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Op-Ed: Analysis of the Pending Legal Battle over the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering Split


Atty. Chuck Hobbs
Chuck Hobbs

As a Florida native, I have always considered it odd when people that I have encountered from other regions of the country have insisted that Florida, while geographically southern, is not similar to its “Bible Belt” southern brethren as far as culture and customs are concerned. Such observations stem from the fact that since the early 70’s, Florida has become a tourist attraction due to Disney World and many of its other theme parks and with the upswing in immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean over the past 50 years, the image of Florida as something other than its Confederate and Jim Crow past is a direct result of savvy marketing.


But make no mistake, Florida is the “south,” and like the more infamous states of Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi, states in which federal troops had to be dispatched to foster integration in the years following the United States Supreme Court’s Brown vs Board of Education decision, Florida, too, was defiant— if not slow as molasses—with respect to complying with the US Supreme Court’s mandate that its schools desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”

In 1885, barely a decade after the Compromise of 1877 led newly minted President Rutherford B. Hayes to pull federal troops from the south after only 11 years of Reconstruction, Florida, like its southern brethren, held a constitutional convention to re-establish control for its former Confederate leaders while also divesting blacks of the political power that they had enjoyed during their first decade of freedom. The new Florida Constitution, by its tenor, served as a legal contradiction when considering its words “We, the people of the State of Florida, grateful to Almighty God for our constitutional liberty, in order to secure its blessings and to form a more perfect government, insuring domestic tranquility, maintaining public order, and guaranteeing EQUAL CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS TO ALL, do ordain and establish this Constitution….Article XII—Education: White and colored children shall not be taught in the same school, but impartial provision shall be made for both.”

By inscribing such a constitution, Florida was at the vanguard of what would become known as “separate but equal.” Two years later, in 1887, what would later become known as Florida A&M University was founded in Tallahassee, the state’s capital, to educate black students. By 1896, when the United States Supreme Court held that “separate but equal” was a valid legal concept in its Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, FAMU, for the next seven decades, would be limited to serving black students exclusively and while separate, there clearly was a long and tortured history of disparate funding, sub-standard books and materials and poorly maintained if not cramped facilities.

By the time the US Supreme Court was preparing to decide the Brown case in 1954, Florida had already seen legal challenges to its segregated public college system in the form of Virgil Hawkins’ petition to enter in the law school at the University of Florida (UF), the state’s flagship school that was the incubator of state political and judicial leaders during Jim Crow. Florida’s leaders, like its southern brethren, recognized that while its system was separate, it was far from equal and in a clever attempt to perhaps stave off an outright push for integration, a building flurry ensued across the south, including Florida, and in 1951, the state established a law school at FAMU in hopes of providing an “equal” program to the state’s all-white public law school at UF. Writing a concurring opinion in the Virgil Hawkins case, Florida Supreme Court Justice Glenn Terrell wrote “I might venture to point out …that segregation is not a new philosophy generated by the states that practice it. It is and always has been the unvarying law of the animal kingdom, the dove and the quail, the turkey and the turkey buzzard, it matters not where they are found, are segregated: place the horse, the cow, the sheep, the goat and the pig in the same pasture and they instinctively segregate…and when God created man, he allotted each race to his own continent according to color, Europe to the white man, and Asia to the yellow man, Africa to the black man, and America to the red man, but we are now advised that God’s plan was in error and must be reversed.”

Justice Terrell’s morally vapid words, while not holding greater sway than the Brown mandate, certainly provided insight into how Florida would remain defiant as far as integration through the 1960’s. UF did not graduate its first black student until nearly a decade after the Brown decision; Florida State University (FSU), originally a college for women that became a co-ed school following World War II to accommodate the large numbers of white males returning from war who wished to obtain college degrees per the GI Bill, was similarly racially segregated and graduated its first black students in the late 60’s as well.

Still, once integration became the “law” in America, such did not mandate the closure of any of the state funded Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) including FAMU. By the 1970’s, students of all races were eligible to enroll at FAMU the same as at UF and FSU, but the issue during this period for many of the public HBCU’s, including FAMU, was whether the individual states should eliminate them all together as a purge of the state’s recent segregationist past. In 1968, Florida’s Board of Control, which provided oversight for the state universities, closed the FAMU Law School and opened a new one at FSU. The law school closing was only the beginning, as it was during the 70’s that FAMU faced relentless calls for its complete merging with FSU. It was only through the indefatigable efforts of former FAMU Presidents Benjamin L. Perry and Dr. Walter Smith, Sr. that the same was averted. Still, during the middle of President Smith’s tenure, the disparate funding aspect of FAMU as opposed to FSU was manifest in a major way during the 1979-80 football seasons when FAMU’s Bragg Stadium was in need of repairs. FAMU was allowed to use FSU’s Doak Campbell Stadium—built and maintained at the time in large measure by public funds—but the football team was not allowed to use FSU’s locker room and was forced to get dressed on the bus and conduct halftime on the side of the field. These and other slights only raised the stakes during the early 1980’s when FAMU President Smith sought to obtain a full engineering school, one that would further its mission as a Land-Grant college under the Morill Act, a designation that it only shared in Florida with UF.

According to a blog written by Smith’s son Walter II this past weekend, FAMU had offered engineering programs since 1949 and was best situated for a new stand-alone school but FSU, seeking the same, made a similar petition. The compromise that was struck was that the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering was developed and for the past 30 years, despite years of mistrust and at times frustrations between the two schools, the same has graduated a large number of talented engineers and been a stalwart program for both schools.

Understanding this background, it was only logical, then, that FAMU graduates and supporters were apoplectic last week when the Florida legislature, under the leadership of would be FSU president (and alum), State Sen. John Thrasher, pushed through legislation that would provide funding for a separate FSU College of Engineering. While such only awaits the signature of Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott, which is all but assured, the reality is that as it currently stands, the primary issue going forward is whether the state should compel FSU to build its new school in a city other than Tallahassee where the now FAMU Engineering School sits. This would be consistent with precedent that where feasible, neither school duplicates professional programs in the same city, a precedent that found the FAMU College of Law, when established again in the early 2000’s, to be located in Orlando so as not to compete with FSU Law School despite the fact that during this time, FAMU was in the midst of a marvelous run as far as academics under the leadership of then President Frederick Humphries, which included designation as Time/Princeton Review’s College of the Year—the only Florida school to receive such designation.

A second issue is that the building which currently houses the joint engineering school that will soon be FAMU’s alone is in desperate need of millions of dollars in repairs. Essentially, FAMU taking sole ownership of the building is no favor, rather, it is an albatross that if not effectively and fully handled by the legislature, will open the state to litigation that could ultimately find multiple millions of dollars pouring into FAMU—period. Over the past two decades, in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Maryland, HBCU’s, following protracted litigation, have found federal courts holding in their favor as far as the funding slights and buildings being in disrepair. The US Supreme Court, in its United States vs. Fordice decision, held that Mississippi’s segregated university system, as late as the 80’s, led to disparate funding and duplication of programs that while seemingly “race neutral on their face, they substantially restrict a person’s choice of which school to enter.” Similar litigation from Maryland in 2012 led United States District Court judge Catherine Blake to rule that “Maryland has violated the constitutional rights of students at Maryland’s four Historically Black Institutions by unnecessarily duplicating their programs at nearby white institutions.”

What does this mean for the current FAMU-FSU issue?

Clearly, there is nothing at this time that will prevent the Florida legislature, through its recently passed budget, from going forth with its plans for a new FSU Engineering School. What must be decided going forth, however, is whether FAMU stakeholders will file suit now in hopes, perhaps, of seeking to enjoin the decision based upon the same’s violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as applied to Florida through he 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. This route would not likely yield fruit, however, because the most clever aspect of attaching the funding through the state’s budget as opposed to some separate bill to create the same is that Florida, as a sovereign state, has a right to pass its budget free from federal interference. That said, the legal attack will likely center upon what happens next from the legislature on two fronts; first, with the engineering building in need of millions of dollars in repairs, and with Florida having a budget surplus, how much money will be allocated to the modernization and upkeep of said building? Similarly, with FSU receiving 13 million dollars to establish its new school, will similar dollars be allocated for the hiring of new faculty that will replace the FSU Engineering professors who will move to the new school? How much money will be allocated to develop the programs that are specific to the FSU side of the current joint school and how much will be needed to hire professors and obtain the necessary equipment to ensure that the stand alone FAMU Engineering School will have the same program offerings? Any balk by the state on any of these funding issues will subject the state to the same litigation as done in Fordice in Mississippi as well as in Maryland.

Still, with the current tenor from FSU being one that its Engineering school, too, be located in Tallahassee, litigation along the issue of duplication of services would likely result in a favorable ruling for FAMU supporters in Federal Court as the same would hinge upon the very duplication of offerings that is at issue in the Maryland case.

Now, where this issue becomes fraught with concerns for FAMU stakeholders is in understanding that FAMU’s continuing mission, which includes educating many first in family college types and the enrollment of profile admits or students who desire to enroll in school but who have lower grade point averages and/or test scores, whether any future court may conclude that if the two schools are allowed to exist separately in Tallahassee and at the same funding clip, that the FAMU School of Engineering be held to the same admission standards as the FSU and UF Engineering Schools. By writing this I do not mean to suggest that current FAMU Engineering students do not meet such requirements, nor do I suggest that FSU or UF engineering students all meet or exceed high admission standards. Most of the men and women that I have known over the past three decades who graduated from the FAMU side of the joint Engineering School had their picks of prestigious colleges; but still, FAMU stakeholders should be wary going forward that the next step in this seemingly never ending battle of proving the worth if not viability of our public HBCU’s is in combatting the concept, albeit misguided, that they are not prepared to competitively compete with their traditionally white brethren. I submit that in the past, any competitive disadvantages have been a direct result of overt and covert racism within the system and that when said racism is removed, said school, invariably, will flourish as they always have if not greater once the proverbial racist foot is removed from their proverbial necks.


About the Author: Chuck Hobbs is a trial lawyer and award winning freelance writer. A native of Tallahassee, FL, he is a graduate of Morehouse College, Florida A&M University and the University of Florida College of Law. Hobbs is also a great man of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated.



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