Florida A&M students sue state, alleging decades of underfunding and program duplication

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Six students at Florida A&M University sued the state and its public university system’s leaders Thursday, alleging Florida discriminated against the historically Black institution by underfunding it and keeping it from becoming the peer of traditionally White universities.

The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status in federal court, says the state violated civil rights law and the Constitution’s equal protection clause with its funding and academic decisions. It seeks to force Florida to put the HBCU on the level of the state’s White institutions within five years.

“Throughout its history, Florida has systematically engaged in policies and practices that established and perpetuated, and continue to perpetuate, a racially segregated system of higher education,” the lawsuit alleges.

Students filed the lawsuit less than a month after Florida A&M football players grabbed national headlines by weighing the idea of not playing in their season-opening game, for which 26 players were deemed ineligible. The team penned a letter alleging issues with financial aid arriving on time, inadequate academic support staffing, problems with summer class availability and advising issues contributed to the ineligibilities.

But the case could echo far beyond Florida’s borders. It comes after persistent funding gaps have been documented at HBCUs in other states. And the Florida lawsuit makes one argument that mirrors a recently resolved lawsuit HBCU backers fought against Maryland: that the state damaged the HBCU by allowing duplicative programs at predominantly White institutions.

Last year, a federal judge approved a settlement giving Maryland’s four HBCUs $577 million over 10 years.

Allegations against Florida

Florida A&M opened in 1887 as a normal college for Black students — after the state was required to provide equal educational opportunities for Black students in order to qualify for federal land-grant funding. Today, it enrolls about 9,000 students, making it one of the country’s largest HBCUs. It’s one of two land-grant institutions in the state, along with the University of Florida.

In 1970, the U.S. Department of Education told the state it was violating federal law by running a racially segregated higher ed system, the lawsuit says. Eight years later, it accepted an improvement plan from the state that included more money, improved facilities and stronger academics at Florida A&M.

To boost the university’s academics, the state was supposed to address unnecessary duplication of programs between Florida A&M and nearby traditionally White institutions, including by eliminating programs or creating joint programs.

In 2003, the state told the federal government it had complied with the agreement. But the lawsuit says the state duplicated Florida A&M’s unique programs at traditionally White colleges between 1982 and today. 

For example, Florida A&M and Florida State University, which are both located in Tallahassee, operate a joint engineering program. Students enroll in one of the institutions, then go to engineering-specific courses in a shared building after completing prerequisite courses. 

The number of Florida A&M students in the program has been declining, while the number of Florida State students has been increasing, according to the lawsuit. The state also yanked the shared college’s $13 million budget from Florida A&M in 2015 and placed it under Florida State’s authority, it says.

“Unnecessary academic program duplication is harmful, socially and economically,” the lawsuit says. “It harms the citizenry of the State of Florida, FAMU, its students, including Plaintiffs and the proposed Class, and the public at large because the duplication: wastes and dilutes limited State resources when programs already exist to meet the demand and thereby reduces the economic efficiencies of the higher education system.”

It also perpetuates segregation and hurts Florida A&M’s enrollment, the lawsuit argues. 

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