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

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/23/2022 Danielle Douglas-Gabriel
Lee Hall, the administration building at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. (FAMU Office of Communications) Lee Hall, the administration building at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. (FAMU Office of Communications)

A group of six students at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee filed a class-action lawsuit against the state Thursday alleging 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, has many of the hallmarks of past fights in Maryland, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina for equitable treatment of public HBCUs. It alleges that the state pours more money into traditionally White institutions such as Florida State University, also in Tallahassee, and allows schools to duplicate FAMU’s academic programs.

“There is a vast 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’ll see the magnificent sports facilities and amazing housing. But when you get to the south side where the HBCU is, it’s a different world because we aren’t given the same resources.”

Denton said it was clear to her and her classmates that FAMU wasn’t to blame for the stark differences in infrastructure and institutional wealth, but rather the university was a victim of state-sponsored discrimination.

“We could see the bigger picture,” she said. “The university needs resources from the state and local government, which haven’t provided enough support.”

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

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

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

The complaint says there has been a deliberate effort by the state to undermine FAMU’s competitiveness by letting other public colleges duplicate its academic programs, luring away prospective students. Decades of disparate state funding have prevented FAMU from achieving parity with its traditionally White counterparts, according to the suit. It claims the University of Florida received a larger state appropriation per student than FAMU from 1987 to 2020, amounting to a shortfall of roughly $1.3 billion.

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 obligated to match federal dollars for all land-grant universities, but the historically Black campuses are frequently shortchanged.

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

A 2013 study by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities was among the first to highlight the disparity and found that 61 percent of Black land-grant institutions did not receive 100 percent of the matching funds from their states from 2010 to 2012. During that period, Florida gave FAMU only 42 percent of the money it was entitled to, according to the study.

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

HBCU land-grant institutions rely much more heavily on federal and state funding, which comprise nearly two-thirds of their revenues, according to research from the National Education Association. By comparison, 44 percent of revenues of other land-grant schools come from federal and state sources, according to the association. That reliance makes the HBCUs more vulnerable in economic downturns and when states withhold support.

“We drilled into the numbers and the obligations to fund the school at parity, and not only is that not the case currently, but it’s also not been the case for quite some time historically,” said Barbara Hart, one of the attorneys at Grant & Eisenhofer representing the students. “It’s the kind of issue that compounds problems over time in terms of recruitment, prestige and research.”

FAMU was founded in 1887 with 15 students and two instructors, according to the university that now counts nearly 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students on its rolls. It was among a cluster of other public universities established to serve Black students who were shut out of state flagships and other halls of higher education in the segregated South.

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

At Md.’s historically black schools, the pursuit of equity without forgoing identity

States have been forced to atone for disparities in public higher education. Last year, Maryland agreed to pay $577 million over a decade to its four HBCUs to settle a 15-year court battle over inequitable funding. Alabama in 2006 agreed to pay $600 million toward a 30-year campus renovation plan for its two historically Black public institutions. Four years earlier, a U.S. District Court ordered Mississippi to spend more than $500 million on its three historically Black colleges.


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