Partners in Name Only? with the Department of Homeland Security Awarding Multimillion-Dollar Grants, Minority-Serving Institutions Are Positioning Themselves to Lead, Rather Than Just Support Majority Institutions

Article excerpt

When Jackson State University officials and their collaborators assembled a proposal for a $12 million social and behavioral research center to combat terrorism, they hoped Federal officials would give a nod of approval to what they believed was a high-value concept.

The proposal, Featuring the predominantly White Mississippi State University as the lead and the historically Black Jackson State as a partner, apparently impressed U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials enough that it was among a handful of finalists. Site visits took place. Hopes ran high.

So naturally, both schools were disappointed when the multimillion-dollar, three-year grant went to a University of Maryland-College Park-led partnership of institutions (see Black Issues, Jan. 27).

But Jackson State wasted no time forming a new partnership to compete for a DHS research center on emergency preparedness and response. As of a week before the April 22 government deadline for proposals, Jackson State officials had not only agreed to a major role in one consortium but were also considering becoming a minor player in two others to better the odds of winning the multimillion-dollar grant.

"Minority institutions have plenty of things to offer and to bring to the table," says Dr. Felix Okojie, Jackson State's vice president for research development, support and federal relations. "We are at a point where we call lead."

Dr. Mel Bernstein, DHS director of university programs, adds: "Minority institutions are becoming integral parts of these teams. Our goal is that all the proposals have minority representation."

But that hasn't always been the case. Of the four multimillion--dollar DHS grants awarded so Far for multidisciplinary anti-terrorism research, Bernstein recalls only one application featuring an undisclosed minority-serving college as its lead. The grants finance university-based Homeland Security "Centers of Excellence," each with a different specialty, conducting work on potential terrorist threats.

The existing centers are led by the University of Southern California, the University of Minnesota and Texas A&M University. The Maryland center --scheduled to start up this month and includes the historically Black Morehouse College and Howard University and the heavily Hispanic University of New Mexico--will be the fourth center. DHS officials expect to award funds for a fifth center focusing on emergency preparedness later this year--up to a total of seven, Bernstein says. In addition, two "Cooperative Centers" will be named with funds from federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Centers of Excellence are by no means the only DHS off, rings to higher education. Through its Office of Domestic Preparedness, DHS offers funds to community colleges for support training programs. And during 2004-05, 174 undergraduates and graduate students from 93 schools in the country participated in the DHS Scholars and Fellows program. Seven schools are minority-serving institutions and 20 percent of the students are Black or from another under-represented minority. All DHS scholars and fellows received tuition, lees, monthly stipends plus a summer internship involving homeland security initiatives.

However, the prestigious Centers of Excellence are arguably the crown jewels among DHS opportunities for academia--an observation not lost among minority institutions.

"The minority-serving institutions are much more supportive of those programs that are truly collaborative than the single faculty member or the single student going somewhere for a summer. They want to move beyond intellectual exercise," says Dr. Bob Shepard, executive director of Science and Engineering Alliance, a not-for-profit group that works with Jackson State and three other historically Black colleges and universities to help broker partnerships between those schools and the public and private sectors. …