The Good News About HBCUs

By advancing science innovation, this federal official is helping black colleges compete.

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Courtesy of Department of Education

John Silvanus Wilson Jr., executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, knows the value of HBCUs -- even if it seems these days that too many others don't. Amid growing doubts about their relevancy and benefits, and fears that black colleges could be facing extinction, Wilson has the task of persuading 32 federal agencies to invest in the institutions.

By changing the HBCU narrative from a story of need and challenges to one of strength and opportunities, Wilson has led the way in steadily increasing such funds -- from $728 million in 2008 to $783 million in 2009 to $853 million in 2010 -- with an emphasis on escalating curriculum and research in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Wilson says that the emphasis comes at the direction of President Obama, who has made STEM education a key priority of his administration. By training more American students at the top levels of science and math achievement, the president seeks to build a globally competitive workforce, discover new ideas and generate more jobs -- and he wants African Americans and HBCUs to play a major part.

Among others, grants and agreements established in the past two years include:

* $9 million from the Department of Energy to nine HBCUs (including Benedict College, Denmark Technical College and South Carolina State University) for science and technical research, combining coursework, DOE field work and applied research.

* $28.5 million from NASA to Morgan State University, for research supporting NASA's earth-and-space science projects, including the areas of atmospheric chemistry, oceanography and polar climate change.

* Research partnership between the U.S. Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command and Morgan State University, giving students direct access to the technological advancements at the nearby Army facility.

* $51.5 million from the Department of Agriculture for 18 HBCUs (including Alabama A&M University, Fort Valley State University, Southern University, Prairie View A&M University and West Virginia State University) for providing technical assistance to rural businesses and developing educational materials around renewable energy sources.

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The Root: Part of your responsibility is to inform the federal agencies, and the public, about the value of HBCUs. What's different about your approach?