Fearing the future for HBCUs
Fearing the future for HBCUs
By Johnathan Holifield
I’m not a product of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Although a proud West Virginia University Mountaineer, like many Black Americans – I have much love for our HBCUs.
Recently, I concluded service to my alma mater as an Advisory Committee member for Eberly College of Arts and Sciences – the college from which I graduated. This experience, supported by others, has ignited well-founded fears for the future of many HBCUs.
The Eberly College Advisory Committee was a diverse collection of highly accomplished professionals from various disciplines, including business, government, research, commercialization, entrepreneurship and myriad areas of academe. We were fortunate to have been led by quality deans who embraced our involvement in the affairs of the college. In fact, two former deans are sitting university presidents and the current dean is fast making his mark at the university.
I greatly enjoyed my tenure on the Advisory Committee. It was exciting and challenging to seriously consider 21st century innovation and competitiveness issues confronting Eberly College and WVU, and to contribute insights that are informed by my own Innovation Economy leadership experience.
My service also was greatly enhanced by the accident of good timing. In the last few years, a new president and provost have arrived at WVU and a new dean was selected for Eberly College. These senior leadership changes coincided with the symmetry of university-wide, 10-year strategic planning that builds toward the year 2020. This combination of factors produced a welcomed opportunity to quickly and considerably expand my knowledge of higher education in the Innovation Economy.
University Technology Transfer
Participating in the strategic planning process, several of my ideas were affirmed and clarified, and others proved to have little efficacy. An item of special interest was our thoughtful consideration of technology transfer. Eberly College viewed technology transfer as a progression of broadly defined basic and applied research fueling the discovery process, leading to intellectual property creation and, ultimately, resulting in new commercial products. Robust technology transfer functions can measurably help universities meet their well-settled goals of optimum social and economic impacts.
During our review of technology transfer, my thinking and reflection was along two complementary tracks – how the matter impacts Eberly College, WVU and the people of West Virginia and how it impacts Black America and our beloved HBCUs.
Though I’ve had rewarding experiences building productive university partnerships, only recently have I had the pleasure to connect with HBCUs. Fresh from taking up 21st century issues facing higher education, I realized that while those issues are challenging, they surely will be conquered – but the issues facing HBCUs are acute, with a future TBD.
Tale of Two University Systems … It was the best of times
University research and technology transfer are powerful engines driving the Innovation Economy. According to the December 2010 “The Better World Report,” by the Association of University Technology Managers, in 30 years of the Bayh-Dole Act, which gave U.S. universities ownership and control over intellectual property resulting from their research, the following impacts have been realized:
▪ More than 6,000 new U.S. companies
(in fiscal year 2009, 596 new companies were formed, one more than the 595 formed in 2008 and 41 more than the 555 formed in 2007);
▪ 4,350 new university licensed products in the market;
▪ 5,000 active university-industry licenses in effect, mostly with small companies;
▪ More than 153 new drugs, vaccines or in vitro devices have been commercialized;
▪ Between 1996 and 2007 university patent licensing made:
- a $187 billion impact on the U.S. gross domestic product,
- a $457 billion impact on U.S. gross industrial output, and
- 279,000 new jobs in the United States.
In important ways … It was the worst of times
HBCUs are a national treasure. According to the United Negro College Fund, the nation’s HBCUs contribute to the Innovation Economy in many ways, including:
▪ Graduate more than 50 percent African American professionals.
▪ Graduate more than 50 percent of African American public school teachers.
▪ Graduate 70 percent of African American dentists.
▪ 50 percent of African Americans who graduate from HBCUs go on to graduate schools or professional schools.
▪ HBCUs award more than one in three of the degrees held by African Americans in natural sciences.
▪ HBCUs award one-third of the degrees held by African Americans in mathematics.
However, despite these major contributions, in the areas where universities are significant forces propelling the Innovation Economy – the discovery process, e.g., basic and applied research, commercialization and technology transfer – HBCUs are conspicuously absent. The following are select, deeply troubling statistics about HBCU performance:
▪ HBCUs account for less than 1 percent of total academic research and development expenditures
▪ HBCUs account for just over 1 percent of federal academic research and development expenditures
▪ Of more than 200 colleges and universities ranked by the Carnegie Foundation as “high” and “very high” research activity only one is a HBCU
The extraordinarily compelling story of HBCUs is undermined in the 21st century by the absence of a robust academic research infrastructure. Such infrastructure is needed to realize commercialization and technology transfer opportunities that can generate much bigger Innovation Economy impact and draw new resources to the institutions.
For that reason, I wish to add my voice to the emerging chorus of HBCU supporters who want to see these treasures not only survive, but thrive in this century. Interpreted and repurposed from my experience with Eberly College, I offer for consideration four key developments that will influence prospects for Innovation Economy success at HBCUs:
- Discovery Process: HBCU discovery processes should be broadly defined to include scholarly work in humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Embracing the inter/multidisciplinary nature of the 21st century discovery process will be a key to growing HBCU contributions to our nation’s economic and social well-being. Additionally, bridge-building across disciplines can bring teams of investigators/researchers together to solve complex problems and provide more time and support to research active faculty who are needed to unlock HBCUs’ full research potential.
- Technology Transfer: HBCU technology transfer strategies should emphasize growth of basic, applied and inter/multidisciplinary research. Without robust basic research inputs, it is impossible to realize meaningful commercial outputs. Building off of basic applied research leads to patents, licenses and startup companies. And inter/multidisciplinary research is the only approach that can meet our daunting national and global challenges.
- Alignment: There remains an outstanding question about how much of current HBCU research is aligned with U.S. government thrusts and industry priorities. HBCUs should work to better position themselves for opportunities within the current research climate by significantly strengthening both their basic and applied research portfolio, with laser focus on research thrusts that reflect the nation’s public and private sector concerns.
- Innovation Ecosystem: All HBCUs cannot become research powerhouses. However, innovation ecosystems are dynamic life cycles and within them are major roles to be assumed, opportunities to be realized and contributions to be made for non-research institutions. Opportunities include facilitating high-growth entrepreneur and enterprise development, acting as a connecting portal, i.e., a best point of entry, to regional and state innovation ecosystems – and leveraging that connectivity to optimum impact for society and themselves.
The future of HBCUs
I am aware that HBCU consideration of these offerings will be limited. Many simply do not have a tradition of externally funded academic research, which feeds the discovery process and leads to technology transfer. The situation is exacerbated, in similar ways to many majority institutions, as HBCU faculty tend to carry large responsibilities in classroom teaching and service, resulting in fewer research opportunities.
As a national matter, it can be difficult to have a thoughtful dialogue about the future of HBCUs. The subject is filled with social and cultural sensibilities and fraught with wide-ranging political complexities.
All told, however, to meet the needs of the 21st century, our HBCUs must continually evolve – designing, adopting and inculcating a new education and economic paradigm that attracts more investments and yields much more Innovation Economy impacts.
Perhaps, at stake is nothing less than the survival of many of these prized institutions.
Johnathan Holifield, Trim Tabber