Florida lawmakers are once again eyeing big changes to the state’s public universities and a few senators have set their sights on the Florida A&M and Florida State joint College of Engineering.
Engineering Divorce Between FAMU, FSU A Serious Possibility
FAMU’s Board of Trustees is struggling to understand how a plan to split the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering appeared in the Legislature before they caught wind of it, and some on the board believe a conspiracy is afoot.
“FSU has a provost who just assumed the interim presidency," Naryan Persaud, the FAMU Faculty appointee to the board, said during an emergency conference call Thursday after news of the plan broke via the Tampa Bay Times. "The provost would have been well aware—given they are the overseer of all programs—they would have been more forthcoming as to the necessity of why this separation should take place.”
He’s referring to FSU’s Interim President Garnett Stokes. FAMU lobbyist Tola Thompson told the board says he was made aware of an amendment to the Senate’s budget filed Wednesday morning by Jacksonville Republican Senator—and rumored FSU presidential candidate -- John Thrasher that would steer an additional $3 million to the “Florida State University Engineering School,” though no such entity currently exists under that name. Furthermore, while the relationship between the two universities has been much smoother lately, it hasn’t always been that way. There’s been discussion of separating the joint engineering school over the years. In 2008, then-FSU President T.K. Whetherall hinted at a split, saying the two universities had outgrown each other. At the time, Whetherall envisioned a joint facility, with separate programs.
New FAMU President Elmira Mangum says she had a brief conversation with Interim FSU President Stokes Thursday morning, ahead of the Senate's planned vote on the amendment. Mangum says during that conversation Stokes told her that Thrasher’s plan and amendment to the budget were a surprise.
“I was made aware by the interim president of FSU that this was a 'gift' to them. In essence, they didn’t initiate it but they are supportive of it moving forward," Mangum said.
For FAMU, FSU Size and Clout Matter
FSU officials did not respond to a request for comment. FAMU has about 400 students enrolled at the school; FSU has more than 2,100.
Florida State is trying to climb higher in national rankings. Florida A&M University is coming off a decade of financial and accreditation woes and trying to rebuild its programs. Thrasher, a FSU alumnus, says he believes the split would be beneficial for both schools.
“I believe these two presidents can work in good faith toward accomplishing the goals that would create an even better situation for Florida A&M University and Florida State University," he told colleagues on the Senate floor Thursday.
FAMU’s Mangum says during her meeting with FSU’s Stokes, there was an acknowledgement of the consequences of splitting the schools—to FAMU’s detriment.
“What we both agree on, is that we cannot sustain an engineering program at the level we currently have it if we separate the two schools," she said.
FAMU has seven sitting lawmakers. FSU has around 40. The possibility of a future apart is also splitting student opinion at the Engineering schools.
“I think the combination of schools make the culture and atmosphere more diverse," says FSU Engineering Student Tatiyana Bandon. Others are not as passionate about the school's future.
"I’d say I'm indifferent. If the students had a reason to split, I need more information on that", says FSU Engineering student Evan Fitzgerald.
Some students say they're supportive of the split and would learn to FSU's side citing its stronger financial position. But FAMU Engineering student Obie Abakporo says he believes, "it would do us students an injustice if we were separated.”
The push to split the school has already stirred the seeds of resentment.
FAMU-FSU Relationship Rooted In Florida's Jim Crow Era
Wounds between the schools run deep. As Sen. Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) points out, the issue is larger than just starting up another program. For Joyner, who was among the last graduates of FAMU’s law school before it disbanded, the current engineering proposal recalls when the Legislature stripped FAMU of its law school by de-funding it in 1965. The program closed in 1968.
“The FSU College of law opened in 1966," Joyner recounted during an emotional speech on the amendment Thursday. "This is different for me because it takes me back to a time when, I sat in study... and the books were removed and taken to Florida State. I sat there when the lights were dimmed and the door closed, because someone envisioned it would be best at Florida State.”
Remnants of the old FAMU College of Law remain in clear view, says Democratic Senator Dwight Bullard (D-Miami), for those who choose to look.
“As a student at FAMU you don’t know how bitter it feels for a student to pass by their library door, turn the corner, and see carved into the marble ‘College of Law’ and know that building doesn’t exist. You don’t know how disheartening it is to go to the law library at FSU to study statute, and see Florida A & M University stamped into the books.”
But Thrasher is holding firm. He says shortly after the school's accrediting body ruled admissions standards had to be the same for both institutions at the joint college, the number of FAMU students began dropping. Today, that still holds true. The number of FSU engineering students is increasing as the number of their FAMU brethren falls. In a voice-vote, the Florida Senate approved the amendment, starting a process that could stir lingering, bitter feelings that go back decades.
*Blaise Gainey contributed to this report.
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