More Physicists, Fewer Fullbacks

Why black colleges need to focus more on science and less on sports.

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I co-authored a book chapter with Angela Albert titled “HBCU’s Institutional Advantage” in Understanding Minority-Serving Institutions, (SUNY Press, 2008). The chapter focuses on the idea that HBCUs are effective producers of teachers. The question surfaced, “Why can’t HBCUs also be effective producers of scientists and engineers?” The answer is, of course, that they can be effective producers of scientists and engineers, but they may have to sacrifice other aspects of their production to accomplish this outcome.

While HBCUs already do an admirable job in making a substantial contribution by teaching agriculture, computer science and the physical sciences, it’s time for them to do even more.

We need not look further than George Washington Carver for inspiration. To serve the greater good, Carver passed up other opportunities to head the agricultural program at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and helped revolutionize farming. How wonderful it would be if today’s HBCUs could begin producing scientists and engineers with Carver-like potential.

Given that their budgets and access to resources are limited, how can HBCUs increase their science and technology focus? They should not “Rob Peter to pay Paul.” They should simply take “Peter” out of the equation. The HBCUs’ Peter is money-losing athletic programs.

HBCUs should consider converting resources set aside for athletic programs into resources for scientific research and development. For example, Howard University reported that its athletic program in fiscal year (FY) 2006 would have incurred a nearly $1.1 million loss without revenues from the NCAA and sponsorships, which cut the overall loss to a little over $100,000.

For FY 2007, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) reported that, without $1.4 million that it received from the NCAA and sponsorships, it would have incurred an operating loss of $1.8 million. As a result, FAMU’s athletic program lost around $400,000.

Preserving the status quo won’t change anything. Consequently, if black Americans desire a different set of outcomes, then they must choose to take new and different action.

High-quality scientists and engineers are in demand, and their compensation level is ranked high on the nation’s wage and salary scale. To gain access to these salaries, to improve job prospects and to contribute to our nation’s progress, shouldn’t HBCUs implement programs to produce more scientists and engineers? Isn’t it logical to accomplish this outcome by converting financial, physical and human resources from the cultivation of athletes to the cultivation of scientists and engineers?

For the future of black America, HBCUs and the nation, it seems appropriate that HBCUs turn their athletic and competitive swords and spears into productive and scientific plowshares and pruning hooks.

B.B. Robinson is director and chief contributor to Black Economics and a member of Project 21.