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HBCUs Question Equity of Research Partnerships

by Dana Forde

In an effort to meet critical research goals, a familiar trend among historically Black colleges and universities is to link up with larger research-intensive institutions. However, some officials are concerned that a Virginia-based HBCU is getting the short end of a research agreement.

A grant project between a historically Black school, Virginia Union University (VUU), and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) was formally awarded in 2006, officials say. VUU and VCU are part of an affiliation referred to as the Virginia-Nebraska Alliance. The coalition involving the University of Nebraska Medical Center and local colleges is designed to encourage more minority students to enter the health care field.

During a recent Alliance meeting at VUU, some university representatives expressed frustration that VCU receives the vast majority of a research grant provided by the National Institutes of Health to study health care disparities. Of the $6.6 million grant, VUU received just $100,000 of it, officials say.

In a recent article featured in the Richmond-based Style Weekly magazine, Dr. Frank Royal, the chair of VUU’s board of trustees, said, “Maybe you don’t need VCU. … I can tell you, we’re not going to be used and showcased and nickeled-and-dimed.”

Bill Thomas, a meeting participant and associate vice president for government relations at Hampton University, which is also a member of the Virginia-Nebraska Alliance, says the primary basis for mutual projects like the one between VCU and VUU is to help correct health care disparities within minority communities. They are also intended to educate and groom the next generation of health care professionals and researchers and to help historically Black institutions become more independent. But the results, he says, have not lived up to the intentions.

“With these issues in particular, if you don’t have access to capital … you really can’t be too effective,” Thomas says. “The number one thing is to try to find partnerships and work with majority institutions that are experienced in these partnerships. But in too many cases like this particular case (with VUU), the majority school takes all the money.”

However, Dr. PonJola Coney, VCU’s senior associate dean for faculty affairs, says this grant was never designed to be an equal partnership.

“It was a grant that was written by VCU faculty … it is not a partnership (and) it was never meant to be a partnership, which is why I made the statement that this is not a 50/50 grant,” Coney says. The VCU official adds that a condition of the grant required that VCU include a “pilot project” component conducted by a historically Black institution. After appeals were made to the area’s HBCUs, VUU agreed to a two-year $100,000 pilot study of preterm births, she says.

“One of the desired characteristics of the funding agency is that minority communities and historically Black colleges have the opportunity to participate in research that impacts the minority community,” Coney notes.

Nevertheless, others are still concerned that, out of the billions of dollars being shelled out annually in research funding, a small proportion is allocated to HBCUs. Improved process and funding mechanisms, Thomas says, are desperately needed so that HBCUs can build up infrastructures that are competitive with majority-White institutions.

“The government is trying to lay out a program, and, if it was monitored effectively, schools like Hampton would be able to accomplish what’s being accomplished in the mainstream,” Thomas says. “All we’re asking for is, let’s make the playing field level and make the program honest. I don’t think that asking for fairness is too big of a request to make.”

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