HBCU president: Invest in Black colleges pursuing top research status

Among the nation’s 4,000-plus institutions dedicated to higher education, 131 are classified as top research universities. None of those are historically Black universities—and that needs to change, David Wilson, the president of Morgan State University, writes in an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun

Much like other crises in our nation’s history, the COVID-19 pandemic has created “a reset moment for higher education,” Wilson says. Land-grant universities, for instance, emerged during the Civil War, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) was founded to strengthen American research universities after the Second World War. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare racial health disparities, and the need to invest in research that could address those gaps.

“If we are to address the systemic barriers put in place over many generations for America’s communities of color, we must empower America’s highest performing HBCUs to become pillars of America’s research enterprise, just as we did for today’s elite research universities over the last 70 years,” Wilson writes. “While many of those have built massive, successful research programs, they oftentimes produce research with only tangential value to Black and marginalized communities.”

Addressing funding gaps to elevate HBCU research

Predominantly white institutions historically have received a disproportionate share of federal research funding, limiting HBCUs’ ability to move into the top-most ranks. The Washington Post points out that overall federal support for science and engineering across academic institutions has increased by 2 percent since 2016—but has declined by 17 percent at HBCUs.

And while there aren’t yet any HBCUs among top, “R1 doctoral universities,” or schools with very high research activity under the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, 11 HBCUs are R2 doctoral universities with high research activity. Wilson says increased federal investment in HBCUs across the NSF, National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, and other agencies could help launch Black universities with R2 status—including Morgan—onto the R1 list. 

Doing so, Wilson contends, would empower HBCUs to research challenges they are uniquely poised to help solve, such as the disproportionate impact of the pandemic and other health conditions on the Black community. 

“Our future is to make sure that we are churning out the research to enable lawmakers and policymakers … to solve the intractable problems … in marginalized communities,” Wilson told the Post. “This is a moment for Morgan. It’s a moment for North Carolina A&T. It’s a moment for [Florida A&M University], and we have to take advantage of the moment.”

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