Since America’s founding nearly 250 years ago, after each major crisis has come a period of innovation, ingenuity and progress — often driven through investment in, and access to, higher education.
During the Civil War came the development of Land-Grant universities by way of the Morrill Act of 1862. After the Second World War, in 1950, came the National Science Foundation (NSF), a federal agency established to build powerful American research universities “to promote the progress of science and advance the national health, prosperity and welfare of the nation.” During the Civil Rights era, legislation was passed to enhance the missions of those colleges that came into existence to educate the sons and daughters of enslaved people, thereafter, called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Since becoming president at Morgan State University a decade ago, I have had my share of conversations regarding the survival, purpose and value of HBCUs. It is a debate that misses the point. For all of their challenges, our system of HBCUs provides access to many students who enter college with very limited economic means but who graduate with not only a degree but the life skills and training to become part of a new generation of scientists, engineers, professionals and business entrepreneurs. If we are to address the systemic barriers put in place over many generations for America’s communities of color, we must empower America’s highest performing HBCUs to become pillars of America’s research enterprise, just as we did for today’s elite research universities over the last 70 years. While many of those have built massive, successful research programs, they oftentimes produce research with only tangential value to Black and marginalized communities.
What should be the first step in this process? We should create a program of investment across the federal “mission” agencies, like the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, as well as parallel efforts at the NSF and the National Institutes of Health that seek to elevate the first tranche of HBCUs to the highest class of research universities known as R1s. Of the 4,000-plus institutions included in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, 131 are R1 doctoral universities (very high research activity) and 135 are R2 doctoral universities (high research activity). While there are 11 HBCUs classified as R2 doctoral universities — including my own national treasure, Morgan — none is an R1. Morgan is poised to be the first.
What are the scientific and practical questions that Morgan could uniquely help address? It begins with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted deep racial, social and economic health disparities, and the role of research in creating vaccines. There is a broad spectrum of health disparities — including diabetes, cardiovascular heart disease, hypertension and obesity — that disproportionately affect African Americans. Research involving the impact and effectiveness of artificial intelligence systems on marginalized communities would also be explored. The future of the quality of research design, methods, samples and outcomes and, ultimately, the accuracy of information that the nation relies on to conduct essential functions, may very well rest on the political and economic will to elevate Morgan to top-shelf research status.
This is a reset moment for higher education in Maryland and the nation. While the dominant chatter right now is centered around whether online instruction would supplant traditional face-to-face instruction, a research-focused Morgan can’t become too distracted by this argument. What makes so many places like Morgan so critical is what students gain outside of the classroom, which they can’t get from sitting hour after hour in front of a Zoom platform. The reset moment must be one where there is a state and national commitment to raise the research status of a few of these extremely productive universities to flagship, R1 status.
Universities like Morgan, Howard or North Carolina A&T, to name a few, are certainly poised to move up and to churn out more impactful research that focuses on the urban condition and on marginalized communities. For Morgan, this will be our singularly most important goal over the next decade. But, more importantly, if by 2030, the higher education landscape in America does not have a few world-class, tier one research HBCUs, we would have missed a seminal period of transformation in this country.
While there is nothing good about the devastation ravished upon us by COVID-19, this most recent troubling past can become the prologue to address the systemic racial gaps in higher education — if only our leaders have the will to act.
David Wilson is president of Morgan State University in Baltimore. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.