By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - A Florida college under pressure to fix its culture of brutal hazing zig-zagged over the past week on how secret its work should be, coming down on Friday on the side of openness.
The trustees of Florida A & M University met via telephone conference call and voted 8-2 to order its independent panel on hazing to meet publicly under the terms of Florida's Sunshine Law, which mandates public access to governmental proceedings.
However, the vote could lead to mass resignations from the state school's blue ribbon panel by members who believe the open meetings law was too cumbersome for them to do their job efficiently, according to panel chairman Stephen Robinson.
The vote made clear that the mission of the panel was to provide trustees with recommendations on steps the university can take to halt the entrenched and widespread hazing associated particularly with FAMU's renowned marching band.
Friday's vote reversed a trustee vote one week earlier to change the mission of the panel from providing advice to the trustees to merely "fact-finding," a change initiated to allow the panel to operate outside of the Sunshine Law.
Several trustees noted that media reports and public reaction to that action had been negative.
"In my mind, it's imperative that we are clear and show that this board strongly supports open government and a transparent process," Trustee Torey Alston said.
The blue ribbon panel was organized in March in reaction to the November hazing death of drum major Robert Champion, 26. He was beaten to death in a ritual hazing on board a charter bus during a band trip to Orlando.
Orlando police completed their investigation on Monday and turned the case over to prosecutors who will decide whether to file charges.
Other hazing episodes at FAMU have also come to light, resulting in several student arrests. FAMU suspended two music professors on Wednesday pending an investigation into allegations they knew about or participated in student hazing at one professor's off-campus home.
Right before Friday's vote, Robinson warned the trustees about a poll he took of five panel members, including himself, earlier in the day.
"All five said they would likely resign if our mission were changed and we were not able to meet as a fact-finding body," Robinson said.
He noted that the trustees asked for the panel's work to be completed in time for new anti-hazing policies to be in place at FAMU before the start of the 2012-2013 academic year.
Robinson said panel members needed the flexibility to spontaneously call each other and exchange information when convenient outside of formally advertised meetings. He said the desire to conduct business privately was not about secrecy.
"It's about the efficiency and the effectiveness, and it's about completing the important work which we have been tasked in the time frame given to us by you." Solomon Badger, the chairman of the board of trustees, agreed to place a discussion of extending the panel's deadline on the trustees' agenda next week.
(Reporting By Barbara Liston; Editing by Jane Sutton and Cynthia Johnston)