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Revamped FAMU lawsuit alleges discrimination

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TALLAHASSEE - After a federal judge rejected an earlier version of the case, attorneys for Florida A&M University students this week filed a revised lawsuit alleging that the historically Black university "remains separate and unequal" to other schools in the state.

The potential class-action lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. district court in Tallahassee, alleges that the state has violated federal laws, in part by not establishing high-demand academic programs at FAMU and by shortchanging the school financially.

"Defendants' (state officials') acts and omissions in determining what programs FAMU can and cannot offer and which of these programs are also offered or only offered at neighboring TWIs (traditionally white institutions), perpetuates the segregation era policy of defining an institution by race rather than by its programmatic offerings," the lawsuit said. 

"FAMU has always been and remains the 'Black School.' Its identity as an institution of higher learning is not based on what programs it offers (or other academic criteria such as the strength of its facilities, professors and faculty research productivity)."

Attorneys for six FAMU students initially filed the lawsuit last year, and this week's revised version names as defendants state university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. and members of the state university system's Board of Governors. 

The plaintiffs contend that state practices violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and what is known as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle last month dismissed the lawsuit but gave plaintiffs' attorneys until Monday to file a revised version. 

Hinkle said the attorneys would have to provide more evidence to show that alleged discrimination could be traced to segregation.

"The first amended complaint (the version dismissed last month) alleges differences between FAMU and other public universities, including in funding, quality of faculty, graduation rates, and mission statements, but the first amended complaint is short on facts tying these differences to the segregated-by-law system," Hinkle wrote in the June 12 ruling.

Hinkle focused, in part, on allegations that FAMU has suffered because of duplication of programs with nearby Florida State University and other schools. 

But Hinkle pointed to the massive growth in Florida since passage of Title VI.

"When Title VI was adopted, Florida's population was about 5.7 million, and the state had only three public universities — two white and one black," Hinkle wrote.

"Florida now has 12 public universities serving a population of over 22 million. Of course there are duplicated programs at the 12 universities, but the assertion they were created to maintain segregation, rather than to accommodate the enormous population increase, is implausible."

While maintaining the underlying arguments, the 100-page revised version filed Monday includes comparisons of issues such as academic programs, funding and faculty salaries to try to show that vestiges of segregation remain in the university system.

In part, the lawsuit contends that FAMU needs to have high-demand, unique academic programs to help draw a wide range of students. 

As an example, it points to a decision in the 1980s that created a joint engineering program for FAMU and Florida State students, rather than having the program only at FAMU.

"Part and parcel of eliminating unnecessary program duplication is to create unique and/or high demand programs at FAMU, thus giving it the ability to have its own distinctive academic identity," the lawsuit said. "A program is only 'unique' to FAMU if it is not offered at FSU, the only TWI that is geographically proximate to FAMU. Once a 'unique' program is duplicated, it is no longer unique. A 'high demand' program is one that a disproportionately large number of students are likely to choose as their major program(s) of study."

The lawsuit also alleges that FAMU faculty members are paid less than counterparts at other Florida universities and that FAMU has been hurt financially by issues such as the state's performance-based funding system, which helps determine how much money goes to schools.

"The metrics used to determine the funding awarded to Florida's public universities favor students who have more resources and support that help ensure academic success at the college level," the lawsuit said. "This includes, by way of example, college preparatory coursework and standardized testing support, thereby supporting these students to more likely achieve higher testing scores, complete their first year of university, and ultimately graduate, among other things. Underrepresented minority students and socioeconomically challenged students are often the first-generation college student in their family, may have social or economic barriers, may work while pursuing their course of study, and have less access to resources and support. These challenges have an impact on institutions such as FAMU, who need the funding that will enable them to adequately serve students facing these challenges."

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