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Topics / Improving Schools & Systems

3 Foundations Join Forces to Support Black Colleges

A total of $3 million in donations will help Morehouse and Spelman Colleges and Prairie View A&M University attract and support professors.

Finding the money to recruit and support faculty members is a challenge for most colleges these days. It’s especially challenging for historically black colleges and universities, which are chronically underfunded. Their faculty members earn, on average, about $26,000 less per year than do those at predominantly white institutions.

Three HBCUs — Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Prairie View A&M University — on Monday announced plans to invest in their faculties after receiving a total of $3 million in grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

“We are still educating an enormous number of African Americans who are going to have to carry the load in a significant way for participation in American society,” said Ruth J. Simmons, president of Prairie View. “That deserves our paying attention to the development of faculty who we are putting in front of these students.”

Mellon awarded Prairie View $1 million; Carnegie awarded Morehouse $1 million and Spelman $500,000; and Rockefeller awarded Spelman $500,000.

Although $3 million is a modest sum compared with the gifts in the hundreds of millions that several major universities have announced this year, the presidents of all three colleges credited Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, with envisioning the possibilities that could flow from this collaborative funding model.

“He created an ecosystem to support this work,” said David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse. “If there’s a lesson for other funders that want to support in a significant way HBCUs, creating that ecosystem … to say ‘This is important, follow me,’ is critical.”

Research shows that HBCUs, which enroll about 300,000 students, are more effective at moving lower-income graduates up the economic ladder than are predominantly white institutions.

Other philanthropic groups should take a lesson from this series of grants, Simmons said. “They give enormous sums to other institutions, often for minority issues, but not to HBCUs. I think that has to be called out. … It is very frustrating to see that behavior.”

At Prairie View, Simmons, who has already led major faculty-development efforts, said the funds would further that mission.

“Prairie View, for example, educates the third-largest number of African American engineers in the country,” but “there is really no comparison” between her faculty’s heavy teaching workload and that of professors at other leading engineering-focused institutions, she argued. To combat that disparity, she said, faculty members “need time. They need support for their scholarship. They need to have access to professional organizations.”

Prairie View will also use some of the new funds to establish the Mellon Center for Faculty Excellence, which will create a database of best practices that can be shared across HBCUs.

Sharing best practices is common among colleges in the Ivy League or the Association of American Universities, she said, but “oddly enough, that practice is not as robust among our institutions.”

One of Morehouse’s goals, Thomas said, is to increase the number of tenured faculty members who are promoted. It could offer, for example, more sabbaticals, seed funding, and workshops.

When he became president, in 2018, he said, he “noticed that not enough of my faculty were moving from associate professor to full professor.” That limits the college’s leadership pool, he pointed out. “It’s very clear that we need to focus on having people be ready to provide leadership and understand that role.”

Mary Schmidt Campbell, president of Spelman, said her vision for the grant money is focused on supporting faculty members in ways that will help students. More than 45 percent of Spelman students are eligible for Pell Grants, yet the college graduates the most African American women who go on to earn doctorates in STEM fields.

The $1 million in awards will enable professors to “create more innovative courses and scholarship,” so that they can be “better teachers and more exciting teachers,” Campbell said. That, in turn, will further not only “a level of mastery” among students, she said, but also “a level of curiosity.”

Republished from The Chronicle of Higher Education with permission.

Three college presidents — David A. Thomas (left), of Morehouse; Ruth J. Simmons, of Prairie View A&M; and Mary Schmidt Campbell, of Spelman — describe their plans for faculty development funded by foundation grants.