For thousands of the nation's African-American Ph.D. holders, a funny thing happened on the way to being hooded; most of them began their academic careers at historically black colleges and universities.
It is a trend that, while having tapered a bit since the (alleged) thrust of desegregation in higher education, has continued to be a staggering statistic for the nation's professional ranks, a point of pride for HBCUs and their graduates, and a complex glitch in the plans for individuals and systems who would seek to dismantle HBCUs and their culture.
And as the nation scrambles to match the industrial and intellectual capacity of nations in the Middle and Far East for economic and national security interests, the tenor of the nation's conversation towards HBCUs, at least among many predominantly white institutions, has changed from adversarial to one of alliance.
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported on continuing efforts by the National Institutes of Health to diversify its grant-awarding standards, a direct response to a 2011 study which found that NIH awarded applications submitted by white scientists 10 percent more often than those from black scientists with similar proposals, and 13 percent more for white scientists overall.
Not surprisingly, the subject of black scientists conjured a mention for historically black colleges and universities, and revealed NIH data showing that the nation's top 10 producers of undergraduates who go on to earn doctorates in science and engineering are historically black colleges.
Nearly half of the nation's top 25 best institutions at producing eventual black Ph.D. graduates are historically black. But a closer look at the statistics shows another interesting statistic relevant to the recent decision in the successful lawsuit on HBCU equity in the state of Maryland.
Just beneath 10 black colleges are two PWIs (predominately white universities), the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and the state's flagship University of Maryland-College Park. Maryland's HBCUs, Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, are major feeders into the two institutions' graduate programs.
And both are at the center of a federal judge's opinion that the state knowingly maintained a system of separate and unequal systems of higher education for black and white students, a victory for the alumni and students of the state's HBCUs which comprise the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Higher Education.
In a recent edition of the Baltimore Afro-American Newspaper, Coalition President David Burton elaborated on the damage done by the state at inequitably funding its black colleges, while simultaneously duplicating HBCU programs at geographically proximate PWIs in UMBC, Towson University and the University of Baltimore.
Thirty-five years after the initial recommendation for engineering at Morgan; some 20 years after Morgan proposed that it be developed as a multiracial campus; and after a second state study recommending engineering education be established in Baltimore, the State finally authorized the development of engineering at the Morgan campus. But rather than create a comprehensive school of engineering at Morgan, the state approved undergraduate programs only in electrical, civil and industrial engineering. It also authorized the University of Maryland College Park to offer its undergraduate programs in chemical and mechanical engineering at the newly developed UMBC campus.
With less than modest investment, engineering quickly emerged as one of Morgan's signature programs by which the campus became nationally recognized. Enrollments grew rapidly. Consistent with state goals for diversity, the percentage of African-American recipients of engineering degrees rose from about three percent in the early 1980s to about 16 percent in the mid-nineties, many of whom went on to major research institutions for graduate studies. Almost as quickly, the State created a stand-alone, competing school of engineering at UMBC to eventually include duplicates of the computer engineering phase of the Morgan electrical engineering program and graduate programs in electrical, computer and civil engineering among other areas. This well-funded competition within 12 miles of the Morgan campus was devastating.
In an interview with the Chronicle, UMBC President and Hampton University alumnus Freeman Hrabowski, seemed tepid on the prospect of fully developing comprehensive academic programs at black colleges. Instead, he says, more resources should be given to larger PWIs which provide the most opportunity to the most people, without regard for race.
UMBC's success is due to approaches that include getting research faculty members involved early with undergraduates, putting the undergraduates into labs, and ensuring students help one another, Mr. Hrabowski said. Mentoring and coaching is essential, and helping historically black institutions is valuable, Mr. Hrabowski said.
But any broad new NIH effort, he said, should put primary attention on "the majority of American higher education."
Hrabowski, who served in executive roles at Alabama A&M and Coppin State prior to his appointment at UMBC, understands fully the model of historically black educational tactics. The intervention and nurturing strategies to which he was exposed as an undergraduate at Hampton and deployed as an executive at two black colleges are the backdrop to his Meyerhoff Scholars Program; a program that UMBC touts as a national model for access and opportunity for minorities in S.T.E.M. fields, but par for the course at all of Maryland's black college campuses, and used by most HBCUs and throughout the nation.
It should frighten most HBCU supporters that Hrabowski, a beneficiary of the historically black environment which helped propel him to a lucrative and famed career in higher education, would prefer that PWIs receive resources to build a model that already exists and thrives at HBCUs, in spite of disparate funding and political opposition. Investing in the better-endowed institutions at the expense of the least-funded but most productive institutions is not a winning strategy for a nation with an increasingly diverse population, and a goal of reclaiming the title of world's smartest country.
Truly, it is more surprising than scary that a noted mathematician can't, or is advised to not add up what many other PWIs around the country have already figured out; don't deplete already sparse HBCU resources, add to them and recruit HBCU baccalaureate graduates to bolster the the number of black doctoral graduates at their own campuses.
Vanderbilt University enjoys a number of S.T.E.M.-related partnerships with Fisk University, Meharry Medical College and Howard University. Their latest partnership will train Vanderbilt Ph.D. holders for careers in teaching -- at historically black colleges and universities. This partnership includes research and academic exchange with Tennessee State University and Tougaloo College; deepening the VU imprint on several of the nation's prominent HBCU campuses.
It is easy to imagine a future where doctoral-granting institutions like Tennessee State, Howard, Florida A&M, North Carolina A&T, Hampton, Jackson State, Morgan State and Tuskegee could follow in the footsteps of Vanderbilt, and one day welcome white baccalaureate graduates from PWIs onto their historically black campuses to add to the nation's pursuit of more Ph.D. holders.
Colleges like Penn State, UCLA and others have also realized that the fight for resources is not one waged in eliminating HBCUs, but in mining their talent for graduate and post-graduate credentialing. As costs climb and access diminishes, these PWIs realize the value of tapping into campuses with meager resources but globally heralded developmental expertise. Against extraordinary odds, HBCUs produce undergraduates whom most PWIs would never admit out of high school, but are glad to receive as polished students ready for achievement in graduate school and the professional ranks.
To be sure, these schools would not oppose any measures that would enhance the preparedness and expertise of their future doctoral students. In Maryland, that would mean following the judge's opinion and shifting duplicative programs and resources away from proximate PWIs and into the four HBCUs. Nationally, the goal would be realized with increased funding from federal agencies like NIH to the institutions with the greatest potential, but the least amount of resources to refine it -- HBCUs.
Any investment in an integrated model is the right kind of spending for the nation's future success. By any measure of social, economic and cultural equity in the context of higher education, HBCUs have always met the challenge of providing access and opportunity to the high-achiever and the academically marginal alike.
But the math doesn't add up for PWIs, which in the last 60 years have just come around on enrollment desegregation, over the last 20 years have just begun to prove proficient at actually graduating minority students in large numbers, and over the last 10 have priced poor and middle class students of all races out of any chance at college education. Save for the grand old problem of race in America, no investment strategy for the nation's objectives of innovation and productivity should or would look at PWIs as the ideal hubs for education designed to complete the goal of making more college graduates.
The reality of HBCU value may be lost on most politicians and private citizens who don't understand numbers and culture in higher education, but those in the know understand that in any context, there is no such thing as academic or professional diversity without historically black colleges and universities. And when the nation looks out upon the world's rushing wave of innovation in commerce, military defense and intellectual capital, they understand that race can no longer be a metric of capacity, but rather, an indicator of the nation's greatest untapped natural resource.