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Breaking up engineering school could cost $1 billion

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(FSU photo)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Splitting the engineering school shared by Florida State University and Florida A&M University into two separate programs could cost $1 billion and draw legal challenges on civil-rights grounds, according to a new study on the issue.

 But the report, from the California-based Collaborative Braintrust Consulting Firm, also says that changes are needed at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering if it remains a single institution.

 In many ways, the final version of the study is similar to an early draft. It maintains that the start-up costs of a separate FSU engineering program that could help the university gain national prominence would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and that a Supreme Court ruling on education segregation known as the Fordice decision could double that.

 "The cost to set up a new FSU engineering college that has the scope of a top 25 public engineering college is estimated at $500 million," the report says. "The Fordice decision seems to imply that the same $500 million would need to be invested in the FAMU engineering college. Hence, the overall cost to set up a two-college system may be prohibitive."

 The study doesn't take a position on whether Florida should break up the engineering school, a proposal that became a flashpoint in the Legislature's budget discussions last year. Instead, it tries to present the pros and cons of going with either approach.

 Former Sen. John Thrasher, who pushed the division of the engineering school last year, is now president of FSU. Supporters say it could help FSU's drive to join the ranks of elite public colleges, like those in the Association of American Universities. Meanwhile, FAMU and its alumni have fiercely opposed the proposal, saying it raises ghosts of the state's past when the historically black university's law school was closed in the 1960s shortly after a similar college opened at FSU.

 Federal civil-rights laws would likely bar setting up two identical engineering schools in Tallahassee, with one serving a historically black university like Florida A&M and one serving FSU, according to the study. That would mean that the college would have to be located elsewhere -- like the re-established FAMU College of Law, located in Orlando -- or the two schools would have to provide different programs.

 "Differentiated programs at FAMU and FSU would mean that neither institution would have a full complement of engineering programs," the report says. "A limited set of engineering programs at FSU would probably pose a greater challenge in achieving the AAU distinction that it plans to pursue."

 But the study also says there are problems at the current school, including declining enrollment by FAMU students and a difference in the resources that each school devotes to the college and its faculty.

"If the joint college is maintained, the dysfunctional management arrangement, which is abetted by dual policies and procedures must be addressed," the study said. "An organizational structure and mode of operation must be established that facilitate the efficient pursuit of the mission."

FAMU did not immediately reply to a request for comment. A spokesman for FSU said via email that, beyond the university's previous contention that the civil-rights issues cited by the study might not apply, the school was reviewing the study and had no further comment.