By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Two members have stepped down from a task force charged with making recommendations to stop hazing at a historically black Florida university, arguing the panel can't do its job properly in the public eye.
Stephen Craig Robinson, a former U.S. district judge who served as chairman of the Anti-Hazing Committee at Florida A&M University (FAMU), and panel member Na'im Akbar sent separate letters of resignation to school officials last week.
The university set up the anti-hazing task force following the death of FAMU Marching 100 drum major Robert Champion, who was beaten to death during a hazing ritual in November.
Robinson and Akbar said they decided to resign from the panel due to a decision to make the committee's seven members subject to Florida's open meetings law. The law, they said, would hinder discussion and make it impossible for the group to complete its assignment thoroughly and on time.
University trustees voted last month to change the independent panel's mission so it could conduct itself outside of Florida's Sunshine Law, which among other things, prevents small groups of individual board members from discussing business in private.
But Florida Governor Rick Scott and state university Board of Governors Chairman Dean Colson rejected the idea, saying the panel should do its work publicly. FAMU trustees then rescinded their earlier decision and ordered the panel to operate in public - over Robinson's objections.
"I do not feel I can lead the AHC towards a final report that would be 'best in class' and withstand the kind of scrutiny it would inevitably engender," Robinson wrote in an April 3 letter to FAMU Board of Trustees Chairman Solomon Badger.
Akbar, the former president of the national Association of Black Psychologists, said in his own resignation letter on April 4 that such constraints combined with a tight deadline would make it easy to turn the panel into "a potential scapegoat."
He argued that the culture of hazing at FAMU is complex, requiring a degree of frank discussion and collaboration that would be unattainable in full public view.
"The vacillations and political meanderings inhibiting our free exchange of information with each other have proven to be as complex as the problem that we were assigned to consider," Akbar said in his letter.
FAMU officials on Monday said they respect the decisions of both men, but the group's work will proceed.
"We understand their reasons for stepping down," FAMU Board of Trustees member Belinda Shannon said in a statement. "Their contributions, even in this limited time, have been invaluable."
(Editing By Colleen Jenkins and Philip Barbara)