Attorneys representing six current Florida A&M University students filed a class-action complaint on their behalf Thursday that claims the state of Florida “deliberately and systematically maintains a racially segregated higher-education structure that favors traditionally white schools over Historically Black Colleges & Universities.”
Chancellor Marshall Criser III and Florida’s board of governors also have been named in the suit brought by both graduate and undergraduate students, who allege that for decades the state has underfunded and underserved FAMU in comparison to other public state institutions, including the University of Florida and neighboring Florida State University. They say that has hampered recruitment and retention efforts over a period of more than three decades.
The plaintiffs are seeking what would be a historic leveling of funding, access and resources for FAMU and all institutions, as well as relief under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment and they want that to happen within five years. They allege Florida and its governors have not met their obligations to serve HBCUs under federal and state law in terms of access, retention, diverse hirings and funding, something they say they not only promised to do in an inquiry by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights in 1998, but then acknowledged they did four years later. University Business reached out to state university system officials seeking comment to the plaintiffs’ claims, but a spokesperson said they do not comment on pending litigation.
Florida A&M, which was established in 1887, has approximately 9,000 total students, more than 90% of whom are students of color.
“FAMU produces more African-American B.A. graduates than any four-year public college in the nation,” said Joshua Dubin, civil rights attorney from the law firm Grant & Eisenhofer. “Yet it’s still playing catch-up in the state of Florida, which we feel has acted with an astonishing lack of good faith, despite decades of directives from the federal government that all students in the state receive equal educational opportunities. This deliberate indifference toward HBCUs is not unique to Florida, but FAMU is where we’re joining the fight to ensure the education is fair for everyone.”
The lawsuit alleges that traditionally white institutions received favor from the years 1987 through 2020. Plaintiffs claims the difference alone vs. UF in funding during that stretch was $1.3 billion. Students and athletes from FAMU also have complained of poor housing conditions and “inadequate or incomplete facilities,” according to the suit, which states that “[the state of] Florida has continually failed to provide the appropriate contracts, contractors, supplies, and appropriations for timely completion of projects at HBCUs.” Students at HBCUs in other states, including Howard University and in the Atlanta University Center consortium, have lodged similar complaints over housing and facilities the past few years. All of them, however, are private institutions.
Litigants in the FAMU complaint also allege that some of the same sets of courses exist at Florida State University–one of the promises the plantiffs said should have been remedied under the OCR agreement–and that students are more inclined to attend FSU as a result, putting FAMU in an unwinnable position to try to attract new students and maintain enrollments.
“Our school has always made a little go a long way, but we shouldn’t have to,” said Britney Denton, a first-year doctoral student at FAMU’s College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Studies who is part of the lawsuit. “There are bright and determined people here who deserve the same level of support and quality of resources as FSU next door or any other state school in Florida. We want Florida to be proud to support us and other HBCUs equally.”
Bobby Brown, another attorney representing the clients, added: “The complaint isn’t about simple state oversight or forgetfulness: FAMU and FSU are neighbors–literally and figuratively across the railroad tracks from one another–yet the shortfall in Florida’s support for FAMU is starkly evident. Britney and her fellow plaintiffs are standing up for nothing less than just and equal funding for all state schools in Florida.”
There are five other HBCUs in the state of Florida, including Bethune-Cookman University, Edward Waters College, Florida Memorial University and Miles College. Though the lawsuit involves only FAMU students, depending on how it is heard by the Northern District Court in Tallahassee and its outcomes, the decision could have implications on the entire group, and perhaps beyond Florida’s borders.
The federal government has worked over the past two-plus years to assist HBCUs through historic funding initiatives, to the tune of $6.5 billion. And many philanthropists, including MacKenzie Scott, have come to the rescue with transformational donations. But they continue to face challenges against traditional universities.
“While Florida works to provide a quality education at traditionally white institutions, its treatment of HBCUs has hardly evolved from the middle of the 20th century,” said Barbara Hart, a partner at Grant & Eisenhofer and a leader of the firm’s Civil Rights group. “FAMU is more dependent on state funding than other schools, yet Florida education policy treats it as little more than an after-thought. Thirty years ago, the US Supreme Court held that Mississippi’s education system violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment–it remained for all intents and purposes segregated. 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.”