Black legislators generated some heat last month with charges that Florida A&M University (FAMU) doesn't get its fair share of state funding, but not much light. It's a disturbing charge, but a tough one to evaluate. If the university system's only historically black institution is still being shortchanged, it raises serious questions about how far we've progressed as a state. But even more is at stake. The leader of the Legislative Black Caucus has vowed to continue pressing the issue, and if it turns out to be crying wolf simply as a debating tactic, it could wind up doing more harm than good by playing into the hands of those who belittle all bias claims.
As might be expected, treatment of FAMU looks sound on paper: It got a decent share of state construction money over the last six years, some $31.7-million, as measured against spending for comparably sized state universities. And when the budget is compared to the number of students, "FAMU does as well as, if not better than, any other state university," said Pat Riordan, spokesman for Chancellor Charles Reed. Its budget for general educational expenses has increased steadily from $38.9-million in 1985-86 to $59.6-million this year. Riordan said the school may have been shortchanged in the past, but the specific terms of a 1983 federal court consent decree to correct past abuses have been largely fulfilled.
But numbers such as per-student spending can be manipulated, and don't tell the full story, said Rep. Willie Logan, D-Opa-Locka, head of the black caucus. Much of what goes to more favored universities is buried in the budget as special appropriations and isn't figured into such calculations, while all of what FAMU gets is, Logan said. He said ways have been developed to accommodate schools such as the University of Florida and Florida State University because they have long been well-represented by alumni in powerful state leadership positions, especially in the Legislature.
Clearly feelings run strong. A nasty exchange broke out during the legislative session when black caucus members accused the chancellor of a "plantation mentality" for blocking their attempt to shift money from UF's huge agriculture program to FAMU's comparatively modest one. While legislators are free to steer more money to FAMU, Reed said he won't have them pitting universities against each other.
Of course, it's not that simple. As a venerable product of the era of segregation with a strong network of alumni, FAMU is a special case historically and politically. But there is growing debate over the necessity for maintaining separate black schools, and it has the added misfortune of being next door to FSU. The duplicative effort is becoming increasingly harder to justify as funds grow tighter and the state is struggling to add a tenth university in Fort Myers. Though its special significance for blacks guarantees its immediate survival, FAMU's supporters are never quite convinced the state won't one day try to merge it out of existence.
Even in this hostile fiscal atmosphere FAMU is embarked on an ambitious growth program under a capable and aggressive president. That raises some fundamental philosophical questions about whether there is true agreement over its role and future.
One problem is that the black caucus has not documented its charges. And because doing so involves delving into the labyrinthine world of university financing and accounting, the layman is in a poor position to judge. That's why one good thing to come out of all the acrimony is a provision in the budget to have a committee study university funding in depth and present its findings to the Legislature next year. If it's done right, such a study could help resolve the issue.
Meanwhile, there's little indication that enough is being done to ease strained relations between black legislators and the chancellor's office. Riordan dismisses it all as part of the general strain of a legislative session with too little money to go around, but that's not convincing. Let's find a way to work on that, too.