If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I will admit that while I respect a great many of the new and rising leadership at HBCUs I still feel as if there is a secret sauce missing. We often still mentally box what we view leadership must be like to lead our colleges and universities. They are often from traditional African American disciplines or professions. That is not meant to be a slight at them because they are what they are. Those disciplines are needed but sometimes you need different. That difference could be the missing sauce to make this new hamburger we are building or re-building standout (depending on how one looks at it). To make it dynamic.
After watching Dr. Tyson speak before the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee it became clear to me that this is someone who could lead the STEM and research revolution amongst HBCUs. There is currently no more prominent of an African American face associated with STEM. Would it cost to get him? Yes. Is he interested in an HBCU? As often the case we will not know unless we ask. The real question is what board or alumni would be creative and aggressive enough to pursue someone like Dr. Tyson. If we want to improve our place in STEM then we need someone who understands it intimately on a structural level and on a public relations level.
Currently, HBCUs as a whole do about $600 million combined annually in research expenditures. On the surface while that sounds like a lot, it would not make the list of top 30 list of research budgets at colleges and universities across the nation. Yes, there are 30 plus institutions that do over $600 million individually annually in research. Florida A&M, who led HBCUs in research in 2012, is doing only $53.5 million. The top of the heap continues to be John Hopkins University who conducts $2.1 billion annually in research by itself. It also would potentially create avenues that could allow HBCUs to become more competitive among the minefield that is the National Science Foundation and its questionable grant disbursements. Historically, HBCUs have received inadequate research funding from even the NSF and while President Obama has promised HBCUs $850 million over 10 years it would be much nicer if HBCUs were in position to receive the over $1 billion annually that the NSF hands out to the top tier research institutions.
If we need a reminder of why research is important then we just need to look at the economic state of our communities and our institutions. My favorite example of just what research on college campuses can produce is Google. It was developed at Stanford University while the two founders were PhD graduate students. An issue of HBCUs further developing their graduate programs and keeping their most talented within HBCU institutions is another article itself. The search engine that is now a verb currently employs 50 000 people. That is equivalent to 1/6th of the entire current HBCU student population. That is just ONE company whose co-founders have a combined net worth of $52 billion. There are thousands of other companies who have emerged as a result of STEM research on college campuses. The impact is so profound that the Kauffman Foundation’s study shows that MIT created companies alone would be the 17th largest economy in the world if they were their own nation. Unfortunately, due to a number of different reasons – a scientific vision not least among them – HBCUs have been slow to re-embrace its strong research heritage of the late 19th and early 20th century when men like George Washington Carver and others were transforming the American way of life through scientific research on HBCU campuses.
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson could provide a necessary spark to bring attention and resources to an HBCU willing to make the commitment. His presence would certainly make many gifted African Americans interested in STEM potentially pause and consider an HBCU. A school like Morris Brown, St. Paul’s, or Lewis College of Business who want to transform themselves could become the HBCU Institute of Technology. If we want to reach for the stars just maybe it is time we give leadership to someone who knows literally where to find them.