Obama Administration Officials Praise, Encourage HBCUs at National Conference - Higher Education
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Obama Administration Officials Praise, Encourage HBCUs at National Conference

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by Joyce Jones

ARLINGTON, Va – White House Domestic Policy Council director Melody Barnes helped kick off the 2010 National HBCU Week conference with a keynote address that praised the Black institutions for the contributions they’ve made to both the African-American community and the world at large and reminded them how important they are to the U.S.

“Because your institutions are so vital to our country, it is important that you join with us as we ask others to recommit ourselves to ensure that every single student who dreams of going to college can attend college,” Barnes said.

She noted that, despite a long-held tradition of educational excellence in the U.S., the reality for many Americans is that college is inaccessible. The nation now ranks 15th among its peer nations in college degree attainment, which Barnes said is a problem for African-Americans.

“Inarguably, we have understood the importance of an education and that every single right we have in a democracy is dependent upon an educated citizenry. We need [that] to protect and enforce and demand those rights,” said Barnes. “A good education is the ticket to opportunity and the ticket out of economic insecurity.”

In addition, a well-educated workforce is critical to the nation’s economy and competitive standing in the world, she noted.

Barnes cited individuals such as aerospace engineer and Tuskegee University graduate Lonnie Johnson, the inventor of the wildly popular super soaker, as examples of innovators HBCUs have produced over the years. Johnson has also been active in efforts to convert solar energy into electricity, helping to make the nation a leader rather than a follower in alternative energy, according to Barnes.

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“That’s why we need HBCUs to continue to nurture innovators for today and tomorrow,” Barnes said.

During a session titled “Building STEM Capacity,” led by Shirley Malcolm, director of education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), representatives from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and NASA shared information about resources and opportunities at their organizations targeted at HBCUs.

Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, acting assistant director of NSF’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources, suggested that HBCU leaders consider its signature initiative, the HBCU undergraduate program (HBCU-UP), for grants to fund research, special programs, or certifications and other activities. The program includes research initiation grants to broaden participation in biology, geosciences and engineering.

Ferrini-Mundy also addressed a concern expressed by Hampton University President William Harvey brought up during the plenary regarding a 2011 budget proposal to merge NSF programs that target minority-serving institutions and the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation programs. Harvey worries that the institutions will receive even less funding than they do now, he said. But, according to Ferrini-Mundy, the budget proposal’s goal was tp provide increased funding and attention to the programs, catalyze partnerships and alliances to expand research and development, and boost other opportunities for Minority-Serving Institutions throughout the federal government. As a result of the strong reaction the proposal has received, NSF is going to seek more input from the potentially affected institutions before making a final decision.

Bill Valdez, who directs the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Science Mission, urged HBCUs to take the time to study his agency and develop an understanding about how it does business with higher education institutions. This advice holds true for every federal agency, each of which has its own way of implementing programs, according to Valdez. Students should do the same, he said: “The students who are most successful are those who know us best.”

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According to Valdez, DOE has only a handful of programs that target HBCUs, such as the Minority Educational Institution Student Partnership Program. That means they must also compete against schools such as Stanford or Harvard. He advised them to “know your competition” and figure out if there are some lessons to be learned that they can apply to themselves and then successfully compete for funding. In some cases, he counseled, schools might want to form partnerships to work collaboratively on certain projects.

In addition, Valdez said more HBCU professors should be actively involved in both DOE programs and mentoring students interested in participating in those programs. When the agency looks at students’ applications, one of the things they want to know is who mentored them, and having a mentor who has been involved with the agency is an advantage, he said.

Willis Jenkins, who heads NASA’s Explorers Programs Science Mission program, announced that his agency will begin soliciting grant applications this fall for astrophysics and heliophysics explorer missions.  Like Valdez, he urged HBCUs to consider partnering with each other as well as major research institutions like MIT.

“Even if you get just a little piece [of a project], your name is out there,” said Jenkins, adding that he’s disheartened that more HBCUs are not applying for grants.

The luncheon keynote address was delivered by Health and Human Services deputy secretary William Cord, who said that HHS owes a debt of gratitude to HBCUs.

“You have made an enormous contribution to medical science, thanks to brilliant physicians, like Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who pioneered open-heart surgery and taught at Meharry,” and others, he said. “The leaders you’ve nurtured have changed the world.”

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Cord said that it is imperative that HHS and HBCUs partner to reduce health disparities in minority communities and that they will play an important role as the various stages of health care reform are rolled out. In the past year, the agency has provided $213 million in grants to HBCUs across the country, an increase of approximately 26 percent from last year. The agency also has invested $500 million in Recovery Act funding at HBCUs to expand the primary care workforce.

Moving forward, Cord explained, HHS has set several priorities for working with the institutions, including  advancing medical education, increasing HBCU participation in biomedical research, and improving data collection in underserved communities. He said that, later this fall, HHS will announce a national plan of action on health disparities to better coordinate partnerships and collaborations between HBCUs and federal health agencies and departments.

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