MAXWELL: Benign neglect hurts FAMU
3/25/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

When I was a football player at my all-black high school in Crescent City during the early 1960s, I, like the overwhelming majority of my teammates, wanted to play for the Florida A&M University Rattlers.
Under coach Jake Gaither, FAMU always ranked among the top five black teams in the nation. The Tallahassee campus also was home to Bob Hayes, “the world’s fastest human” at that time, and Althea Gibson, the first black to play at Wimbledon. In 1957, she won the singles crown and returned to New York to a ticker-tape parade as the “best woman tennis player in the world.”
Most high school black band members in Florida wanted to be in FAMU’s world famous “Marching 100.”
Because of Jim Crow, we were legally forced to attend historically black colleges if we wanted to study in Florida. The white schools, such as the University of Florida, the University of South Florida and Florida State, would not let us near their campuses.
In addition to FAMU, we had three small private schools: Florida Memorial College in Miami, Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, my alma mater, and Edward Waters College in Jacksonville.
One of my cousins graduated from FAMU’s pharmacy school, and most of my public school teachers earned their degrees there. In short, FAMU was a temple for many of the black Floridians I knew. By the way, my small size, 181 pounds, prevented me from playing football at FAMU.
Since its founding, in 1887, as the State Normal College for Colored Students, the school has been integral to the lives of Florida’s black population, even to those of us who did not study there.
And now, believe me when I say that many of us are genuinely concerned about the scandalous affairs at this proud old campus. We worry about the incompetence, the arrogance, the blind glorification, the corruption, the financial mess and the cronyism that are destroying the place.
We worry even more, however, about the Florida Legislature’s decades of benign neglect of FAMU – a shameful neglect that laid the groundwork for today’s crises. To be brutally honest, FAMU always has been the state’s “black university,” both in our imagination and in real practice.
Benign neglect means that officials, most of them white, made FAMU a “special” place where the rules of governance and operation are less stringent than those at the state’s other public universities.
Many alumni and current students foolishly believe just the opposite: Racially insensitive officials are singling out FAMU and are holding it to higher standards.
The other day, for example, Ashley Jones, a junior from Jacksonville, told the St. Petersburg Times: “I think that we are being stereotyped because we are a (historically black university).”
No, state officials, including our governors – afraid of appearing as racists – have heretofore turned a blind eye to FAMU’s financial problems. That blind eye is an insult and a disservice to blacks whether they know it or not.
If FAMU is to survive with a modicum of respectability, we must hold it to the same high standards of excellence to which we hold our other public universities. If FAMU were historically white, former president Frederick Humphries would have been fired. Instead, he was permitted to remain on the job and retire on his own terms even after crippling financial problems surfaced.
In other words, and I repeat myself, the time has come to stop ill-serving FAMU by treating it like a ghetto, where normal management rules are suspended, where expectations are low, where talk of “quality” is more bombast than reality.
And the time has come to stop the recrimination. This logical fallacy will not save FAMU. Last week, an angry alumnus screamed at me: “White universities in Florida have the same problems. Nobody’s jumping on them.”
Not true, I said. No other Florida university is in FAMU’s mess. Even if he were right, FAMU remains a victim of its own corrupt culture.
We need to stop the benign neglect and vigorously investigate FAMU’s operations.