A Florida judge, for now, is allowing a class-action lawsuit to go forward that accuses the state of discriminating against a historically Black university while prioritizing its largest public university, which is predominantly white.
Judge Robert L. Hinkle of the Northern District of Florida heard oral arguments Thursday in the first court test for a class-action lawsuit filed in September. He dismissed the state’s request to dismiss the suit, but did ask for revisions.
The six students at Florida A&M who filed the suit claim that the University of Florida receives a larger state appropriation per student than A&M. The complaint says that over 33 years, from 1987 to 2020, that shortfall amounted to approximately $1.3 billion, though the two schools share the distinction of being the state’s only two public land-grant colleges.
A 2022 study by Forbes found that Florida A&M (FAMU) received $2,600 less per student than the University of Florida in 2020. And the school relies more on state funding than its white counterpart, according to Forbes. Last year, The New York Times reported that FAMU’s football players, the Rattlers, must contend with poor practice equipment and overwhelmed staff spread thin while advising students.
Among other complaints, the suit also accuses the state of allowing Florida State University, also in Tallahassee, to duplicate more than 40 FAMU programs, making it difficult for FAMU to attract potential students through its fields of study.
“There’s the failure to fund the school in proportion to traditionally white students and allow FAMU to essentially establish its own identity,” civil rights attorney Josh Dubin, who is representing the plaintiffs, said in an interview. Dubin added that FAMU’s facilities aren’t well-maintained because of a lack of funding.
“We’re talking about segregating African American students from white students,” Dubin said. “This obviously has racism at its core.”
The plaintiffs are demanding that the state commit to equity in its support of HBCUs, and are seeking injunctive relief under myriad laws, including Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in federally funded programs.
Hinkle’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Thursday’s hearing. Dubin said that Hinkle, while not dismissing the case, did ask attorneys to amend the suit for clarity.
The suit names the state of Florida; the State University System’s board of governors and its chancellor, Ray Rodrigues; the State Board of Education and its commissioner, Manny Diaz Jr.; and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Spokespeople for the Board of Governors and the State Board of Education declined to comment on the pending litigation. Neither DeSantis’ office nor state officials immediately responded to a request for comment from NBC News.
The hearing Thursday came just weeks after the NAACP issued a travel advisory for Florida over DeSantis’ “aggressive attempts to erase Black history and to restrict diversity, equity and inclusion programs” in the state’s schools, the organization said in a statement. The DeSantis administration in January blocked an Advanced Placement course in African American studies from being offered in Florida high schools.
HBCUs were founded to give Black students an opportunity for a higher education — and, in turn, upward mobility — when most colleges were segregated. But decades of underfunding, exacerbated by national economic downturns, have led to several crises for the schools, like lack of resources and housing issues.
“Our school has always made a little go a long way, but we shouldn’t have to,” plaintiff Britney Denton, a first-year doctoral student at FAMU, said, according to Businesswire. “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.”