HBCUs Should Produce Quantum Physicists, Not Quarterbacks, by B.B. Robinson, Ph.D.

Our nation’s future lies in science and technology.

Already in high demand, engineers and scientists will be needed even more in years to come.  It creates an opportunity and a challenge for America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

There is a clear and present need.  Microsoft founder Bill Gates warned Congress last March that American companies “face a severe shortfall of scientists and engineers with expertise to develop the next generation of breakthroughs.”

Among black students, there is a distinct technological training deficit.  According to the report Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 from the federal National Science Board, the percentage of blacks among all graduates who received undergraduate degrees in science and engineering fields in 2005 was only 8.4 percent.

There has been a slow and steady increase of black science and engineering graduates over the surveyed period of 1985 to 2005, but this black progress was nonetheless outpaced by Hispanic and Asian gains.  Compounding the problem of so few blacks receiving science and engineering degrees is that a consistent rate of over 30 percent of incoming black freshmen over the years regularly intend on pursuing such majors while less than a third actually obtain a degree.

Catherine Riegle-Crumb, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, told Science magazine: “What is holding minority students back is not a lack of interest in science but rather the fact that educational disadvantages are cumulative in nature, so that failures or low performance early on in school make it difficult for them to attain the prerequisites they need to continue.”

To address this need, the America COMPETES Act in 2007 dramatically increased funding for physical science research as well as for promoting math, science and foreign language studies in our schools.  In signing it into law, President Bush said he hoped it would provide “a comprehensive strategy to help keep America the most innovative nation in the world by strengthening our scientific education and research, improving our technological enterprise, and providing 21st century job training.”

While HBCUs are already making a substantial contribution by teaching agriculture, computer sceince and the physical sciences, it’s time for them to do even more.

We need not look further than George Washington Carver for inspiration.  To serve the greater good, Carver passed up other opportunities to head the agricultural program at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and helped revolutionize farming.  How wonderful it would be if today’s HBCUs could begin producing scientists and engineers with Carver-like potential.

Given that their budgets and access to resources are limited, how can HBCUs increase their science and technology focus?  They should not “Rob Peter to pay Paul.”  They should simply take “Peter” out of the equation.  The HBCUs’ Peter is money-losing athletic programs.

HBCUs should consider converting resources set aside for athletic programs into resources for scientific research and development.

For example, Howard University reported that its athletic program in fiscal year (FY) 2006 would have incurred a nearly $1.1 million loss without revenues from the NCAA and sponsorships, which cut the overall loss to a little over $100,000. 

For FY 2007, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) reported that, without $1.4 million from the NCAA and sponsorships, it would have incurred an operating loss of $1.8 million.  As a result, FAMU’s athletic program lost around $400,000. 

Preserving the status quo won’t change anything.  Consequently, if black Americans desire a different set of outcomes, they must take new and different action.

High-quality scientists and engineers are in demand, and their compensation level rank high on the nation’s wage scale.  To gain access to these salaries, to improve job prospects and to contribute to our nation’s progress, shouldn’t HBCUs implement programs to produce more scientists and engineers?  Isn’t it logical to accomplish this outcome by converting financial, physical and human resources from the cultivation of athletes to the cultivation of scientists and engineers?

For the future of black America, HBCUs and the nation, it seems appropriate that HBCUs turn their athletic and competitive swords and spears into productive and scientific plowshares and pruning hooks.

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B.B. Robinson, Ph.D. is a member of the national advisory council of the black leadership network Project 21.   You can visit his website at www.blackeconomics.org.  Comments may be sent to [email protected].

A version of this appeared on TheRoot.com on September 9, 2008.

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21 or the National Center for Public Policy Research.

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