Leading from Behind

Two historically Black colleges aspire to become more than just feeder schools

Historically Black colleges and universities are relative newcomers
to the science and engineering search arena. As a consequence, few
offer doctoral level programs on their campuses, which is one reason
they are not among the top tier of institutions receiving federal
science and technology research funding.

A handful of these institutions are, however, far outpacing the
competition in their production of African American undergraduates in
science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET) disciplines.
This fact, coupled with an awareness about the amount of public and
private funding that is becoming available to students and institutions
that excel in this area, has inspired some HBCUs to aggressively expand
their SMET programs. Their ultimate goal is to become not just one
choice, but the first choice of Black undergraduates — and eventually
graduate students — who want to pursue degrees in these disciplines.

The following is a profile of two such institutions.

Unlikely Leaders

Despite their multi-million-dollar scientific research budgets,
when it comes to recruiting and retaining African American
undergraduates in SMET disciplines, institutions like Johns Hopkins,
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the California
Institute of Technology (Caltech) are a long way from competing with
historically Black North Carolina Agricultural & Technical
(A&T) and Florida Agricultural & Mechanical (FAMU) universities.

A&T and FAMU rank one and five respectively among the leading
producers of Black engineers at the undergraduate level. All but one
(Georgia Tech) of the leading five institutions in this category are
historically Black.

In 1996, A&T graduated 255 Black undergraduate engineers, which
amounted to roughly 10 percent of all the African American engineers
who earned bachelor’s degrees that year. The university also leads in
the production of Black undergrads in technology and mathematics (264),
and ties with three other institutions as the thirteenth-leading
producer of Blacks with bachelor’s degrees in the physical sciences
(13).

FAMU — which was acknowledged as the nation’s leading producer of
Black undergraduates in the 1997 “Top 100” edition of Black Issues In
Higher Education — ranks second in its production of African American
technology, computer science, and mathematics degree recipients (189),
and graduated 119 African American engineering undergraduates in 1996.
FAMU also is one of the two institutions to tie A&T for thirteenth
place in producing physical science degree recipients.

The achievements of these two institutions are significant
considering that three out of four African American college students
seeking bachelor’s degrees do not attend historically Black
institutions. And while their leaders — Chancellor Edward B. Fort at
A&T, and President Frederick S. Humphries at FAMU — are proud of
these accomplishments, both have even loftier goals.

The High-Tech Side of `Aggie Pride’

Early on a brisk and overcast winter morning in Greensboro, North
Carolina, a gathering of high school guidance counselors, teachers, and
principals make polite conversation while polishing off the remains of
their southern breakfast, courtesy of North Carolina Agricultural &
Technical State University. As the guests begin sipping their coffee
and tea, seven members of the A&T gospel choir present a musical
invocation. This is hospitality “Aggie” style.

After delivering spirited interpretations of “Mary Had a Baby” and
“What a Wonderful Child,” the jubilant Aggies — as members of the
A&T community call themselves — are excused to prepare for class.
After all, the purpose of this gathering is not merely to entertain.
The real goal is to persuade these high school administrators to send
their graduates to A&T.

This breakfast is one of several such convenings A&T will host
throughout the year as part of its outreach to secondary school
educators.

“Dr. [Ronald] McNair was originally planning a career in music,”
Chancellor Fort tells the audience, in reference to the African
American astronaut who perished in the ill-fated Challenger space
mission in 1986. McNair spent his undergraduate years at A&T before
heading to MIT for graduate school.

“But [McNair] was turned on to physics by an A&T professor,” Fort boasts.

A&T enrolls roughly 8,000 students, of whom 86.5 percent are
Black, 10 percent are White, 0.3 percent are Latino, and 0.9 percent
are Asian. It is the nation’s leading producer of African American
undergraduates in engineering and second in the production of Black
graduate students in the field.

“A&T is one of NASA’s Mars Space Research sites,” Fort tells
the breakfast crowd, noting that of the nine universities participating
in this National Aeronautical and Space Administration project, A&T
is the only historically Black institution.

Fort also points out A&T’s other trappings of prestige. It is a
participant in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Alliance for
Minority Participation (AMP) program — for which it receives $1
million annually. It has had more than $25 million in contracts and
grants with NASA over the past seven years. Among the university’s
faculty is the nation’s first African American Ph.D. computer
scientist– Dr. Joseph Monroe, who now occupies the McNair endowed
chair.

During a private interview later, Fort underscores A&Ts
steadfast commitment to expanding the ranks of African American SMET
graduates well into the next century. To do so, however, he says he’s
going to need a greater share of federal and private sector research
funds.

“NSF data [from 1993-94] show that research institutions received
approximately $12.7 billion from ten federal agencies,” he says with a
furrowed brow. “Ten billion ]dollars] of this went to the top 100
research universities, but not one HBCU was in the mix.”

In fact, only $140 million went to the top 81 HBCU producers of
African American students, he adds, noting that Johns Hopkins alone got
$701 million.

“There is a huge gap between the haves and have-nots,” says Fort.
“It reflects a lack of commitment on the part of the nation.”

Investing in Technology

A tour of A&T’s new $7.5 million state-of-the-art technology
facility — which is scheduled for completion this April — offers a
glimpse of where Fort and the Aggie community are headed.

As the shrill sound of electric drills echoes through the yet
unfinished halls of this gleaming high-rise building, guides explain
that it is being erected to accommodate the rapidly growing School of
Technology. With 107,000 square-feet of classroom, laboratory, and
office space, the new facility is expected to make the ten-year-old
school an even more attractive draw to precocious technology students.

Other science-related capital improvement projects planned by
A&T include an $11 million upgrading of the university’s chemistry
facilities, development of a $34-million twin-tower complex to house
the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Business, and
completion of the multimillion-dollar campus-wide, fiber-optic Aggie
Net computer network. Aggie Net will eventually be accessible from all
faculty and administrative offices, as well as most campus laboratories
and student dormitories. The infrastructure of this project, much of
which is already in place, is scheduled for completion by the year 2000.

“We saw our competitors getting into [telecommunications and
technology] and realized that it is what students and faculty want, so
we reorganized,” says Dr. Melvin N. Johnson, assistant vice chancellor
for academic affairs, and principle administrator and architect of the
campus’s computer network.

In addition to installing hardware and software, his office
manages: the campus wide area network; all technology maintenance;
faculty, staff, and student computer training; and technology
procurement. It also is the hub for the campus’s Smart Classroom
projects.

Funding for each of these projects has come from public and private sources.

The new technology enhancements will complement A&T’s existing
SMET resources, which include: a planetarium featuring a 30-foot
hemispherical dome; an on-campus observatory, complete with a 14-inch
telescope; and a Foucault pendulum, used to instruct students on the
characteristics of gravity.

Another indication of A&T’s commitment to fortifying its SMET
infrastructure is its pursuit of additional science and engineering
doctoral programs. Currently, the university only offers Ph.D.s in
mechanical and electrical engineering. However, it has already
implemented the process for accrediting doctoral programs in computer
science, chemistry, and technology. If successful, A&T will be the
nation’s first HBCU to offer a Ph.D. in computer science, says Dr.
Lonnie Sharpe Jr., dean of the College of Engineering.

As part of its effort to steer undergraduates toward graduate
education in the sciences, A&T runs a Minority Access to Research
Careers (MARC) honors program that provides undergraduate research
training to students majoring in chemistry, biology, and animal
science. MARC trainees receive full tuition and fees, plus a monthly
stipend. Participants must sustain a GPA of 3.0 or better.

The university also participates in a variety of collaborative
research projects with national research laboratories, private
industry, and other universities including Duke, the University of
Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of Connecticut.

“Our goal is to increase exponentially, the number of students we graduate [with SMET degrees],” Fort says.

Turning Up the Heat in Florida

Three states south of North Carolina, in Florida, FAMU is charting
its path towards increasing the number of Black SMET graduates through
creative partnerships, a dedicated faculty, and the leadership of a
president who is a former physical chemistry professor and sees no
reason why it can’t be done.

FAMU is home to roughly 10,000 students, of whom 88 percent are
Black, 8 percent are White, 1.5 percent are Latino, and 0.9 percent are
Asian American, based upon 1995 enrollment data provided to the U.S.
Department of Education.

President Humphries credits the partnerships his institution has
developed with various sectors of the nation’s engineering community as
having been a critical component of his success in producing record
numbers of Black engineers.

“Once you have a group of faculty who are dedicated to the
production of African Americans and Hispanics in science and
engineering, and they have an understanding of how to achieve this,
then the biggest impediment [to success] is finding the financial
support for them,” Humphries says.

At FAMU, the “Life Gets Better” scholarship program — which
Humphries conceived and launched in 1986 — is an example of what
partnerships can do for students, the university, and its corporate
benefactors. Functioning as a partnership between the university and
dozens of Fortune 500 companies, the program provides four-year
scholarships, plus three paid summer internships to students who
demonstrate outstanding academic potential. Each year, the university
offers between forty and fifty of the scholarships — valued at
approximately $50,000 each, excluding the funds students earn during
their internship. Since the program’s inception, 120 different
companies have participated in the program.

Strategies like these have helped other leading institutions as well, Humphries says.

However, these types of partnerships don’t exist in some of the
other science and math-based disciplines — which accounts, to some
degree, for the dismal numbers.

Humphries adds that the difficulty of these disciplines, combined
with the scarcity of financial resources, and the uncertainty of
careers in the sciences — where doctoral holders languish sometimes
for years in post-doctoral appointments awaiting a faculty or academic
research opportunity — makes it even harder to recruit and retain
African American students in these fields.

At the undergraduate level, however. two federally sponsored
programs are helping Humphries to effect modest, but significant,
change. The programs are run by Drs. Lynette Padmore, a geneticist, and
Ralph W. Turner, a chemist.

One of the programs, BINOR, Padmore explains, was founded in 1989.
It originally was designed to serve biology majors who were considering
pursuing Ph.D.s or M.D / Ph.D.s. In recent years, chemistry students
have participated in the program as well.

BINOR gets its-name from the partnership between the FAMU Biology
Department and the Office of Naval Research of the U.S. Dept of
Defense, which provides $500,000 annually toward the program.

“We began with only six students, we now have seventy-six
undergraduates involved in the program,” Padmore says, adding that the
majority (88 percent) of BINOR graduates have gone on to either
graduate or medical school.

FAMU’s success with BINOR led to the development of another
retention-focused program in 1992, this time funded by the National
Science Foundation (NSF).

The Florida-Georgia Alliance for Minority Participation in Science
Engineering and Mathematics, also known as FGAMP, is a collaborative
effort between the NSF and twelve postsecondary institutions — of
which FAMU is one. FGAMP is one of twenty-five such collaborations the
NSF is funding throughout the country.

The NSF directs $660,000 to FGAMP annually, with matching funds
coming from the two participating states. The goals-based program aims
to increase the recruitment, progression, and graduation rates of
African American and other under-represented undergraduates in SMET
disciplines.

“In 1991, the participating institutions had graduated,
collectively, 416 [under-represented minority] graduates in science,
engineering, and mathematics,” Padmore says. “In 1997, they
collectively graduated 1,112.” FAMU accounted for 198 of these.

Turner and Padmore emphatically note that neither BINOR nor FGAMP
are remediation programs. Both recruit students from secondary school
and guide them through the entire undergraduate experience, but they
are based on a model that takes a holistic approach — providing
students with the information, mentoring, internships, tutoring, and
guidance they need to achieve their academic goals.

“If you can’t get through the undergraduate years, you can’t move
to the next level,” Padmore says. “People are beginning to have higher
expectations of [African American] students, if you tell them what you
expect and you provide the necessary support, they will perform. But it
has to be sustained. It cannot be a one-shot event.”

Padmore has observed that while the degree of support varies from student to student, most only need two years.

“After that, they go on to affect other students and even their families,” he says.

Entrance requirements for the FGAMP program include a 3.0 high
school GPA and SAT scores of 1000 or better, although Padmore
characterizes these criteria as “flexible.” FAMU’s ordinary GPA
requirement is 2.0.

FGAMP also provides participating students with a performance-based
financial award of up to $2,000 per year toward their education. Those
who perform at 3.5 or above, get $2,000 per year, those performing at
that 2.5 level only get $500 for the one semester because they are
expected to improve the next term.

“Some schools look at retention only. We look at the front end, the
back end, and everything in between,” says Padmore, who adds that the
results of these programs speak for themselves.

“We have found that more than 90 percent of the [AMP] students are
getting B.S. degrees, and more than 80 percent are remaining in
science, engineering, and mathematics…. [and] we have placed 38
percent in graduate school,” notes Padmore.

According to Turner, the team-work approach of FGAMP and BINOR
serves African American students particularly well, while also
preparing them for the realities of scientific work in the “real world.”

“In the real world, you’re not alone in the laboratory. You’re part
of a team and you have a part to play which requires discipline as well
as communication with other scientists,” he says.

Another instrumental component, he says, is the engagement of the professors who are involved in the program.

“Science is an active process,” says Turner. “Curriculum should
encourage participation by students, and the teacher must play an
active role in getting them involved.”

A College Where Diversity and Cooperation Rule

Perhaps the most extensive SMET partnership FAMU has engaged in is
its collaboration with Florida State University (FSU) in the FAMU/ FSU
College of Engineering. This relationship is integral to the HBCU’s
dramatic success in producing such high numbers of Black engineers.

The engineering college is located approximately two miles from
FAMU’s main campus, and just a block away from the National High
Magnetic Field Laboratory. It is where FAMU and FSU engineering majors
take their engineering classes. All other courses are taught on their
respective home campuses.

The FAMU/FSU College of Engineering was born out of the state
legislature’s unwillingness to fund two state engineering colleges
within a few miles of each other. Instead, the lawmakers funneled
resources toward building one college and required FSU and FAMU to work
together.

“I hope I’m not stretching too far, but I would say we are,
perhaps, the best African American university available, particularly,
when you consider engineering,” says Dr. Ching-Jen Chen, dean of the
college.

Like nearly 30 percent of his faculty, Chen was born abroad (in
Taiwan), but has lived in the United States for most of his adult life.
The mechanical engineer earned his master’s degree at Kansas State
University, completed his doctorate at Case Western, and spent
twenty-five years at the University of Iowa before coming to FAMU in
1992.

“I was in the Big Ten and I had never even heard of this college.
In fact, I had never heard of Tallahassee” recalls Chen, who had been
approached about applying for the FAMU/FSU deanship by one of his
former doctoral advisors who served on the college’s board of trustees.

“I said to him, `Why should I be interested in this college?,’ and
the one phrase he said that convinced me was, `If I were not that old,
I would like to be the dean of this college,'” Chen says.

The former Alexander Von Humboldt U.S. Senior Scientist Award
winner is now among the college’s most vociferous advocates. He is
particularly proud of its diversity and boasts that roughly half of his
2,000 students are African American.

“North Carolina A&T is the only HBCU that surpasses us in
enrollment of [African American engineering students],” says Chen.

Beyond its favorable demographics, Chen believes his college is
ideal for Black students because it offers more doctoral programs in
engineering than any other historically Black institution — five in
total: chemical, electrical, civil, industrial, and mechanical.

Chen acknowledges that his college’s relative youth — only sixteen
years old– means it doesn’t have the name recognition or prestige
enjoyed by places like MIT or even Georgia Tech. Yet, for such a young
institution, he claims it is attracting a noteworthy amount of research
funding — $2 million in public funds and $7 million from other sources
— and an increasingly competitive student population. Additionally,
according to Chen, its newest faculty members are conducting some of
the most forward-looking technology research in the country.

While serving two masters is a challenge, Chen says he’d much
rather be here working with two universities than at one more
established and entrenched institution where change would be slow to
non-existent.

“When I interviewed here I realized that this place was suffering
from growing pains. But I also said that growing pain is better than
dying pain.”

Peering over the balcony of the colleges’s enclosed center
courtyard, it is hard not to notice that clusters of students often
appear segregated. Chen and various faculty members admit this is one
of their challenges, but they say it is primarily a factor of when the
students transfer to the campus. Most students of the college spend
their freshman and part of their sophomore year on their home campuses.
So, by the time they start taking classes at the college of
engineering, they’ve already established their friends and their study
groups.

FAMU sophomores Travis Smith and Irving Jamie Scott say some of
their professors make a deliberate effort to create new relationships
among their students by assigning them to study groups that offer a mix
of students from both institutions.

When pressed, Chen admits that a greater number of students from
FAMU arrive less mathematically prepared than the students from FSU.
However, he takes pains to point out that it is largely a matter of
preparation, and that he and the faculties of all three institutions
are working to solve it by normalizing the curriculum required by both
FAMU and FSU.

“African American students are among those who complain more than
majority students, but this is because they expect, and need, more
attention,” he says.

Recruiting African American faculty has been a more arduous task
for Chen. With seventy or fewer African American engineering Ph.D.s
produced nationwide each year, he says the competition is fierce.

“When I came [to the college] I had four Black faculty out of
fifty,” he says. “Now I’ve built up to seventeen Black faculty. That
might not look big, but seventeen is almost 22-23 percent of my
faculty. You go to MIT, Berkeley, anywhere you take a look, even
Georgia Tech, and see how many Black faculty they’ve got.”

Considering where the country is going demographically, Chen
believes his college’s diversity will, in the long run, topple the
competition.

“If you want cultural diversity, this is the place to be.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Why I Chose FAMU

Florida A&M University (FAMU) is cultivating its reputation
nationwide, in large measure, on the success of its science,
mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET) graduates. This
reputation is part of what attracted FAMU engineering sophomores Travis
Smith and Irving Jamie Scott, both of whom could have gone just about
anywhere for college based upon their high SAT scores and academic
records.

“I was number one in my class [and] valedictorian and everybody
expected me to go somewhere else,” Smith says of his Miami high school.
“Most of my [White] teachers were pushing me to go to Harvard, MIT, or
somewhere like that.”

But having been the only African American in most of his classes
throughout high school — despite the school’s healthy diversity —
Smith yearned for a different type of experience in college.

“I was tired of being the only one,” says the chemical engineering
major. He adds that his ambitions of pursuing doctoral studies at a
place like MIT meant that undergraduate school would probably present
his only opportunity to attend an historically Black institution.

Unlike Smith, who is a first generation college student, Scott
comes from a family of college graduates. He decided he wanted to
become an engineer when he was still in junior high, after hearing a
neighbor’s presentation on computational fluid dynamics. The neighbor
was a Ph.D. mechanical engineer who worked for IBM.

“I had no clue exactly what [computational fluid dynamics] was, but
it looked like an interesting job,” says Scott, who is now a mechanical
engineering major.

Scott’s personal Web site runs a listing of the universities he was
accepted to, but which he turned down in favor of FAMU. MIT, Cornell,
Yale, and Howard are among them.

“It was either gonna be FAMU or Howard,” he says. “Howard offered
me a full ride, but FAMU offered me a full ride, plus an internship
every summer, so I came here.”

Scott plans to pursue a Ph.D. and may even consider returning to
academe one day, but not until he has spent enough years in industry to
amass a small fortune. After all, one of his reasons for choosing to
pursue engineering over law — his second career choice — is the
earning potential.

Smith and Scott are both recipients of FAMU’s “Life Gets Better
Scholarship,” a four-year tuition and housing scholarship that provides
recipients with paid internships for three summers with a Fortune 500
company. The scholarship is funded by the company that agrees to
sponsor each student. In many cases, students wind up landing their
first jobs with these firms upon graduation. FAMU awards between forty
and fifty of these scholarships annually.

Smith and Scott say that while the situation at FAMU isn’t perfect, on the whole they are glad they chose to come here.

“A lot of our professors are foreign, so understanding what they’re
saying in class is [a problem] for some students,” says Smith, who,
having come from Miami, is used to interacting with people whose
primary language is not English.

Generally, Smith is finding FAMU easier than he anticipated.

“In high school I was geared toward going into the sciences, so I
have a strong background for most of my classes. It’s not as much of a
challenge for me as it is for some of the other students who are being
exposed to it for the first time,” he says. “But later on, it’s going
to get harder.”

Among the things Smith enjoys most about FAMU is the presence of so many Black faculty — especially Black engineers.

“It helps to see Black engineers,” he says. “I didn’t know any chemical engineers at home.”

He also appreciates being treated like an individual, not just another face in the crowd.

“I have friends who go to the University of Florida, back home, and
they say they are treated like just a number,” Smith confides. “At
FAMU, I know all of my teachers [and] they know me by name. Here if
[professors] see you trying, they’re gonna help you.”

Scott agrees.

“One of my best friends is going to Johns Hopkins right now, and in
his core classes there can’t be any less than 100-plus-kids per class,”
he says. “The biggest class I’ve ever had is around 75 students.”

Scott also appreciates the quality of commitment he feels from his professors.

“At FAMU the professors teach toward the class level,” Scott says.
“Which, actually, is a good thing because they’re more geared toward
making sure that you learn the material than just making sure they get
through all of the material.

“You really can’t get the one-on-one treatment [we get here] from another school” Scott says.

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