By GARY FINEOUT
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - The president of Florida A&M University abruptly resigned Wednesday, the latest in a series of blows to the college and its famed marching band following the hazing death of a drum major.
James Ammons' announcement appeared to take the college's trustees by surprise and marked an about-face from his previous pledge to stay on the job "until the final bell rings" - despite a vote of no-confidence last month.
The resignation takes effect Oct. 11, during the same month that 11 defendants go to trial in the November hazing death of Robert Champion. The embattled president said he plans to exercise a provision in his contract that allows him to remain at the school as a member of the faculty.
The trustees voted to hold an emergency meeting Monday to discuss a replacement and the specific terms of Ammons' resignation
Ammons' departure is the latest fallout from Champion's death, which also led to the suspension of its famed Marching 100 band until 2013 and the springtime resignation of the band's veteran director.
Eleven FAMU band members face felony hazing charges, while two others face misdemeanor counts for alleged roles in Champion's hazing. They have pleaded not guilty.
Dreams of becoming a member of the Marching 100 drew many students to apply to the university. The band's once-vibrant performances gained it admission to Super Bowls and presidential inaugurations and pulled in huge crowds at football games.
An alumnus and former top administrator of the school, Ammons was first hired to help steady FAMU in the wake of financial woes and threats to its accreditation.
But Champion's death on Nov. 19 put a spotlight on a hazing culture that he and other top FAMU officials have been unable to eradicate.
Ammons did not explain why he chose Oct. 11 as his final day, or why he chose to announce his resignation Wednesday, the same day Champion's parents, Robert and Pamela Champion, sued the university. The two events appeared to be unrelated.
In a letter to the chairman of the university's governing board, Ammons said his decision came after "considerable thought, introspection and conversations with my family."
He acknowledged "new challenges that must be met head on" at the university, but his letter did not mention Champion directly.
Still, the Champions applauded the move.
"Before the school can move forward, they have to do house cleaning," said Pamela Champion. "That means taking care of the entities that are there in order to prevent something like this from happening again."
Ammons' decision clearly caught some trustees off guard, despite their recent criticism of his job performance. One trustee called it "unexpected" and "unanticipated."
"I am saddened by President Ammons' decision to resign, but it is his choice to do so," said FAMU Board Chairman Solomon Badger. "Given all that has transpired, it seems to be in the best interest of the university and I applaud him for putting FAMU ahead of his personal goals."
FAMU math professor Calvin Robinson called Ammons' resignation "the worst news I've heard."
"I'm a second-generation Rattler," he said, referring to the nickname given to school alumni and students. "This is like the darkest day. ... Ever since Nov. 19 I saw this pressure coming, but I was hoping they'd realize the better strength of this man."
Given the intense pressure he had been under, Ammons' move was not completely unexpected.
Gov. Rick Scott at one point had recommended that Ammons be suspended from the job while investigations of Robert Champion's hazing were under way, a move that brought a nighttime protest outside the governor's mansion from hundreds of FAMU students.
The school's trustees gave Ammons a vote of no-confidence in June, after questioning his leadership in several areas, including what some saw as his lax attitude toward hazing and management of the band prior to Champion's death.
At the time, Ammons said he would stay on the job, and top alumni with the school criticized board members for bowing to pressure from outside the university.
Champion died after being beaten by fellow band members during a hazing ritual aboard a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel following a football game against the school's archrival.
Ammons suspended the band right after Champion's death. He announced in May that the suspension would stay in effect for at least one more school year as officials moved ahead with trying to eliminate the hazing culture that surrounded the band. The president also recommended new stringent eligibility requirements for membership in the band.
Veteran band director Julian White was fired last year, but then his dismissal was placed on hold while the criminal investigation unfolded. He insisted that he did nothing wrong and fought for months to get reinstated. He changed his mind in May and decided to retire after it was revealed that at least 100 band members were not students when Champion died.
Hours before Ammons' announcement Wednesday, Champion's parents added the university to a lawsuit that already targeted the bus's driver.
The Champions claim Florida A&M University officials did not take action to stop hazing even though a school dean proposed suspending the band because of hazing concerns three days before their son died.
School officials also allowed nonstudents to play in the band, fell short in enforcing anti-hazing policies and did not keep a close eye on band members to prevent hazing, the lawsuit said.
School officials "failed to properly supervise, train, discipline and control the FAMU Band," the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit seeks damages greater than $15,000, but does not give a specific amount. The university in a statement said it knew the lawsuit was coming but had no further comment.
Associated Press writers Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee, and Mike Schneider in Orlando contributed to this report.
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