Top HBCUs team up with research universities to promote equity

With AAU providing teamwork and guidance, leading subset of black-serving US institutions hopes that banding together will help overcome decades of public neglect

January 31, 2023
Mural illustrating the hope for black people to illustrate HBCUs partner with elites to build equity
Source: Getty

Leading historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are banding together with the help of the US’ top association of research institutions in a major new push to overcome systemic race-based barriers to their growth.

About a dozen HBCUs are forming research-oriented partnerships with individual members of the Association of American Universities, and using the AAU’s expertise to build their own coalition of higher-performing HBCUs.

While full details of the plan are yet to be unveiled, HBCU leaders said it would bring a meaningful shift in their ability to rise substantially in research performance and rankings.

“We are on the verge of a major change in the fate of a select number of HBCUs,” said Ruth Simmons, president since 2017 of Prairie View A&M University, who in 2001 at Brown University become the first black president of an Ivy League institution. “There’s certainly not been a time in history when there have been as many different efforts at the same time to improve the outlook for HBCUs.”

“We’re very excited on where we are in a possible collaboration with them,” David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, said of the 65-member AAU.

The AAU is a policy advocacy association for which membership – based largely on institution-wide levels of expenditure on science – is regarded as a prestigious marker of research accomplishment. A similar major institutional credential is R1 status – the 146 universities defined by the American Council on Education through its Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as having a “very high” level of research activity.

The boundary definitions used for both groups, and the symbolic importance of meeting them, are matters of ongoing debate. But none of the nation’s 101 HBCUs is yet in either club, pushing some to regard that as an essential milepost for US higher education to demonstrate meaningful racial progress. In that, HBCUs have found the AAU to be a critically supportive ally.

Although it did not publicise the moment, the AAU in 2021 showcased at its annual meeting four partnerships between its members and HBCUs – Morgan State and Johns Hopkins University, Howard and Harvard universities, Florida A&M University and the University of Florida, and North Carolina A&T State University and the University of North Carolina – with an eye towards encouraging more.

Those partnerships are led at the presidential level, aimed at encouraging connections down to the point of giving individual HBCU scientists a sense of having allies they can contact for guidance.

However, it was not clear how swiftly this would translate into meaningful progress, even with the elevated attention and funding that flowed to HBCUs after the George Floyd killing in 2020.

HBCUs have long suffered from extremely low rates of public and private investment, noted Stephen Katsinas, professor of higher education and political science at the University of Alabama. Even now, he said, the highest-performing HBCUs are all in the lower ranks of the 133 institutions that the Carnegie Classification defines as R2 level. From such data, “you can see the distance they have to travel” to even approach R1, said Professor Katsinas.

Dr Wilson acknowledged that, and has been leading a push in Congress for a major dedicated allotment of research money for HBCUs, to overcome the generations of imbalanced funding. Yet he remained hopeful that at least one HBCU might reach R1 status by next year, and very optimistic it would happen within three years.

Professor Katsinas was more doubtful. Without a major new infusion of federal research dollars for HBCUs, he said, “there’s no way these institutions are going to move toward R1 status”.


Print headline: HBCUs partner with elites to build equity

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