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Wiring Schools For Success

Wiring Schools For Success

Lawmakers revive bill to assist minority-serving  institutions in upgrading technology infrastructure

By Charles Dervarics

It is no secret that many historically Black colleges and universities are trailing behind TWIs (Traditional White Institutions) in the technology race. In fact, a 2000 study conducted by the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) for the U.S. Department of Commerce found that most HBCUs did not have high-speed Internet access and only 3 percent of colleges said financial help was available to help students purchase computers and close the digital divide.

But help may be on the way as a long-delayed plan to improve the technology infrastructure at Black colleges is showing new signs of life in Congress this year.

A bill from Sen. George Allen, R-Va., would revive the concept, with annual funding of $250 million for five years. To broaden support for the measure, the bill also would make Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and other minority-serving institutions eligible for funding.

The Minority-Serving Institution Digital and Wireless Technology Opportunity Act would offer competitive grants so colleges can buy equipment, networks, hardware and software and wireless technology. Campus wiring and technology training are other eligible uses of funds so students have universal, high-speed Internet access on campus.

“With this legislation, together as a country we move one step closer to eliminating the ‘economic opportunity divide’ that exists between minority-serving institutions and non-minority institutions of higher education,” Allen said in proposing the bill as S.432. He was joined by seven other co-sponsors, including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Trent Lott, R-Miss.

The bill is similar to one that unanimously cleared the Senate and the House Science Committees in the last Congress. But that plan stalled amid disagreements about how to implement the initiative and what role minority-serving colleges should have in selecting grant recipients.

One stumbling block was resistance from the National Science Foundation, the agency favored by the Senate to administer the program. During the last Congress, NSF leaders were critical of the proposal, saying the grant program may crowd out funding for other federal science programs.

NSF’s director also had expressed concern about provisions that would give HBCUs, Hispanic-serving institutions and other colleges extensive input during the grant selection process. The science agency usually relies on independent peer review from education and technology experts.

As a result, some lawmakers considered switching administration of the program from NSF to the U.S. Department of Commerce, but that concept also never gained approval on Capitol Hill.

HBCU leaders say they are putting that past debate behind them.

“I think this year all of us are working together to get it passed,” said Dr. Marie McDemmond, president of Norfolk State University in Virginia, who was joined at the press conference reintroducing the technology bill by other HBCU presidents including Hampton University president Dr. William Harvey; St. Paul’s College president Dr. John Waddell; and Virginia State president Eddie Moore. “We don’t care what department it’s at as long as it results in a strong program.”

Advocates also note that Dr. Rita Colwell, NSF director during the debate in the last Congress, finished her tenure as agency chief in February 2004. Dr. Arden Bement Jr. was installed as the new director last November.

“There’s new leadership at NSF,” says Stephanie Myers of RJ Myers Publishing and Consulting and a principal investigator of the 2000 Black college technology report.

As introduced this year, the bill would create an Office of Minority-Serving Institution Digital and Wireless Technology within NSF to administer the grants. Institutions would receive grants through a peer-reviewed process conducted “in consultation” with minority-serving institutions, a bill summary states.

Under the bill’s wording, NSF also would create an advisory council to advise the science agency on the best ways to review and evaluate proposals. Membership on this board would include minority businesses, minority-serving institutions, federal personnel, technology organizations and others with knowledge of MSIs and technology issues.

In addition, any panel that reviews grant proposals would have to include representatives from minority-serving colleges.

Myers says NSF is still the logical home for the initiative. “In our view, NSF is a wonderful place for this program. It supports cutting-edge technology.”

The U.S. Commerce Department, while an option, is not Myers’ first choice given the department’s relatively limited focus on scientific, peer-reviewed grant programs. Placing a five-year, $1.2-billion program at that agency is “like putting an elephant in a mosquito house,” Myers says.

Allen’s bill also would open up the grant program to Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian-serving colleges. Grantees would have to provide a match equal to 25 percent of the grant, or $500,000, whichever is less. The   government could waive the matching requirement for any college with no endowment or an endowment of less than $50 million.

U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., has introduced a House version of the bill as H.R. 921. Introducing the bill, he said that HBCUs such as Virginia State University in his area lack the technology available at other colleges in the state. The bill would allow students from minority-serving institutions “to compete equally with students from other universities” for high-paying jobs, he adds.

Related Links

The Pew Internet & American Life Project:

The Minority Serving Institution Digital and Wireless Technology Opportunity Act of 2003:

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