MAXWELL:  Three-tier plan will be good for FAMU

11/18/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In a Nov. 15 column in the St. Petersburg Times, FAMU alumnus Bernard Kinsey asked, “Is Florida A&M University now being told it must always remain behind?” Kinsey was referring to the three-tier system for the state’s 10 public universities that the Board of Regents is considering at its meeting Thursday and Friday in Tampa.

The real answer to the question is, no, FAMU is not “being told it must always remain behind.”

Here is how the three-tier plan, proposed by university system Chancellor Adam Herbert, will work: It creates three categories, grouping similar universities according to their current missions, geography and distinct history.

Under the plan, the University of South Florida, the University of Florida and Florida State would receive a Research I classification, letting them excel in advanced research and graduate education. As a Times editorial stated, “Such a distinction merely recognizes what Florida’s big three universities have become.”

The other seven universities would be ranked according to their existing programs. The University of Central Florida, Florida Atlantic and Florida International _ each a fast-growing campus in vibrant urban centers _ would be Research II institutions. FAMU, the University of West Florida, the University of North Florida and Florida Gulf Coast, each primarily an undergraduate school with some graduate degrees with research aimed mostly at regional needs, would be placed in the bottom, or Comprehensive, tier. Again, the ranking recognizes the traits that make these campuses distinct as a group.

No university wants to receive bottom-tier status, but Kinsey and many other FAMU alumni are short-sighted to oppose a plan that will benefit everyone. Although FAMU has earned national acclaim in some areas, it does not belong in the Research I group with USF, UF and FSU.

By romanticizing FAMU, Kinsey and many other FAMU alumni have skewed the argument by painting Herbert as the enemy. In his column, Kinsey also resorted to demagoguery: “Having grown up during the civil rights period, this plan, no matter how well-intentioned, has a hauntingly familiar feel to it. I remember how, under the name of “integration,’ nearly every major black high school in the state was closed or relegated to middle-school status.”

Later, he used the term “apartheid” to describe the state university system, apparently forgetting that blacks themselves want to keep FAMU black. Kinsey asked how will FAMU benefit from the three-tier system. Herbert has spent hours explaining the plan to FAMU officials and to Florida’s black publishers and editors.

“Florida A&M University has an important statewide mission to provide higher educational opportunities for minority students,” he said. “Nothing in the plan . . . treats FAMU as only a regional institution. Rather, its statewide role is expanded, not diminished. Despite public assurances, however, some have criticized the plan because they believe it penalizes FAMU. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only does the plan clearly specify FAMU’s continued mission, the Board of Regents . . . has asked FAMU to strive for excellence and offer more doctoral degrees.”

In a separate meeting with faculty and students, Herbert said that he wanted to see FAMU grow from 10,477 students to 18,000. Under the plan, he said, FAMU could become nationally recognized in mathematics, science, engineering and technology. “The goal is to increase the number of minority students with advanced professional degrees,” he said. “The very small number of Ph.D.s awarded nationally to African-Americans makes this a special opportunity for FAMU.”

Indeed, it does. But FAMU’s alumni, worried about being labeled third-rate, cannot see the benefits of the new system. The rankings are not intended to play the universities against one another. In the chancellor’s words, the proposal “takes this snapshot in time and challenges each university to excel in existing programs, create a mission linked tightly with service-area needs, and aggressively pursue goals to improve quality and scope. No university will ever be less than what it is now.”

At last word, several bus loads of FAMU students will be in Tampa to demonstrate at the regents’ meeting. The regents should politely acknowledge the protesters and then approve the plan. With limited funds for higher education, Florida cannot let each university be all things to everyone. Specialization is smart. It is good for the state. It is good for FAMU, too, and the school needs to get with the program.