Florida A&M students sue state over funding, allege discrimination of HBCUs

A group of six students from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee filed a class-action lawsuit against the state Thursday over decades of discriminatory underfunding. of the public historically black university.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, retains many of the hallmarks of past battles in Maryland, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina for fair treatment of public HBCUs. It claims the state is putting more money into traditionally white institutions like Florida State University, also in Tallahassee, and allows schools to duplicate FAMU’s academic programs.

“There is a huge difference between the two universities in the city of Tallahassee,” said Britney Denton, a doctoral student at FAMU’s College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and a plaintiff in the case. “If you go to the north side, you will see the beautiful sports facilities and great residences. But when you get to the south side where the HBCU is, it’s a different world because we don’t get the same resources.”

Denton said it was clear to her and her classmates that the FAMU was not to blame for the wide disparities in infrastructure and institutional wealth, but rather that the university had been the victim of state-sponsored discrimination.

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“We could see the bigger picture,” she said. “The university needs resources from the state and local government, who have not provided enough support.”

The students are asking the court to appoint a mediator to recommend ways to rectify the inequalities and force Florida to commit to full equality in its support of all of its public universities within five years.

FAMU said it was not involved in the lawsuit and declined to comment on the matter. The Board of Governors for the State University System of Florida, a named defendant, also declined to comment on pending lawsuits.

Florida has four historically black campuses; the other three are private. The state has increased its funding for the schools in recent years, with more than $123 million in the 2020-2021 budget, up $21.3 million from the previous year.

The complaint says the state has deliberately tried to undermine FAMU’s competitiveness by allowing other public colleges to duplicate its academic programs, thereby luring prospective students away. Decades of disparate state funding have prevented FAMU from achieving equivalence with its traditionally white counterparts, the lawsuit said. It claims that from 1987 to 2020, the University of Florida received greater government credit per student than FAMU, equating to a deficit of about $1.3 billion.

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Attorneys for the students say the disparity is striking because the two schools share the distinction of being Florida’s only public land-grant universities. States are required to match federal dollars for all universities with land grants, but the historically black campuses are often shortchanged.

‘We’re still lagging behind’: Public HBCUs see record investment, but still grapple with legacy of state-sponsored discrimination

A 2013 study by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities was one of the first to expose the inequality and found that from 2010 to 2012 61 percent of Black land grant institutions did not receive 100 percent of their associated funds. received from their states. According to the study, Florida gave the FAMU only 42 percent of the money it was entitled to during that period.

A more recent accounting in Forbes magazine of the chronic underfunding of public HBCUs said the state of Florida has lost about $1.9 billion to the FAMU since 1987, adjusted for inflation. The report used federal data to compare the state funding per student of the traditionally white land-grant schools with that of HBCUs, which it concluded were collectively underfunded by at least $12.8 billion.

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According to research by the National Education Association, HBCU institutions for land grants are much more dependent on federal and state funding, which make up nearly two-thirds of their revenues. By comparison, according to the association, 44 percent of other land grant revenue comes from federal and state sources. That confidence makes the HBCUs more vulnerable to economic downturns and when states withhold support.

“We’ve drilled into the numbers and commitments to fund the school on an equal footing, and not only is that not the case right now, but it hasn’t been the case historically for quite some time,” said Barbara Hart, one of the leaders. Grant’s attorneys. & Eisenhofer representing the students. “It’s the kind of problem that exacerbates recruiting, prestige and research problems over time.”

FAMU was founded in 1887 with 15 students and two instructors, according to the university which now has nearly 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students on its roll. It belonged to a cluster of other public universities established to serve black students who were locked out of state flagships and other higher education halls in the segregated South.

Higher education experts say the gaping gaps in support for public HBCUs are evidence of the lasting legacy of segregation in the sector.

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States are forced to pay for inequalities in public higher education. Last year, Maryland agreed to pay $577 million to its four HBCUs over a decade to settle a 15-year lawsuit over uneven funding. Alabama agreed in 2006 to pay $600 million for a 30-year campus renovation plan for its two historically black public institutions. Four years earlier, a US court ordered Mississippi to spend more than $500 million on its three historically black colleges.

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