Florida A&M University to sue State of Florida for Underfunding

A class action lawsuit was filed Thursday by six Florida A&M University students against the state of Florida.

Their claim is the state has not been giving FAMU, an HBCU (Historically Black College and University), equal funds or resources when compared to what other universities are getting, including Florida State University.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, seeks a jury trial.

The students’ complaint adds that the alleged funding being held back from FAMU since the late 1980s is over $1.3 billion.

More on FAMU’s recent housing, athletics issues:

“It’s something that’s been worked on for quite a while, but then there have also been all these recent things that have gone on with the housing issues and the athletic department issues, so it all came to a head,” said Barbara Hart, an attorney and principal at Grant & Eisenhofer.

Hart is one of the lawyers representing the students, along with attorney Joshua Dubin from New York and a few others from the plaintiffs’ law firm Grant & Eisenhofer.

Hart referred to FAMU’s issues with room shortages before the start of the fall semester, pest infestations, student athletes facing ineligibility and the athletics department’s incomplete staff, saying that they all reflect the university’s underfunding problem.

“The lack of fair funding over time just compounds the problem,” Hart added during a phone call with the Democrat Thursday. “We did our research, it all came together, the clients felt very strongly about it and we’re moving forward.”

As the six students — Britney Denton, Nyabi Stevens, Deidrick Dansby, Fayerachel Peterson, Alexander Harris and another student who is not identified — are plaintiffs of the case, the defendants being addressed are the Board of Governors, retiring State University Chancellor Marshall Criser III and the state of Florida.

A spokesperson for the State University System said it is the department’s policy to refrain from commenting on pending litigation.

Among the six student plaintiffs are juniors with majors in psychology, math education, engineering and music industry, a first-year graduate student in chemistry and Denton, a Doctor of Pharmacy candidate.

“Our school has always made a little go a long way, but we shouldn’t have to,” Denton said in a prepared statement. “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’re proud to be here, and we want Florida to be proud to support us, and other HBCUs, equally.”

In their complaint, the students accuse the state of perpetuating a racially segregated higher education structure for years. 

“Throughout its history and up to the present day, Florida has purposefully engaged in a pattern and practice of racial discrimination, principally through disparate funding, that has prevented HBCUs, including FAMU, from achieving parity with their traditionally White institution (‘TWI’) counterparts,” the complaint says.

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The students highlighted what they believe are failures of Florida’s education system — the duplication of FAMU’s academic programs at FSU regarding the joint FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, the lack of carrying out FAMU capital enhancement plans and underfunding the university in general.

The historical underfunding of public HBCUs across the country is a hot-button issue generating great debate, especially with the resurgence of growth at HBCUs, the upward social mobility of its graduates and increased Black political representation.

More: FAMU maintains top-ranked public HBCU standing nationally by U.S. News & World Report

Maryland state legislators last year settled a 15-year-old federal lawsuit that accused the state of providing inequitable resources to its four HBCUs. Morgan State University will receive $24 million in the 2023 fiscal year, Bowie State University, $16.8 million; University of Maryland Eastern Shore, $9.7 million and Coppin State University $9 million.

FAMU, which has been ranked the top HBCU in the nation for the fourth year in a row by the U.S. News and World Reports, is also one of the largest historical Black universities in the country with a current enrollment of 9,029 students.

“The students love their school, and they want their school to be properly funded,” Hart told the Democrat. “They can see and experience the way in which it’s not as well funded as the school across the tracks at FSU.”