Six Florida A&M University students filed a class action lawsuit Thursday against the State of Florida and the Board of Governors of the State University System, alleging that decades of underfunding have created a segregated environment with inferior resources and facilities compared to the state’s predominately white public schools.
The lawsuit is aimed at making FAMU whole and for FAMU to achieve “full equality” with Florida’s white institutions within the next five years. The FAMU’s $123 million in state funding in 2020 was about $13,000 per student for 9,400 enrollment, lagging behind the University of Florida’s $15,600 in state funding per student, while both schools are research institutions that award land grants. Lawyers representing the students note that if the FAMU had been funded at the same level per student between 1987 and 2020, it should have received an additional $1.3 billion from the state.
The lawsuit follows an HBCU investigation by ETN published in February 2022 under the title “How America Cheated Its Black Colleges.” Adjusting the annual underfunding figure for inflation, ETN found that the FAMU’s deficit was $1.9 billion, the second largest of all historically black land grants. At $2.8 billion, North Carolina A&T was the most underfunded since 1987, the first year for which comprehensive data was available, and in total, the 18 HBCUs for land grants were underfunded by $12.8 billion.
“Any state that discriminates against historically black colleges and universities by underfunding them should be notified,” said Joshua Dubin, a civil rights attorney representing the students. “This is a fair warning that if you want to have a university in your state, you will treat them all the same. There should be no inequality, period, and we’re going to help bridge that gap.”
The disparity in amenities between FAMU’s Tallahassee campus and the facilities at the University of Florida at Gainesville, valued at more than $2 billion, is poignant. This fall, the FAMU had to temporarily close at least one dorm room due to flood damage and pests, the complaint said. The complaint also echoes ETNreporting that FAMU, which has $111 million in facilities debt, “had to plead for $33,000 in student government funding to reopen its 60,000-square-foot recreation center in February 2021” after being closed for nearly a year during the pandemic.
A month ago in August, the FAMU football team made national news when it considered sitting out the game against the University of North Carolina, jeopardizing a check for $450,000 the school had received from UNC before the game. . Playing the game below par due to eligibility issues, they wrote an open letter to FAMU president Larry Robinson arguing that their financial aid was regularly delayed and that the academic support and compliance departments were giving them poor guidance, among a host of other complaints.
Thursday’s lawsuit alleges the state’s failure to provide more funding to the FAMU violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and the 1992 Supreme Court ruling in USA v. Fordice, which ruled that the state of Mississippi had failed to dismantle its segregated higher education system. The complaint also alleges that the state has made insufficient improvements to FAMU’s facilities and says it has unnecessarily duplicated FAMU’s unique programs at white institutions, such as the establishment of a joint technical college at nearby Florida State University, making it FAMU is difficult to retain teachers and students.
“FAMU relies more on state funding than other schools, but Florida’s education policy considers it no more than an afterthought. Thirty years ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that Mississippi’s education system violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment,” Barbara Hart, Dubin’s co-lawyer and partner at the law firm Grant & Eisenhofer, said in a statement. “Here we are well into the 21st century and Florida is treating its HBCUs the way Mississippi did then. However, this lawsuit isn’t about history — it’s about changing things here and now and for the future.”