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Crossing The Divide

Crossing The Divide

$6 million NSF project seeks to connect minority-serving institutions

WASHINGTON — By the time a fierce winter storm had sheathed this capitol city and its burgeoning suburbs with a foot of snow this past January, some 40 representatives from historically Black institutions, tribal colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions had comfortably settled in a downtown hotel.
 The whiteout, which even shut down the federal government for two days here, didn’t stop the anxious educators from getting down to some important business: How to spend a $5.9 million National Science Foundation technology grant to encourage advanced networking opportunities for minority-serving institutions.
The two-day meeting brought campus representatives together for the first planning session of the Advanced Networking-Minority Serving Institution project.
The grant is expected to help the schools  —  often technologically strapped —  benefit from the latest developments in computer networking technology and to get them assistance with management and staffing for maintaining sophisticated networks.
The project, announced last fall, is generating considerable interest and speculation as to how three distinct higher education communities can build a consensus around computer networking priorities and achieve objectives that will benefit the nearly 380 schools that are considered minority serving institutions.
National experts say the project is representative of the growing trend toward diverse institutions joining in consortiums to realize savings on IT goods and services, and building institutional capacity for distance learning and other computer-related functions.
“The real challenge will be keeping everyone moving in the same direction,” says Steven Dupuis, a technology manager at the Salish Kootenai College, a tribal institution in Montana.
“This is a big deal, and it can make a lot difference for the targeted schools. There’s an opportunity here to test out new ideas, new concepts and new technology,” says Ramon Harris, executive director of the Executive Leadership Foundation’s Technology Transfer Project, which coordinates IT development among a consortium of 12 HBCUs.
Educause, the nation’s leading higher education information technology association, will manage the project, which represents the first major effort by the organization in assist minority institutions.
David Staudt, the organization’s networking outreach director, says Educause’s role is to facilitate a process that will allow participating institutions to decide exactly how the grant will be spent over the next four years. The effort will focus heavily on at least 30 schools per year from each of the three communities.
“The schools are going to tell us what they want to do,” he says.
By the end of the two-day session, with snow removal permitting participants to catch airline flights back to their respective campuses, the diverse group agreed on several measures.
First, they will collaborate on developing a common survey for all the institutions to determine the condition of their campus IT infrastructures. They also decided to identify IT funding sources.
Consensus emerged around other items, including establishing remote technical support centers; assisting schools with campus network design; identifying best IT practices; and establishing a standard for which all the institutions can set for their campus connection to the Internet and other major data networks.
During the meeting, participants heard detailed briefings from consultants on topics such as technical planning and campus network architecture. Representatives from an outreach initiative briefed participants on a $1 million subcontract of the $5.9 million grant. The subcontract will focus on a limited number of minority serving institutions that have the research needs for high performance computing applications but need access to supercomputers.
“We got a lot out of it,” says Dupuis, referring to his Native American colleagues attending the meeting. “We seem to be getting on the right track. I got a better understanding of what can be accomplished.”
Dupuis admits that prior to the planning meeting, it was unclear as to what kinds of goal could be pursued by such a diverse and geographically dispersed group of schools. But he says that by the group’s willingness to develop consensus around some IT priorities, it became clear that the program has considerable potential.
Dr. Edward Codina, executive director of information and policy analysis for the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, says he found it encouraging that the group began discussing how it could become an advocate on information technology issues the public policy arena.
“As a group, we saw the possibilities of going beyond the basic agenda to look at broader goals and policy advocacy,” he says.
He says it’s proving valuable for the three communities to begin “thinking as a group” on information technology.
“[Building computer networks] is such a huge issue. We are recognizing that we have common issues and interests,” Codina says.
In addition to the Hispanic colleges association, Educause has enlisted the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, the College Fund/UNCF and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.     

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