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HSI Administrators Express Dismay Over Proposed NSF Grant Consolidation

The Obama administration’s proposal to consolidate federal science programs for minority-serving institutions into a single competitive grant program has representatives from Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) crying foul after promises were made to dedicate specific funds to the schools that grant undergraduate degrees to half of the nation’s largest minority group.

At their Capitol Forum meeting last week, the members of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) met with their congressional representatives to lobby vigorously against the proposal as “a matter of equity and fairness.”

“This fell on us like a bucket of cold water,” said Dr.  Agnes Mojica, chancellor of the Inter American University of Puerto Rico and a member of HACU’s government relations committee. “If money had been set aside for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), we should have the same opportunity. We are growing institutions, and it doesn’t seem fair to change the rules now.”

The 2007 reauthorization of the National Science Foundation called for the creation of a grant program targeting HSIs under the minority-serving institution specific programs. Individual HSIs have won NSF grants for science, technology, engineering, math research and programs before, but the schools never had their own program.

For more than a decade, NSF has set aside dollars for HBCUs and TCUs for capacity-building and other areas. Since 1998, HACU reported that HBCUs and TCUs have received a total of $214.5 million and $82.5 million, respectively.

This past December, Congress approved a Title V spending bill for FY 2010 and  directed the NSF to “report on plans to establish an HSI program in FY 2011, for which a ‘significant funding request’ is expected” within 90 days. Just two months later, President Barack Obama presented his budget with the NSF provision.

“Last year, there was approved legislation to set money apart, and 90 days are gone. Now we get this response? It cancels the will of Congress expressed a year ago,” said Jose Jaime Rivera, chair of the HACU’s government relations committee.

Rivera said Obama’s 2020 goals for degree completion depend on the capacity of the nation’s 272 HSIs, which serve 50 percent of all Hispanic students. If estimates are correct, half of the entering workforce in 2025 will be Latino yet they are “grossly under-represented” in STEM fields and majors.

HACU officials said that, without investment in Latino students at the undergraduate and graduate level, America’s competitiveness is in jeopardy. The San Antonio-based organization recommends targeted HSI funding increases of up to $450 million each year the NSF is reauthorized for STEM teacher preparation, summer bridge programs, scholarships and fellowships, K-12 partnerships, and the establishment of an advisory committee for STEM issues made up of HSI and NSF members.

Under former President George W. Bush, NSF saw its budgets increase, and President Obama has promised to continue the trend. MSIs, in general, are slated to receive more funding — about $103 million — under a consolidated program as opposed to the $87 million they received in 2009 with the current framework, NSF Director Arden Bemet Jr. has said.

Answering questions and recommendations from HACU leaders at last week’s meeting, Dr. Bemet said the “Comprehensive Broadening Participation of Undergraduate Institutions in STEM” proposal will foster increased collaboration between majority- and minority-serving institutions and would simplify private industry support for STEM initiatives.

“It’s a departure from the past, and I don’t know if those communities that have expressed concern because it will be openly competitive should be concerned,” said Bemet, who will retire as NSF director this year to assume a position at Purdue University. “Our statistics indicate that MSI support, as far as NSF is concerned, has more than doubled in total support,” he added.

But HSI leaders worry that opening the pool of money to other institutions will swallow their small and under-supported efforts to win grants.

“According to my interpretation of the proposal, this would open the doors to all institutions, and many of our schools are not in a position to be successful in competing with major research universities that already have records with NSF,” said Dr. Milton Gordon, president of California State University Fullerton and chair of the HACU governing board.

HACU President Antonio Flores said collaboration between HSIs and major research schools has been taking place prior to the proposed NSF consolidation.  

“MSIs have a history of collaborating on a number of fronts, and NSF can foster that within the spirit of the law that calls for the creation of what had been set aside for HSIs,” Dr. Flores said. “It is possible to do what you want without integrating the funding.”

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus expressed oral commitments to support HACU members in defeating the NSF proposal. HBCU leaders have made similar appeals to their congressional leaders.

Handing HACU’s legislative agenda to every lawmaker she met last Tuesday, Mojica said her institution needs NSF grants to involve her students in STEM research early and to increase graduate student opportunities.

“What alliances are going to be formed if there are no research and development programs and other universities soak up the money,” said Mojica, whose campus educates a fifth of all college-age students in Puerto Rico.

NSF officials said that the proposal is still in its infancy and that they welcome the participation of MSI leaders during listening sessions that are scheduled for the coming months.

The program I’m defining is not the NSF program; it is the president’s budget that I am supporting and defending,” Bemet said during an HACU session. “I don’t know, once we get through the process, how it’s going to come out. We are still at an early stage and are working out all the details.” 

Photo details: Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (right), D-Texas, speaks with HACU members during a meeting at his office on Capitol HIll. (photo by Arelis Hernandez)

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