Office of Civil Rights Action on FAMU is Glimpse of Hope for National HBCU Advocacy

Because there is a glimpse of triumph even in the face of tragic despair, if there is any consolation in the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and so many other Black men shot down like dogs in our streets, it is that dawn is breaking on the vicious, raging undercurrent of racism in America. And if Americans of all hues are willing to stop traffic, shut down social media, and cut Black Friday sales for Black teenagers killed by undereducated, overly-fearful white male cops, what will happen when America finds out that rich white male legislators are actively trying to kill Black institutions in similar fashion?

Months before the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., hundreds of miles away from what would eventually devolve into a unique brand of racial animus and injustice, Florida Governor Rick Scott received a letter from Washington D.C., imploring him to stop the attempted murder of an invaluable program at Florida A&M University.

That letter, penned by Department of Education Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon, outlined in certain terms the danger posed by a legislative-ordered separation of the FAMU-Florida State College of Engineering. The split, supporters argued, would give Florida State a nationally competitive engineering school while making FAMU, the originator of the program, ‘whole’ with its own standalone facilities and course offerings.

From angles near and far, Famuans and Seminoles could easily see that the effort was little more than a way to reintroduce Separate but Equal back into Florida higher education, by way of an attack on its flagship HBCU. And while the price tag for racism may prove a bit too steep for Florida legislators, it is a positive sign that federal policy makers stepped in to offer words of discouragement, just in time to stop a crime against an entire institution.

And with pending litigation in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and unfinished business of promoting race neutral higher education in Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and other discrimination hot spots, we all should hope that this kind of activity is the start of something good from OCR on HBCU advocacy.

Atty. Lhamon’s words carry much weight in conveying how close Florida is, and has been, to breaking the law in efforts to break apart FAMU’s academic stability and uniqueness.

I am deeply concerned that the legislative plan to split the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering would violate the State’s federal legal responsibilities pursuant to Title VI, Fordice and the Agreement. The General Appropriations Act amendment would result in the establishment of separate, duplicate, competing engineering programs at FAMU and FSU, which as you know are proximately located SUS institutions. Such an occurrence would directly impede the likelihood of Florida realizing the commitments it has made in the Agreement to strengthen academic programs at FAMU and avoid unnecessary program duplication. Moreover, inasmuch as the joint engineering program stems from the 1978 Plan, splitting this program very likely would reverse progress already made.

In lay terms, the plan is illegal and will likely put the entire state in a position to lose a massive federal lawsuit on the grounds of program duplication along the lines of racial discrimination.

These were similar sentiments OCR expressed in reference to Maryland’s 2000 agreement with its four public black colleges, when it promised to build new facilities, add new programs, and ensure that more students enrolled at Black colleges to provide more balanced educational opportunity across the state. Maryland ignored most of those mandates, and today finds itself facing the very real prospect of predominantly white institutions like the University of Baltimore, and programs like those at Towson University and the University of Maryland – Baltimore County, being absorbed by the same HBCUs the state neglected in building up proximate PWIs over generations.

A similar suit has been filed in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, using legal precedents set in Maryland, Mississippi and Alabama as the foundation to bring more money to Cheyney University from its neglectful state government. Cheyney supporters are wisely betting that their struggle, when viewed within the larger social context of opportunity deprived based solely on race, will benefit their case.

HBCUs like Southern University, Grambling State University, Coppin State University, Cheyney University, Florida A&M University, Mississippi Valley State University, South Carolina State University, Elizabeth City State University and many others have been in the crosshairs of legislators for years now. Many in the governors’ mansions and statehouses overseeing these campuses have waited for the right time to dismantle these schools through outright closure or merger, or through program duplication.

Right now, no politician wants to be painted as a racist trying to take out Black institutions of higher learning. The wave of discontent against inequality among races is too high, and even with a national change in political ideology, there is not enough sound to drown out people worldwide wanting an immediate end to discrimination within American borders.

Fortunately, OCR appears ready to help in saving politicians from their own racist arrogance. OCR deserves a lot of credit for the work put in on FAMU. And with that credit, the office should expect a lot more attention on what remains to be done for public HBCUs around the country in the fight for equity.


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2 comments
  1. This is good because it show the U.S. Department of Education is actually upholding Federal Law. Now they should send letters to Louisiana Department of Education and all other state where white-legislatures are trying to reverse years of progress made at public HBCU’s.

  2. Although I disagree some state legislatures do want to be seen as the person who dismantled HBCU’s. That is exactly what is happening in Louisiana with Gov. Jindal. He has strategically put his uncle toms in place with the legilsature and the boards of both systems to purposely dismantle the two public HBCU’s Southern U. A&M and Grambling State U. The sad part about it is the the uncle toms on the board of both system don’t realize they are being played.

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