MSIs Score Significant Victory in Congress

More minority-serving institutions are competing for and winning Homeland Security Department funding.

When historically Black colleges search for federal funding, they usually start with the U.S. Department of Education. But if new developments are any indication, they may want to keep their eye on the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

That department has just awarded funds to three HBCUs and one Hispanic-serving institution to serve as special centers of excellence on homeland security topics. From immigration to transportation to the challenge posed by natural disasters, minority- serving institutions are gaining an important foothold in the sometimes overlooked but still essential task of providing education and technical assistance through such centers.

This “historic decision to designate not one but four institutions as leads is remarkable,” says Rep. Bennie Thompson, DMiss., a Congressional Black Caucus member who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security.

One of the four winners, Jackson State University, will serve as co-leader of a new Center of Excellence on Natural Disasters, Coastal Infrastructure and Emergency Management. The victory is significant given Mississippi’s struggles after Hurricane Katrina.

“We are in an area where there are many issues related to natural disasters and coastal infrastructure,” says Dr. Felix Okojie, vice president of research and federal relations at JSU. Jackson State is expected to serve as the co-leader of the center’s educational programs.

The victory is significant, Okojie tells Diverse, since it illustrates the ability of smaller minority-serving institutions to compete with large, traditionally White research universities.

In the past, minority-serving institutions were not often engaged in the research and education activities at DHS, Okojie says. “Given the opportunity and having a level playing field, HBCUs like Jackson State can cooperate with majority institutions,” he adds.

With the University of North Carolina, Jackson State will co-lead the center, which will examine ways to safeguard people and properties and ways to improve response to natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, droughts and wildfires. Likely projects will focus on development of communication and post-event recovery.

Jackson State is expected to focus on education programs, such as new courses on coastal engineering and public safety manage ment, through both in-class or online instruction. The university also plans to offer summer programs for K-12 students to “get them energized and excited about engineering,” Okojie tells Diverse.

“We also may end up offering new degree programs,” he adds. Having a home state advocate such as Thompson in a leadership position can be a plus, though Okojie notes, “This is not an earmark. This was a national competition. We made a concerted effort to put together a strong partnership.” Other HBCUs may participate in the project, depending on funding and expertise.

Jackson State’s share of the grant will amount to about $1 million a year, he says. Two other HBCUs, Texas Southern University and Tougaloo College, will co-lead a new center of excellence on transportation security.

Texas Southern has a long history in transportation, with its department of transportation studies that has a broad array of programs. The department offers bachelor’s in airway computer science and airway science management and a master’s degree in transportation management. Texas Southern also offers a Ph.D. program in urban planning and environmental policy.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for the university, allowing us to be on the cutting edge of homeland security improvements,” says Dr. Demetrios Kazakos, TSU’s dean of the College of Science and Technology.

The University of Connecticut in Storrs will serve as another co-leader of this center. The University of Texas at El Paso, a Hispanic-serving institution, will co-lead a new Center of Excellence for Border Security and Immigration. Among other goals, this center will conduct research on new technologies and study the need to balance immigration and commerce issues.

With its main partner, the University of Arizona at Tucson, UTEP will assess threats, improve surveillance and screening and analyze immigration trends. With its share of the grant, $1 million annually for six years, UTEP will create a center led by Ret. Brig. Gen. José Riojas, the university’s vice president for strategic initiatives. The project will build on a 2006 federal grant to the university for an academic center focused on national intelligence issues.

Elsewhere, other new DHS Centers of Excellence will focus on maritime and port security and explosives detection. All are funded through the office of university programs at DHS’ science and technology directorate.

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