the Football program. One of their top sellers. FAMU leaders refused to act because they didn’t want to risk the financial support that comes through the Band. One of their top sellers. And much like we have learned and are continuing to sort out what Penn’s leaders knew and when, the same will happen for Ammons. We know he didn’t suspend the students from school who were suspended from the band for hazing. The band is not the school. They should’ve be reprimanded by the University not just by the Band director and told to sit out the big game. I think it will all come out in the wash as the old folks say. Just as your fear is for what happens if he leaves, my bigger fear is what happens if he stays. Either way, God help him and FAMU.

  6. Eric Ayers says:

    I loved this post. It was a succinct analysis of the major problems at FAMU. I’m a member of a BGLO and I’m really troubled by this whole concept of hazing. Yeah I did it thirty years ago, but I want a better world for my kid. Hazing should be treated like drunk driving. Back in my day, hardly anyone was arrested for first offense DUI. MADD changed that. We need to apply that same mentality to hazing. I first heard this idea on the HBCU online podcast. This could be a tool that we could use to change the prevailing mindset on hazing in our institutions.

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