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.

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* $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?

John Silvanus Wilson: The messaging about the value of HBCUs is easier now, with the national goal established by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. That goal is to have the most educated, competitive and diverse workforce in the world by 2020. What that means is we're going right by this question of whether HBCUs are necessary or valuable. We are simply saying that we need HBCUs to reach this national goal, and we need them to improve their productivity and their product.

This is about the future. Therefore we are not looking for corrective, "save the day" gifts. We are looking for creative, "create tomorrow" investments.

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TR: In 2009 you put out a call for HBCU presidents to show you their academic strengths. What are some examples of the things they shared with you?

JSW: The response was initially slow but certain. We are building an inventory of HBCU strengths. A lot of it skews toward health and health-disparities research. For instance, there's world-class AIDS research at Claflin University, there's cancer research at Hampton University, and just a broad range of health research at places like Alcorn State University and Jackson State University.

TR: Why is it important to advance STEM education at HBCUs in particular?

JSW: There's a STEM emphasis nationally. President Obama, Secretary Duncan and the entire administration have STEM as a priority. These disciplines are at the foundation of this knowledge economy.

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It is the language of the present day and of the future, and technical proficiency is required for most of the jobs and other opportunities that are now emerging. The folks in China certainly know that, as do the folks in India and elsewhere in the world. America knows it, and needs to know it better.

TR: HBCUs are already a major source of African-American engineers and scientists — they produce 33 percent of engineering degrees awarded to black undergraduates, and nine of the top 10 institutions (pdf) producing blacks with STEM doctoral degrees are black colleges. What's encouraging more students to go into these fields at HBCUs, compared with their numbers at traditional institutions?

That culture goes back to the days when their students had to be strengthened, not only intellectually, but in terms of character and readiness to engage what was often a hostile society. Although it's not in every case, a lot of HBCUs still have that legacy.

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I believe the combination of that, and the requirements of the new economy, position HBCUs better than others to prepare students in these fields. If you are an African American, you actually have a better chance of becoming an engineer by going to North Carolina A&T or Howard than you do at a lot of other institutions, just based on the numbers.

TR: On the other hand, an argument often used to dismiss some HBCUs is that many students coming in are unprepared for college-level work, making the institutions less competitive. In your mission to get more dollars for STEM research and innovation at HBCUs, how do you confront that challenge?

JSW: We don't define the challenge based on what their preparation is coming in. There's always been a gap, in general, in the preparation of many African-American students and non-African-American students. That's often because of the inequities at the K-12 level. The beauty of HBCUs is that they have been able to take those less well-prepared students and convert them into competitive students by the time they graduate.

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I would also argue that this is not a black issue. There is lamentation across higher education, on the part of various faculty members in a variety of institutions, that American high school graduates are less well-prepared now than they used to be.

TR: In order to help meet President Obama's 2020 goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, you've said that HBCUs must produce roughly 197,000 extra graduates by 2020. Why do you feel optimistic about hitting this benchmark, and how is it looking so far?

JSW: I am optimistic because HBCUs really are treasured institutions. We believe that when that message becomes increasingly clear to more Americans, then you're going to see more investment in HBCUs, from the federal government to the private philanthropic sector.

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This challenge that President Obama and Secretary Duncan have outlined is the right challenge for us all to have, and HBCUs are excited and energized to help meet it for the nation.

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.