TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Florida A&M University trustees agreed Friday to change the mission of the school's hazing advisory panel to a “fact finding'' committee so it will be exempt from state “sunshine'' law requirements for public meetings and records.
With that change, though, the panel of seven experts no longer can make recommendations to the Board of Trustees. The committee instead will present the board with facts about anti-hazing “best practices,'' said Trustee Belinda Reed Shannon.
The university created the panel after drum major Robert Champion died during what police said was hazing while the FAMU band was in Orlando for a football game last fall.
The panel asked for the mission change at its first meeting on March 16. Members said they want to be free to exchange information one-on-one and in small groups without having to give notice of a public meeting every time they want to talk to each other.
The trustees voted 7-2 in favor of the request during a conference call.
Trustee Rufus Montgomery opposed the motion. He said it would open FAMU to more criticism over a less-than-transparent response to Champion's death and disclosures of rampant hazing within the famed Marching 100.
“We cannot continue to be in a posture where … to the outside world it may appear as if we are once again hunkering down, going into a bunker mentality, having conversations in secret,'' Montgomery said.
He noted the university hired a public relations firm to help repair its image after Champion's death.
“What's the strategy to keep this from appearing as if, `There they go again, trying to keep this thing bottled up in secrecy'?'' Montgomery asked.
Shannon replied that if it becomes a public relations problem the university would deal with it the same way it has in the past, and she defended the panel's request.
“There's no ulterior motive to be secret or behind the scenes,'' Shannon said.
She said the experts are willing to meet publicly to discuss their process and findings, but they just want to be able to have spontaneous conversations and break up into small teams to focus on different issues to expedite the work.
Trustee Narayan Persaud, chairman of FAMU's Sociology and Criminal Justice Department, cited additional reasons for his opposition to the mission change. He also had opposed creation of the panel to begin with.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, a grand jury and FAMU's inspector general already are conducting fact-finding into Champion's death and there's no need to “reinvent'' best practices already in place at universities across the nation, Persaud said.
“Despite years and years of focus on hazing, I don't know of any institution that has the problem eliminated through the action of group of experts,'' he said.
The panel is not delving into Champion's death, Shannon responded. She said it would be a problem if the university “sat paralyzed waiting'' for the investigations and long-term research to be completed before taking action.
“I'm not going to take a defeatist attitude,'' She said.
Persaud said the university administration isn't “just sitting around waiting'' and already has taken action to curtail hazing.
University President James Ammons suspended the band, canceled a summer band camp and stopped students from joining campus groups during the spring and summer semesters. The university also is offering research grants on hazing.
The panel of experts from across the nation includes a former federal judge, college band director, psychologist, former school superintendent and a professor who has done research of hazing.
Champion suffered from blunt trauma while aboard a band bus and died from shock due to severe internal bleeding, authorities say. His death is being investigated as a homicide but no arrests have been made.