“And this is going to piss Will off when I say this, but go get a football coach.” – Jarrett Carter
I open this “letter” to my dear brother saying that we have known each other for many years and this debate maybe as old as our friendship. Even I will admit that at one point I too believed that if HBCUs could return to obtainment of our community’s physical talent on the football field and basketball courts that our schools would reap the financial rewards they so desperately need. Unfortunately, Michael Vick, LeBron James nor his son, or the likes of Zion Williamson is walking through our doors anytime soon. Instead, we are going to have to rely on what truly drives the economics and finances of higher education institutions and that is research, entrepreneurship, and good old fashioned Afro-Brain Power.
Let me first address why we have absolutely no chance in sports savings us. I do not mean we have a little chance, I mean we have no chance. None. Zero. Negative zero even. Unfortunately, HBCUs even if LeBron James had gone to one can not fight the shiny uniforms that billionaire boosters like Nike’s Phil Knight rolls out to the University of Oregon every other week or the tens of millions that Kevin Plank the founder of Under Armour has poured into the University of Maryland’s athletic facilities. The former has so much influence in the state of Oregon that when he wanted to build a headquarters dedicated just to football that apparently ran afoul with the state building process – the state changed it. Yes, the state changed it. Both of these programs mentioned until these billionaire boosters got involved were marginal programs at best and are now most would agree significantly better, but by no means powerhouses. Essentially, Knight and Plank have poured over $500 million into these programs combined to take them from the basement of Division 1 college athletics to middle of the pack and sometime contenders. Between these two men, they are worth a combined almost $40 billion. It is safe to say the interest on their wealth alone allows for eight and nine figure donations to their alma maters in perpetuity if they so choose. Ironically or not, both of these men were college athletes who became entrepreneurs and not professional athletes and whose products were essentially developed in their time on campus, but more on this later.
Secondly, the ROI on athletes going pro or schools turning a profit on athletics is just not even worth a paragraph so I will keep this short. The NFL, NBA, and NCAA continues to squeeze HBCUs out of professional sports. HBCUers in the NBA is more a historic statement than current or future one. This year’s list of HBCU alumni in the NFL and their earnings: 22 players representing 16 HBCUs and combining for almost $40 million in earnings, which is the lowest earnings figure since HBCU Money started tracking the data. For perspective, that $40 million is 0.1 percent of Knight and Plank’s combined net worth. To further drive the point home, if Knight and Plank put all of their wealth into a savings account paying 1 percent, it would earn $400 million – ten times what all HBCU players will earn in 2018. Further to the point, because these careers are so short, major donations from these players who have tasted professional glory have been few and far between. I am still waiting on Jerry Rice to make a public donation of the seven figure variety – not a pledge, Jerry – to Mississippi Valley State University. Yet, schools like Prairie View A&M University spend $60 million on a new stadium that struggles to sellout. Lest we forget the almost disaster dome Jackson State University wanted to build at $200 million. If your school does not have access to a major TV network contract, the chances of you making money is almost slim to none and networks offer those contracts because they want to sell advertisements – networks I might add that are not African American owned and represent a media that shows a consistent disdain for our institutions. How do you sell that level of advertisements? Large fan bases, pure and simple math. The University of Michigan or Alabama on any given Saturday can put 100,000 fans in the seats and probably another million plus eyeballs glued to the television screen. HBCUs (individually) do not have that kind of scale nor the means to create it. So much for a short paragraph, but the problem is deep and the solution even deeper. The solution to building sustainable institutions lies in a holistic and committed approach to research and entrepreneurship on HBCU campuses.
HBCUs (and our alumni) for whatever reason have never really committed to research. Even during the days of George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute there were rumors that his research was looked at more in passing than integral to the future of the institution. I dare imagine what Tuskegee would be like had Carver or the institution had the patent on peanut butter. The global peanut butter industry is worth an estimated $3 billion as of 2017 and demand is growing at 6 percent annually according to CAGR. An article in the New Yorker reported, “In 2012, American universities earned $2.6 billion from patent royalties, according to the Association of University Technology Managers. The tech-transfer model is entrenched in medical schools and in biotech development.” As noted in our piece about HBCUs and patents, the University of Wisconsin and Carnegie-Mellon University garnered patent settlements in their favor to the tune of $1.2 billion, an amount that is virtually half of all HBCU endowments combined and almost three times what HBCU spend on research.
HBCUs combined have research expenditures of approximately $520.1 million as of 2017 according to the National Science Foundation data, an amount that is 0.7 percent of the $75.3 billion colleges and universities totaled in R&D expenditures. A number that has been declining every year for the past four years and off dramatically from 2014 when expenditures were a combined $547.1 million at HBCUs, a decline of almost 5 percent over the period while the top ten R&D colleges/universities have seen their expenditures rise by almost 20 percent in the same period. There are now 46 individual colleges and universities whose research and expenditures exceed $520 million per year, 12 of them exceeding $1 billion annually, and then there is John Hopkins University that lords over everyone with its $2.5 billion annually in research expenditures. But what does all this investment in research mean to sustainability? For one, it means these schools are institutions that are integral to the intellectual advancement of the nation in every aspect of industry, government, and military. A charge that HBCUs could take on in a very similar fashion for African America and the African Diaspora at large if it wanted to really be aggressive. However, it also takes on the commercialization of research, which ultimately leads to answering the question you my dear brother asked – Can HBCUs Create Billionaires?
In an oldie but goodie article that I published at HBCU Money many years ago called “The University of Power & Wealth”, I asked the question, “What do Google, Time Warner, FedEx, Microsoft, Facebook, and Dell have in common? They were all founded on college campuses. Google founded at Stanford, Time Warner & FedEx at Yale, Microsoft and Facebook at Harvard, and Dell at the University of Texas.” The value of all those firms as of this publication are a combined almost $2.2 trillion. Yes, that is trillion with a T. In addition, the founders of all these companies, except for the now defunct Time Warner which was sold for $85 billion to AT&T, have a combined net worth over $320 billion as of this publication. Some would argue that even the world’s move valuable company, Apple, is the result of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak’s proximity to Silicon Valley, basically a development creation that sprung out of Stanford’s research. Stanford and MIT maybe the nation’s most entrepreneurial colleges and it is no secret that their endowments reflect their innovation.
MIT is a monster or model all in and of itself. The school located in the heart of Boston, MA. has a student population of a little over 11,000 students. It is ranked 14th in the country with $950 million in R&D expenditures and that research combined with entrepreneurial DNA and cultivation shows up in a major way. “A new report estimates that, as of 2014, MIT alumni have launched 30,200 active companies, employing roughly 4.6 million people, and generating roughly $1.9 trillion in annual revenues.” If HBCU entrepreneurs employed 4.6 million African Americans it would be equivalent to employing almost 1 in 4 African Americans that are employed and the $1.9 trillion in revenue would be 50 percent greater than all of African America’s current buying power. MIT is so committed to its entrepreneurial culture in fact that it has even created an accelerator called The Engine to fund these ventures. “Just months after its launch, MIT’s new startup accelerator The Engine yesterday closed its first investment fund for over $150 million, which will support startups developing breakthrough scientific and technological innovations with potential for societal impact.” Can anyone imagine what would come of the ingenuity that our students possess if we had access to startup capital at even a fraction of that amount? Unfortunately, some in leadership want to spend more time bickering about why Michael Bloomberg, John Hopkins alumni and founder of Bloomberg L.P. and net worth of $45 billion, should have given the $1.8 billion he recently donated and some of the $3 billion overall he has donated to John Hopkins to schools who need it more than actually making the investments they can make into their own students, alumni, faculty, and staff so that they can create the next Bloomberg.
Let me also be clear in that last point that this onus is not all, not even remotely the responsibility of administrations who may come and go ultimately, but on alumni. Our alumni and their deference to administrations is part of the problem. Most HBCUs and the communities and towns they are in are underdeveloped and therefore there is millions of dollars that flow from our HBCUs every year from students and the like that could be circulated back. If alumni would invest in the dirt and build infrastructure so that small businesses, entrepreneurship, and capital was available intimately to their own HBCU, it would go a long way in creating communities, businesses, jobs, internships, opportunity, and more.
In closing my dear brother, I say this to you. It is indeed Afro-Brain and intellect that is our key not only to survival but success. Yes, sports pull at our heart strings, but it is not putting anything into our purse strings. Bowie State University obtaining their first patent is amazing, but it needs to go from breaking news to common news. HBCUs can be at the forefront of the new space race, the cure for Alzheimer’s, solving the water crisis in Flint, or the latest best selling apps for smartphones and the like if we truly believe that we can and invest in it like we mean it.
In HBCUs We Trust,
William A. Foster, IV