Public Affairs, Academic Symposium Launches HBCU Football Classic in Nation’s Capital

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

WASHINGTON – Building on the theme “More Than A Game,” the AT&T Nation’s Football Classic got off to a modest start at Howard University Thursday with a symposium that featured Black scholars from various fields of science.

The science talk drew two to three dozen people—just a fraction of a percent of the 20,000 expected to turn out at RFK Stadium Saturday for the football game between the Morehouse College Maroon Tigers and the Howard University Bison.

Last year, the game drew 18,000 and generated $3 million in revenue, according to the Events DC organization, which is coordinating the event.

Much of Thursday’s discussion—one of several such academic-oriented events leading up to the football contest—focused on ways to ignite interest among minority students in the STEM fields.

While attendance for the science talk may have been wanting—indeed, at times the speakers’ voices echoed throughout the cavernous Cramton Auditorium at Howard—the insights shared by the scholars were abundant in profundity nevertheless.

Talks were given under the title “The Acting Black Theory: Scientific Discoveries at HBCUs that Change the Narrative of Black Students and Change the World as We Know It.”

Dr. Ivory A. Toldson, Associate Professor in the Counseling Psychology Department at Howard University, said the “Acting Black Theory” is meant to refute the widespread notion that Black students associate the acquisition of education with “acting White.”

“The ‘Acting White Theory’ is not consistent with any of the research that is out there,” said Toldson, who plans to release a report Friday called “Challenging the Status Quo.”

The report takes aim at a problem wherein predominantly Black and Latino high schools don’t offer the kind of math courses that are required for admission to most competitive universities.

“Only 65 percent of schools that enroll a larger percent of Black and Latino students have Algebra 2, and only 20 percent have calculus,” Toldson said, giving a brief preview of the report.

The report also questions the legality of the lack of college prep courses at public high schools given the fact that the schools rely upon taxpayer dollars.

Toldson’s talk was followed by a panel that featured five Black science scholars who shared insights on the challenges and rewards of entering a STEM-related profession.

Dr. Rick Kittles, a geneticist and DNA expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said as a college student his biggest challenge was being subjected to low expectations from faculty who hadn’t had much interaction with African-American male students before.

“I started using that as a strength in a sense,” Kittle said. “You may have low expectations for me,” he thought to himself at the time. “But I’m going to shock you. It became a motivator for me.”

Dr. Duane Jackson, Professor of Animal Behavior/Experimental Psychology in the Psychology Department at Morehouse College, said that, although he decided early in his childhood that he wanted to study animals, growing up he lacked role models in his chosen field.

“There were no Black scientists,” Jackson said. “I had nothing to model after.”

“That’s why it’s important for me to be out there,” said Jackson, who shared some interdisciplinary research he is doing on ways to mimic the digestive systems of termites to convert the cellulose from the wood they consume into energy.

Though entering STEM fields can be daunting for minority students when they are subjected to low expectations and a lack of role models, the payoff can be quite rewarding.

Dr. Paul Judge, founder of several technology companies and currently Chief Research Officer and Vice President at Barracuda Networks, said one of the most satisfying things about his career is turning “something into nothing”—that is, turning an idea that starts out on a whiteboard into personal wealth.

Other speakers included Dr. Karl Reid, Senior Vice President of Academic Programs & Strategic Initiatives at UNCF, and Dr. Alicia Nicki Washington, Associate Professor in the Department of Systems and Computer Science at Howard University.

The science talk was set to be followed by talks on the “youth vote” and the state of relationships within the Black community as well as a debate Friday between Howard and Morehouse on the merits of a national voter ID law and affirmative action.

Dr. Sidney Ribeau, president of Howard University, said the talks reflected the need to address critical issues that can impact African-Americans negatively or positively.

“It has to be more than a game,” Ribeau said of the various talks surrounding the AT&T Nation’s Football Classic. “This is about … our culture, our life, our history, our traditions.”

“This is bringing together the intellectual brain trust of two universities that are unparalleled anywhere in the world to compete and create opportunities,” Ribeau said of Howard and Morehouse.

Ribeau said the friendly rivalry between Howard and Morehouse serves as an example of the kind of cooperation that is needed among the nation’s HBCUs.

“Our 105 HBCUs will survive to the extent that we learn to work together for a common purpose and common outcomes,” Ribeau said.

He was joined by Morehouse President Robert M. Franklin, who joked that, after a weekend of rivalry in academics and athletics, the two colleges will be able to “mend” during a prayer service set for Sunday.

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