Proposed FAMU-FSU Engineering Split: A Study In The Politics Of Race

Apr 25, 2014

Sen. John Thrasher’s (R-St. Augustine) plan to split the Florida A&M-Florida State University College of Engineering steers $13 million to Florida State to start up its own Engineering school.

The dollars account for less than one-percent of state spending—but it’s become a major policy issue in the legislature and could ultimately be decided by Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford. Weatherford says both schools have strong cases for and against a split, but he’s lukewarm to the idea of the legislature doing it -- saying he believes the state university governing board deserves a chance to weigh in.

“My goal is whatever takes place...that FAMU is unharmed, that Florida State is unharmed, and that there’s a way to do this that is amicable, that both universities can flourish, and that both universities can provide a high quality engineering degrees for their students," the House Speaker told reporters.

The keyword here is "amicable". That feeling was not around two years ago when state lawmakers approved the creation of a 12th public state university, by spinning off the University of South Florida’s polytechnic programs. Florida Polytechnic University recently hired its first president and is now accepting applications for its first class. Noted USF Political Scientist Susan McManus recalls the split created bitter feelings at the university.

“But more than that, there was a huge backlash in the Tampa-Bay area," McManus says, "that it was a waste of time and didn’t make a lot of sense logically at a time when there were fights for money."

The relationship between USF and Florida Polytechnic still isn't healed. Meanwhile, the debate on whether to divide the long-established FAMU-FSU College of Engineering is becoming increasingly bitter.  In recent years, the partnership has been an unhappy union—with each side considering a split at one time or another. This time around—it’s Florida State that wants the divorce.  The discussion on the dissolution is tinged with racial overtones, rooted in both universities histories, says Tallahassee activist Bill Lowman. He points to one of the most painful episodes in FAMU’s 125-year history: when the legislature dissolved FAMU’s Law School in the 1960’s—and created one at Florida State at the same time.

“There is a very loud silence when you try to get people to talk about why black institutions are not competitive," Lowman says.

Florida A&M University is one of the state’s oldest institutions. It’s also an historically black institution that for the past decade, has struggled both academically and institutionally. Accreditation probation, presidential turnover and financial woes have plagued the school—and tarnished its reputation. FAMU is still recovering from the more recent fallout of the hazing death of one of its famed Marching 100 band drum majors. Lowman says it’s very much a part of the question of whether HBCU’s are still viable:

“Absolutely," he says. "I would say FAMU, with all the fabulous success they have up to this point, has not begun to explore half of what its potential is.”  

Others would say FAMU’s best days are behind it, and these are the touchy questions that have singed the debate around the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering. Perception, whether justified or not, is reality for many people. And USF Political Scientist McManus says, regardless of the intentions behind splitting the school—race will be part of what the public sees. She says it’s exactly the kind of issue Governor Rick Scott, who is running for re-election this year, may not want to be saddled with:

“In mid-term elections, when minority vote is lower than in a presidential election year, in a way this gives the democratic candidate a way to turn out a very key part of any democrats base—which is the African-American vote.”

Senate President Don Gaetz has remained largely silent on FAMU-FSU College of Engineering division, but his chief budget negotiator, Stuart Republican Senator Joe Negron, has not, saying he’d like to steer even more money to help jump start a separate Florida State University engineering school. McManus says in order to avoid hurt feelings and bitterness—any decision to split the school has to be mutual.

“There has to be a feeling from FAMU and FSU that they’re both getting the best deal for their school, and that it’s fair," she says.

Neither FAMU nor FSU requested the divorce, but FSU officials have embraced the possibility—even outlining ideas for new engineering programs in areas like aerospace and biomedical research. FAMU officials have put a $100 million price tag on the split—what it estimates it would need to continue operations at the Engineering school’s current off-campus location. If the deal goes through FAMU supporters have threatened to file lawsuits using the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. FAMU would allege the division separating the schools—is far from a picture of equality.