Freshman Myla Queens was debating between attending UF and Florida A&M University during her senior year of high school. Her dad had gone to UF, and her mom had gone to FAMU. Eventually, she decided on UF.
Queens wanted to attend UF because it offered more opportunities, she said. Her friends who go to FAMU don’t have the same ability to participate in research or study abroad programs, she said, and the school didn’t offer her scholarships like UF did. Based on what she’s heard from her friends, she said funding’s a limiting factor at the historically Black college.
“I feel like UF has more things that you can do, be involved in,” she said. “Even though I want to be around people that look like me, education is still top for me.”
Underfunding is the center of why six FAMU students have filed a lawsuit Sept. 22 against the Florida Board of Governors, claiming the state has substantially deprived the HBCU of money for the past three decades.
UF, a predominantly white institution, is named in the lawsuit nine times, often referenced as a point of comparison.
If the students are correct in their claim, the lost funds amount to about $1.3 billion, The Washington Post reported.
The lawsuit cites the board’s generous funding to UF as a comparison to FAMU’s funding, Florida's only publicly funded historically Black university. FAMU’s state funding equaled about $13,000 per student in 2020, Forbes Magazine reported. UF’s funding was $15,600 per student — a difference of about 17%.
The students’ claim points to a wider violation of Title XI, a law that prohibits discrimination in any education program funded by federal money, by favoring predominantly white state universities through greater funding. In 2021, UF was 50% white and 5.7% Black, according to the UF Diversity Dashboard.
Diversity is a problem at UF, Queens said. Although she’s never felt unwelcome on campus, she’ll often walk into classrooms and be the only Black person there, she said.
In 2021, Florida’s demographics as a whole were 61.6% white and 12.4% Black, making UF’s Black population percentage less than half of the state’s percentage.
FAMU and UF are the state’s only land grant universities, meaning.federal funding has to be matched by state funding or by some other resource, according to the federal Morrill Act of 1862. The lawsuit claims that due to the board’s unequal funding between the two universities, FAMU has faced challenges with a student housing shortage and keeping student facilities like recreation centers open.
FAMU is smaller than UF, with a student body of about 10,000. Its graduate programs — one of the main ways a university can gain prestige within the state university system — are also lower ranked than UF’s. Many UF programs are top 30 in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report, whereas only one of FAMU’s programs breaches top 100 — its pharmacy program.
But the argument the university should receive less funding because of a difference in achievement is a self-fulfilling prophecy, said David Canton, chair of UF African American Studies. The less the board funds FAMU, the more it struggles, and the more Florida harms its Black student population, he said.
FAMU graduates more Black students than UF. The university is also currently the top-ranked public HBCU in the country, but its overall rankings fall just below the top 100 for public universities. Due to less funding, FAMU has to work harder to keep up, Canton said.
“Imagine if they had more money what work they could do,” he said. “I think the whole notion that Black people can do things with less money needs to stop.”
State funding discrimination against HBCUs isn’t a new debate.
Maryland is the most recent case where alumni of its four HBCUs sued the state for funding discrimination. The case was settled in 2021 for $557 million to be doled out to the HBCUs over the course of the next decade. But the suit was filed in 2006 and took 15 years to see results.
As someone who has been paying close attention to these cases, Canton said the students filing the FAMU lawsuit might have a long road ahead of them.
The hesitation in Maryland’s case and possibly in Florida’s future case comes from the concern that the historically white universities — like UF — will lose funding, he said.
But Canton thinks that perspective is flawed; it distracts from the real issue at hand, he said, which is examining the history of underfunding and developing financial formulas to equally support all the universities.
“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “It’s all about the will to do what’s right.”
For the past three decades, that needed to primarily come from the Florida Board of Governors. There are two members associated with Florida State University and two associated with the University of South Florida. Eight others have out-of-state degrees. One’s university affiliation is unknown. There are no FAMU graduates on the board or any other of the smaller state universities such as the University of North Florida and the University of Central Florida.
Four of the 17 members are associated with UF — Steven Scott, for example — served for 10 years on the UF Board of Trustees, appointed as chair from 2014 to 2016. Tim Cerio was the president of the UF Alumni Association and the UF College of Law Alumni Council. Ken Jones, also a UF alumnus, was president of the UF Law School Bar Association.
Scott, Cerio and Jones are all on the board’s Budget and Finance Committee, making up a third of the nine members.
The Alligator reached out to all three for comment, but received no response.
The fourth UF-associated member of the board, Alan Levine, told The Alligator he doesn’t see any unwarranted UF bias on the board. But that doesn’t mean UF isn’t favored as the state’s flagship university.
When it comes to funding, the board views UF, FSU and USF in a different light, he said. Because all three produce large quantities of research, they are labeled as preeminent — a designation in Florida law meaning the board is authorized to give them more money.
“My observation has been that we’re all very much committed to the success of the entire system,” Levine said. “And it’s true that the better University of Florida does, the better it is for the whole system.”
A requirement of preeminence is achieving two or more top 50 rankings on sites like U.S. News, as well as large amounts of spending in research: $200 million or more. It also requires that a preeminent university have an endowment of $500 million or more. FAMU falls short of this; it had a $115 million endowment in 2021.
FAMU has shown growth in graduation rates and graduate programs, Levine said. But it needs to do more to meet that preeminent standard and join the ranks of UF, FSU and USF, he said, and then that extra funding can come.
All three preeminent Florida universities currently have representation on the Board of Governors. However, Levine said the board’s make-up hasn’t had an effect on decision-making.
“At the end of the day, you have to look at results,” he said. “I think the least important question is ‘Which school did you go to?’”
As of now, the FAMU students are currently asking the Northern District Court of Florida to appoint a mediator to help outline ways to achieve parity, meaning equal funding for FAMU and the rest of the state universities. This includes having Florida commit to parity within five years.
Contact Siena at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SienaDuncan.
Siena Duncan is a sophomore journalism major and the graduate school beat reporter for the Alligator. When she's not out reporting, she's typically bothering her friends about podcasts or listening to Metric on repeat.