Pride, History in Fight Over FAMU-FSU Engineering School
Around the State
It was decades later when Arthenia Joyner, the last female graduate of the original Florida A&M law school, told her story on the floor of the state Senate.
Joyner, by now a Democratic senator from Tampa, recalled last month how the law school was closed by the state at the same time a counterpart opened at Florida State University. She remembered books being taken out of the library as she studied. And she remembered how the school changed as the last class made its way to the end of its time at FAMU.
"History has shown us that that law school was lost, was closed while we sat there, and went to classes, and we dwindled from 20 to 10 to ultimately six on graduation day in 1968," she said. "Professors left. There were fewer of them and fewer of us. I can guarantee you we got called on every day in every class."
The memories were not simply reminiscences; they were part of Joyner's argument against a Senate budget amendment that would set aside $3 million for FSU to begin operating its own College of Engineering, separate from a joint school now run by FSU and FAMU on the southwestern edge of Tallahassee.
Along with $10 million in funding for the design and construction of a new facility to house a stand-alone FSU engineering school, the budget amendment has sparked a fight that has morphed into an argument over academic prestige, the haunted relationship between the state and its historically black university and the politics of higher education.
All of that will collide when lawmakers meet next week to hammer out a final version of the state's budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. But the resolution of the issue could resonate for years or even decades.
According to FSU and its supporters in the Legislature, the notion of an individual engineering college springs from state officials' charge that the school strive to become one of the top 25 public research universities in the nation. Critics of the plan point out that it was not initially listed on a Web page detailing FSU's legislative priorities for the session or the university system Board of Governors' list of construction projects that lawmakers should consider.
Instead, both listed a request for $15 million for a 75,000-square-foot project for the joint school.
But in an email sent to the FSU community shortly after word of the Senate proposal became public, Interim President Garnett Stokes portrayed the stand-alone engineering school as pivotal.
"In order to progress with our pre-eminence mission and our goal of reaching the Top 25, FSU must increase: the number of faculty, especially in STEM areas; the number of national academy members; the number and amount of funding from grants and contracts; the amount of commercialization; and the number of patents," she wrote. "We will also need to create new programs that play to our strengths, for example, by developing a biomedical engineering degree in conjunction with the College of Medicine or an aeronautical engineering degree with our Center for Aero-Propulsion, Mechatronics and Energy."
Supporters also say the plan will benefit Florida A&M and its students. Sen. John Thrasher, who is considered a leading contender to become the next president of FSU, said the share of FAMU students at the joint engineering school has slumped from an overwhelming majority of the school years ago to about a fifth of the college's enrollment now. He blamed the decline on the enrollment standards at the engineering school, which has to use the same rules for FAMU and FSU applicants.
"I just happen to think, given where we are, there's a declining enrollment in the engineering school among the students of Florida A&M and this is the best way to re-create and raise up the number of engineers that are coming out of Florida A&M University," said Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, during a Senate debate about the amendment.
Thrasher considers himself a friend of FAMU, having helped push through legislation to re-establish the law school in 2000, when he was speaker of the House.
But the engineering-school amendment alarmed supporters and alumni of FAMU, a historically-black institution that has long regarded the predominantly white state government that oversees it with suspicion.
In addition to the shuttering of the law school in the 1960s, older alumni remember when a hospital run by the university was closed a few years after the end of segregation.
"You have a lot of history there, that citizens of this community and graduates of the institution don't feel that they can believe what the state is trying to sell," said Rep. Alan Williams, a Tallahassee Democrat and FAMU alumnus who chairs the Florida Legislative Black Caucus.
Williams doesn't rule out a future vision of two prominent engineering schools -- if both schools agree to a change that is carefully considered.
"But that narrative isn't written in a budget amendment," he said. "That narrative isn't written in a conference report."
The caucus and Congresswoman Corrine Brown, D-Fla., have weighed in against the change, as has Florida A&M.
"This action sends the wrong message to the citizens of Florida, and other interested parties, about how the Legislature and academic institutions should interact," said a statement issued by five former presidents of Florida A&M.
Interim Provost Rodner Wright said Wednesday that Thrasher's proposal caught the university by surprise at a time when it was trying to get new leadership in place after the selection of President Elmira Mangum. The concerns generally center on whether FAMU's college would get enough funding after FSU opens up its own school.
"It's always very difficult for the smaller institution to compete with a larger institution over a long period of time," Wright said.
Among other things, Wright said, Florida A&M would want its own new facility on campus for an independent engineering school. The current college, which was established in a neutral area close to both universities, is largely surrounded by FSU property.
For now, supporters of the plan to split the college say the FAMU portion would get all of the funding that is currently dedicated to the joint school.
"Nevertheless, we have made clear that FSU cannot pursue our own college without the full commitment of the Legislature to protect the academic interests of Florida A&M University and keep their budget whole," Stokes wrote.
Others aren't so sure.
"It would be a matter of fact that FAMU would not be funded equitably or equally if there were two engineering schools in town," Joseph Webster, a former president of the FAMU National Alumni Association, said in an interview.
Webster has been one of the loudest voices decrying the proposal, writing a scathing column recently in the Tallahassee Democrat that juxtaposed the April 4, 1968, date of the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. with the April 4, 2014, date of a headline about the Senate amendment.
For them, the experiences of Joyner and others linger.
"You have to understand that there is trepidation whenever you talk about decoupling an institution that has stood for 32 years," she said. "Oh yes, we will have funding, but how sufficient will it be? Yes, we will have a building, but will we get the adequate funding to maintain that institution? ...
"I think we move in haste. And I want to know that the lights won't be dimmed and the door closed on the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering."