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Hard-fought MSI Technology Plan Needs Jump Start

After much work to get MSIs more technology funding, advocates face tough budget climate.

After many years of work to enact the bill — with an annual funding ceiling of $250 million — advocates now face the difficult task of finding federal dollars in a difficult budget climate. The Minority- Serving Institutions Digital Wireless program did not make it into the recent economic stimulus bill, but plans are underway to secure funding for the fiscal year that begins in October.

Congress created the program in last year’s Higher Education bill, but that legislation only authorizes the program at up to $250 million a year — it doesn’t provide actual funding. Educators must deal with that issue through Congress’ annual education spending bill.

“We will be working with the White House, the congressional leadership and the [House] Appropriations Committee to include it,” says Rep. Ed Towns, D-N.Y., a sponsor of the program. According to Towns, the problem is more severe now than it was in the past few years.

“The economic crisis has put a damper on the plans of most schools’ efforts to upgrade their facilities,” Towns says. “Unlike other, larger institutions of higher education, MSIs typically have small or nonexistent endowments and fewer wealthy alumni.” As envisioned by the legislation, funding would flow to the U.S. Department of Commerce, with funds available to Black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges.

With the authorization hurdle now finished, the United Negro College Fund says it will push for the maximum funding possible, says Edith Bartley, director of government affairs at UNCF. Bartley tells Diverse that she expects the issue will find a welcome audience at the White House and U.S. Department of Education.

“Technology is a major priority for the Obama administration,” she says, and the challenges facing Black colleges are particularly acute. With smaller endowments than many majority institutions, HBCUs face serious impacts from the economic slowdown, she notes. As a result, technology needs may go unfilled.

Colleges also say they can envision many innovative uses for the funds. After rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina, Xavier University in New Orleans has rebuilt and extended its technology program, which now features a wireless infrastructure and computer mini-labs in dormitories. But many priorities remain, says Melva Williams, interim vice president for technology administration.

Students and faculty members would benefit from a sizable increase in the number of wired classrooms on campus, she says.

“Federal money certainly would help there,” she tells Diverse. Another priority is security-related technology. After the shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Xavier reviewed its practices and implemented changes. “We’ve beefed up our technology across campus,” she says. Over time, however, the university wants to purchase handheld devices for police officers so they have real-time access to data and a quick way to identify students.

Hispanic-serving institutions also are seeking full funding for the new law to support demands on its members’ two- and four-year campuses.

“The needs have only grown since passage of the wireless technology bill,” says Dr. Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. Among other goals, HSIs would use technology funding to install high-speed networks, expand distance learning and add multimedia and computers in lecture halls.

While most HSIs are increasingly wired, he says, colleges need help “with the last mile” of high-speed broadband so coverage extends across and beyond campuses.

HACU also will ask Congress for the maximum funding of $250 million annually for five years. Yet even that is just a down payment on college needs. “The gap is so wide,” he says. “Even that amount will not close it in five years.”

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