A Rationale for Increasing Funding for HBCUsLast year, President Bush proposed a 9 percent increase in funding for minority-serving institutions including historically Black colleges and universities. While such a proposed funding increase is overdue, HBCUs have not been funded at a level needed to create parity in the educational achievements of African Americans.
I have followed federal spending for research and development (R&D), as well as congressional earmarks (or pork barrel) for colleges and universities, since the early 1980s when I was a faculty member at Auburn University. During the 1980s, “academic pork” was fueled in part by the quest for alternative sources of energy and by the strategic missile defense initiative. Earmarks are those appropriations not requested by the president, but instead inserted into congressional appropriations by ranking members of Congress who serve on the influential committee or who possess sufficient seniority to forge bipartisan support for their projects. HBCUs, however, receive low levels of funding because no African American holds a Senate seat, and those in the House have not risen to positions where they can influence pork-barrel spending to any appreciable extent.
Recent data summarized by The Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 27, 2002) indicate that $1.8 billion was directed to institutions for projects handpicked by members of Congress in 2002. The number of institutions benefiting from the earmarks increased 27 percent from the previous year to an all-time high of 668 institutions, according to the report. The total amount directed to special projects is bound to increase in the years ahead due to current homeland security concerns. Proponents of this style of federal funding for projects cite the inefficiency of the peer review process of federal agencies, which they contend often results in worthy projects not getting a fair hearing. However, I see earmarking as a grotesque perversion of the peer review process that is patently unfair to African American constituencies who are not well represented in Congress by their elected officials.
Federal spending for research has increased remarkably over the past decade, even when adjusted for inflation. An analysis of proposed federal R&D spending by the American Association for the Advancement of Science indicates that Congress is proposing huge increases in federal R&D spending to an all-time high of $116 billion for fiscal year 2004. A significant amount of federal R&D spending goes to colleges and universities in the form of grants and contracts through a competitive process of peer review conducted by government agencies. With few exceptions, HBCUs cannot compete well for big project federal research dollars for many reasons, including lack of adequate research infrastructure. Therefore, the federal government must assist a handful of HBCUs in developing research capabilities in the emerging areas of biotechnology, information technology and nanoscience. The lack of these capabilities creates a high-technology divide, which precludes the full participation of thousands of African Americans in the high-technology sector of the future. Moreover, HBCUs continue to suffer from huge deferred maintenance problems, poor facilities and low faculty salaries that place them in competitive disadvantage and threaten their economic survival in the 21st century.
Therefore, strong affirmative action for HBCUs involving federal R&D funds and congressional earmarks is needed. Members of Congress must recognize the essential role HBCUs have played in providing educational opportunities for African Americans and economically marginalized White Americans. The “No Child Left Behind” slogan for K-12 should be extended to include “No African American College Student Left Behind.” — Dr. Christopher I. Chalokwu is vice president for academic affairs and professor of science at Saint Xavier University in Chicago.
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