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Tech Savvy HBCUs Keeping Pace With Innovation, Others Lag

When Alexander Johnson, a college freshman studying for a career in animation, began pondering colleges to attend, the opportunity to use modern computer technology tools in his classes played a major role in his consideration.

 Today, Johnson considers himself lucky to be among the students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) with access to an array of computer-animation facilities and tools, as a student at Morgan State University.

 “At my last college (a private technical institute), we really didn’t have that at all,” says Johnson, as he took a brief break from working on an animation program in the new Animation Lab at Morgan State’s School of Communications. “It would have taken about 16 hours to do what now takes three or four seconds,” Johnson says, comparing the school he transferred from with Morgan State.

 Morgan State is one of just a handful of the nation’s more than 100 HBCUs on the front lines of plowing millions of dollars each year into computer technology as a means of recruiting and retaining students, providing students learning opportunities and helping their schools’ back shops run more efficiently for students, staff and vendors.

 Despite the technological gains, even schools investing heavily say they have a long way to go in upgrading and maintaining the technology infrastructure of entire campuses. They also say finding a reliable stream of money to sustain their computer technology innovations is quite elusive.

 “We don’t have all the bells and whistles because of lack of funding,” says Dr. Joseph Popovich, vice president for planning and information technology at Morgan State. “But we have a strong foundation,” he says, ticking off a list of technological gains the school has made since the dawn of the Internet era in the 1990s – a campus completely wired for Internet connections; new classrooms equipped with computer-age tools to help bring more life to teaching; distance learning classrooms that allow real-time visual and audio exchanges between teachers and students in classrooms miles apart; a “robust” e-mail system; and a central database system that services administrative departments handling registration, financial aid, accounts receivable and payable and housing.

 While Morgan State spends about $6 million a year on information technology, Popovich notes nearly a third of that money comes from grants, a reality that keeps the school chasing short-term solutions for funding what tech savvy students and some larger vendors are expecting as basics for the long haul. “A lot of things you might consider basics on most campuses, we have to get grant money for them,” says Popovich, noting that state aid alone is not enough to support the school’s expanding physical plant.

 “We don’t have wireless throughout the campus. We have a very small equipment budget,” he says, noting that this year, for example, most of his equipment money was used to pay technician salaries.

 While Morgan State ponders how to hold and gain ground in a race thrust upon higher education, far more HBCUs would welcome such a budget, particularly during these tough economic times. Closing the so-called digital divide is becoming less of a possibility for many HBCUs. That’s doubly true for campuses laced with many older and historic buildings in which modernization would present heavy financial and legal burdens. The digital divide persists, most say, some two decades after the nation began seriously focusing on the value of the information superhighway.

 HBCUs “are behind and further behind in closing the gap,” says Robert Rucker Jr., vice president for planning, budgets and information technology at the United Negro College Fund, an organization of 39 private HBCUs.

 Rucker says most funding for private HBCUs is for scholarships and direct student support. Bringing communications infrastructures up to speed is a priority at many schools but, by necessity, a low one. “Infrastructures cost millions,” says Rucker. He estimates it would cost about $400 million in one-time costs for member schools to upgrade their communications systems design, wire campuses, retrain teachers and staff and pay for new hardware and software to bring most private HBCUs up to speed with their major nonminority counterparts. Federal legislation that might help fund network infrastructures at HBCUs has been passed but not funded.

 Even if capital needs were met, there is the issue of sustainability. “A lot of support these schools have received or are receiving is not necessarily part of a sustainable funding stream,” says Rucker, who notes the occasional gift of computers to a school could end up costing the school dearly in maintenance costs. “Steady funding streams, bigger endowments … most HBCUs don’t have that type of flexibility. The schools are struggling.”

 Investing in IT

 There are no widely accepted yardsticks used in higher education to determine how up to speed a school is or how far it needs to go in the information technology race. Like private companies and many local, state and federal agencies, IT (information technology) systems are a hodgepodge of what schools need, want and can get. There are some indicators, however, of what schools are seriously invested in information technology.

 For example, fewer than a score of HBCUs are participating members in the National Lambda Rail or the Internet2 consortiums. Both groups have about 1,000 users among four-year institutions. The two IT networks help schools, companies and government agencies engaged in research share huge volumes of data almost instantly over private high-speed electronic networks. Participating in these networks can cost several hundred thousand dollars each year.

 Another unofficial measure of information superhighway capacity is a recent study of university Web sites by a Spanish research group, Cybermetrics Lab, which developed a set of measures for determining the best college Web sites in the world. The group looked at Web size, funding, the number of academic papers posted on a site, usage and other measures. While American schools topped the list, led by such academic powerhouses as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the universities of Michigan and Minnesota, only 35 HBCUs ranked among the top 4,000 schools, according to an analysis by The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.  

 Not all of the schools are aiming to get to the ever moving “finish line” ahead of others or at the same time.

 “Instead of doing everything in a full swoop, we’re phasing it in,” says Dr. Vincent Mumford, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va. That sentiment, also offered by Ray Jacobs, director of information technology at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, is commonplace.

 Financial constraints aside, most HBCUs do what they can with what they have, oft times with a little help from their friends.

 For example, Mississippi’s Jackson State University, one of the HBCUs on the frontlines of tooling up, can do more with less by partnering with the three other research institutions in the region to share some of the costs of being a full partner in the National Lamba Rail and Internet2. Morgan State does much the same to sustain its participation in Internet2.

 North Carolina has adopted a common-needs approach to funding the IT programs at its public colleges. Today, the Shared Services Alliance, which includes the state’s five public HBCUs, works as a group to identify solutions to common problems, says John N. Smith, a veteran of the IT evolution and interim chief information officer at North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C.

 When “appropriate,” joint funding is provided for the solutions. He says NCCU has an annual IT budget of about $5 million, including revenue from a technology fee imposed on students.

 “In North Carolina, nearly all schools are on the same track,” says Smith. For most of the 2000s, working under the common needs approach, the Shared Services program has helped the five HBCUs keep relative parity with their nonminority counterparts as the state provided funding to enhance the network infrastructure of its schools, says Smith. North Carolina voters even approved a bond issue in 2005 to help the state’s higher education institutions improve their dated communications infrastructure.

 Most schools see enhanced IT networks as an essential tool for attracting and keeping students and even achieving internal cost efficiencies, if the processes for delivering services change along the way.It’s not just about the equipment, says Dr. Willie Brown, executive vice president and chief information officer at Jackson State. “A lot of times IT can let you gain efficiencies, but the equipment is not the trick. Changing the process of what you do and how you do it. Bringing technology to bear means you need fewer people and it takes less time,” says Brown, whose school has already put student registration functions completely online and is moving toward putting procurement of goods and services online. “The investment in the IT structure is just that, an investment, not a cost. It allows us to be competitive.” 

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