Friday, August 26, 2016

Vasilinda needs more context for his coverage of FAMU’s enrollment decline

Mike Vasilinda of the Capitol News Service does lots of good reporting of FAMU. That’s why Rattler Nation regularly posts his video news stories here. On Wednesday, this blog posted his wrap-up of the FAMU Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting.

But Vasilinda needs to follow-up his Thursday story on FAMU’s enrollment decline with another one that has the important context that wasn’t included in the first. He also has some mistakes to correct.

Vasilinda wrote that “this fall marks the fifth anniversary of the hazing death of Florida A&M University Drum Major Robert Champion. The University settled the case for $1.1 million and an apology.”

FAMU actually settled with the Champion family for $300,000. That money was paid by the Florida Department of Financial Services. The Champion family settled with the insurer of the Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando, where hazing ritual took place, for $800,000.

Vasilinda then suggested that Champion’s death was a major reason for the FAMU enrollment decline since 2011. He wrote that: “When Robert Champion died in 2011, FAMU had 13,207 students enrolled. Now, five years later, one third fewer students are attending classes.”

At a meeting the Orlando Sentinel editorial board in 2014, Mangum expressed skepticism in response to a suggestion that the Champion tragedy led to the FAMU enrollment decline. She said that the federal financial aid crisis and economic downturn were the biggest reasons that FAMU has fewer students.

A member of the editorial board asked her: “Has the university recovered after the hazing scandal, as it relates to rebounding enrollment numbers?”

Mangum answered that: “I believe that we have recovered from that, if that is the reason students chose not to come to FAMU, and I'm not really convinced that's the reason why enrollment declined...Much of it had to deal with the availability of financial aid, the economic downturn and people not being able to afford an education....I think many institutions would be challenged if that [hazing] were the reason why students chose not to come, because hazing is a problem in America — and it's a problem on most campuses. The fact that FAMU was highlighted was grave and disappointing, but it's a part of our culture at every college and institution. We do our best to make sure we have a safe environment for our students, and FAMU has done an awful lot, probably more than most colleges.”

Mangum came to FAMU in 2014 from Cornell University, where she was vice-president of budget and planning. Back when she interviewed for the FAMU presidency, she spoke about how Cornell worked to crack down on hazing and make the campus safer after the February 2011 death of George Desdunes. Desdunes, a 19-year old pre-med student from Brooklyn, died after consuming large amounts of alcohol during a Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity ritual.

Desdunes’ mother filed a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against SAE and a number of its members. Her lawsuit alleged that her son “was kidnapped by fraternity pledges” who then “compelled him to consume alcohol until he lost consciousness.”

But the lawyers who successfully defended the three pledges in the criminal case said Desdunes gave his consent to participate in a “mock kidnapping” ritual and that his alcohol consumption was “wholly voluntary.” They also said he had been drinking a large amount of alcohol before he agreed to take part in the ritual. 

Cornell disbanded its Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter after the incident. The enrollment at Cornell did not drop after the 2011 hazing death.

An investigation by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office concluded that Champion “willingly participated” in the hazing ritual that left him dead.

Mangum explained in 2014 that an overhaul to the federal financial aid program caused FAMU to lose 2,000 students from 2011 to 2013. But a number of FAMU trustees aren’t accepting that or tighter admission standards as reasons for the continuing decline in enrollment since 2014. 

North Carolina A&T University is one of the HBCUs that has made steady gains in recovering from the damage caused by the federal financial aid crisis. NCA&T Chancellor Harold Martin reversed his university’s enrollment decline with strong classes of freshmen students. The freshman, first-time student classes that he enrolled in Fall 2014 and Fall 2015 both had 3.28 average GPAs in high school.

North Carolina Central University Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, who started on June 1, 2013, has also reversed the enrollment drop at her school with a freshman class that is ready to do well in college. The NCCU freshmen in Fall 2015 had an average GPA of 3.21 and overall enrollment went up to 8,011.

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