Historically black US universities push for more research funding

HBCUs want a chance after decades of federal aid for poorer white-majority institutions

January 14, 2021
David Wilson, president of Baltimore’s Morgan State University,
Source: Alamy
David Wilson, president of Morgan State University

The heads of historically black US universities are pushing for federal research subsidies on the scale long afforded white-majority institutions, calling it an essential step towards educational and social equity.

The presidents hope to make the case that during a period of heavy concern about racial disparities in education and beyond, none of the US’ 133 highest-tier research universities is a historically black institution.

Fixing that problem, said David Wilson, president of Baltimore’s Morgan State University, would go a long way towards tackling inequities in minority education that federal and state policymakers have long insisted they want to solve.

Moving at least a handful of historically black universities into the uppermost levels of research support would also help urban communities address extensive health and social challenges that are too often ignored by white-majority research teams, Dr Wilson said.

“The timing is perfect; the opportunity is just phenomenal,” Dr Wilson said just days ahead of Democrats taking control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Dr Wilson and his counterparts at several other historically black universities were hoping to move forward by convincing Congress to create a version of a decades-old initiative known as Epscor — the Established Programme to Stimulate Competitive Research.

Epscor sets aside $200 million (£150 million) per year in federal research funds for universities in states that win relatively low levels of federal research funding through normal competitive processes.

Through Epscor or other means, the federal government’s research investment – amounting to billions of dollars annually – has repeatedly helped to build or revive some of the most powerful US research universities.

Yet the 100-plus historically black institutions continue to be denied even the opportunity, Dr Wilson and other leaders said. All the nation’s historically black universities together receive about $500 million of the $80 billion in annual federal research spending – a combined total less than that received by any of the 45 or so biggest US research universities.

And it’s getting worse, with historically black totals shrinking by about 8 per cent a year, while overall federal spending grows by about 10 per cent a year, said Willie May, Morgan State’s vice-president for research. “The gap is widening,” Dr May said.

Whether by Epscor or other means, the exact method was not the most important issue, said Larry Robinson, president of Florida A&M University. Habits that can be overcome with more dedicated dollars, Professor Robinson said, included the tendencies among scientists serving on federal grant award panels to keep directing money towards applicants with whom they are more familiar.

“The only obstacle that prevents us HBCUs from getting there,” he said, “is the lack of a concentrated federal investment.”

Failing to fix that mistake was proving increasingly risky as other countries prioritise their research investments, Professor Robinson said.

“We continue to assume that we can compete with the likes of China and India with only valuing a small portion of our population,” he said. “That is not sustainable any more – we have to look for talent under every rock in this nation.”

Terry Hartle, senior vice-president for government relations at the American Council for Education, saw the possibility of action on the idea during the Biden administration, although he expected difficult odds. Potential complications, he said, included the need for Congress to both enact the programme and finance it, while contending with other groups of institutions that will probably raise similar demands.

Dr Wilson said that after decades of supporting Epscor institutions, he saw no excuse for Congress to keep overlooking historically black institutions. “We tell policymakers: you’ve done this before,” he said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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