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 sustained a segregated environment with inferior resources and facilities compared with the state’s predominantly white public schools.
The lawsuit seeks to make FAMU whole and for FAMU to achieve “complete parity” with Florida’s white institutions within the next five years. FAMU’s $123 million in state appropriations in 2020 amounted to about $13,000 per student for its enrollment of 9,400, lagging behind the University of Florida’s $15,600 in state funding per student, when both schools are land-grant research institutions. Lawyers representing the students note that if 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 Forbes published in February 2022 entitled “How America Cheated Its Black Colleges.” After adjusting each year’s underfunding number for inflation, Forbes found that FAMU’s shortfall amounted to $1.9 billion, the second-largest of any historically Black land-grant institution. North Carolina A&T was the most underfunded at $2.8 billion since 1987, the first year for which comprehensive data was available, and in total the 18 land-grant HBCUs were underfunded by $12.8 billion.
“Any state that is discriminating against historically black colleges and universities by underfunding them should be on notice,” says Joshua Dubin, a civil rights attorney representing the students. “This is fair warning that if you’re going to have a college in your state, you’re going to treat them all the same. There should be no disparity, period, and we’re going to help bridge that gap.”
The difference in amenities between FAMU’s Tallahassee campus and the University of Florida’s facilities in Gainesville, valued at more than $2 billion, are glaring. This fall, FAMU had to temporarily close at least one dormitory due to flood damage and pest issues, the complaint says. The complaint also echoes Forbes’ reporting that FAMU, which has $111 million in facilities debt, “had to plead for $33,000 in funding from the student government to reopen its 60,000-square-foot recreation center in February 2021” after it was closed for nearly a year during the pandemic.
A month ago in August, FAMU’s football team made national news when it considered sitting out its game against the University of North Carolina, putting a $450,000 check the school received from UNC for the game in jeopardy. They played the game shorthanded because of eligibility issues and wrote an open letter to FAMU president Larry Robinson arguing that their financial aid was regularly delayed and understaffed academic support and compliance departments gave them poor guidance, among numerous other complaints.
Thursday’s lawsuit alleges that the state’s failure to provide increased funding to FAMU violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the Supreme Court’s 1992 ruling in U.S. v. Fordice, which held that the state of Mississippi had failed to dismantle its segregated system of higher education. The complaint also alleges that the state hasn’t made sufficient improvements to FAMU’s facilities and says it has unnecessarily duplicated FAMU’s unique programs at white institutions, like establishing a joint college of engineering at nearby Florida State University, which has made it difficult for FAMU to retain faculty and students.
“FAMU is more dependent on state funding than other schools, yet Florida education policy treats it as little more than an afterthought. Thirty years ago, the US Supreme Court held that Mississippi’s education system violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment,” Barbara Hart, Dubin’s co-counsel and a partner at law firm Grant & Eisenhofer, said in a statement. “Here we are well into the 21st century and Florida treats its HBCUs as Mississippi did then. This lawsuit isn’t about history, though – it’s about changing things here and now and for the future.”
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Hank Tucker, Forbes Staff