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Top priorities for Maryland HBCU spending: Affordability, research, entrepreneurship

Morgan State President David K. Wilson. (The Daily Record file photo)

Brimming with millions in federal relief funds, philanthropic donations and soon-to-arrive settlement funds from the state, Maryland’s historically Black colleges and universities are now saddled with the task of figuring out how to spend the money.

For the four institutions — Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore — priorities have included scholarships, entrepreneurship opportunities and research activity, three of the universities’ presidents shared Monday during a Greater Baltimore Committee forum about innovation and excellence at HBCUs.

David K. Wilson, president of Morgan State University, the only HBCU in Maryland not affiliated with the University System of Maryland, described how the university is working to carve research niches by launching unique programs in science and technology fields and expanding its research footprint. 

For example, Morgan is currently the only school in Maryland to offer degree programs in subjects like mechatronics engineering and cloud computing. Wilson said the university hopes to use money from the settlement with the state of Maryland — a total of $577 million, to be divided among the state’s four HBCUs over 10 years — to continue adding cutting-edge STEM majors to its catalogue in the coming years.

This push for more innovative degree programs comes as Morgan pursues a goal of becoming an R1 Doctoral University, which indicates a “very high” level of research activity, by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.  

Morgan earned its current R2 ranking, indicating “high” research output, in 2019. Since then, the university’s research footprint has expanded. Most recently, the university worked to identify research areas and specialties in which it could potentially become a national leader. One such area, Wilson said, is equity in artificial intelligence. 

While Morgan State doesn’t have the resources to compete with giants like Georgia Tech to lead the AI sector as a whole, he feels the university is uniquely equipped to use interdisciplinary research to answer pressing questions about bias in AI and machine learning.  

“How do you build these algorithms in such a way that they are not replete with bias, they are not replete with prejudice?” Wilson asked.

Anthony Jenkins, president of Coppin State University,  said the majority of the cash the school has received from the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic has been used to make the school more accessible. Coppin is focused on affordability and uplifting its poorest students and community members, Jenkins said. 

Most recently, the school eliminated $1 million in student loan debt for recent graduates and offered all current students a $1,200 credit, which covers a little more than half of the cost of a semester’s tuition. These actions were made possible by funding from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act.  

(Money doled out to universities through the ARP was limited in how it could be used; a certain portion had to go to student relief, while the remainder had to be used to offset costs associated with the coronavirus pandemic). 

“We want to make sure that access and opportunity remain the focal point of what we do,” Jenkins said, before pointing out the Coppin has not benefited from the same philanthropic outreach as the state’s other HBCUs have; in late 2020, MacKenzie Scott, a philanthropist and the ex-wife of multibillionaire Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos, donated a collective $85 million to Maryland’s other three HBCUs, along with HBCUs and tribal colleges nationwide. 

By focusing on affordability, Jenkins aims to ensure even the city’s poorest residents can get a strong education and improve their circumstances. It’s also why the school is taking steps to expand its business, in hopes of giving students increased access to entrepreneurial skills, education and resources, such as makerspaces and faculty guidance. 

“I have said repeatedly that if West Baltimore and Maryland is going to rise, it is important that we are going to focus on the lowest socioeconomic quartile in our society,” Jenkins said. 

Bowie State University has also placed an emphasis on entrepreneurship in recent years, launching programs such as the Saxbys Experiential Learning Platform, an on-campus café that is run by a student manager, and the Entrepreneurship Living Learning Community, a residential facility that also serves as an “innovation hub,” housing student businesses and makerspaces.  

This emphasis on entrepreneurship gives students “an entrepreneurial mindset … allowing them to pivot and to lead any organization or contribute to any organization” in their careers, said Bowie State President Aminta Breaux.  

Though Wilson is grateful for the money Morgan and the state’s other HBCUs have received in recent years — and the funds they will soon begin to receive through the settlement — he sees the process of equalizing the playing field between the state’s HBCUs and its predominantly white colleges as something that is only just beginning. 

“We do think there are additional steps we need to take … (to make) sure that the state of Maryland has a comprehensive, competitive … higher education system that is not tiered, but all the institutions are very, very strong in their mission,” he said. “This is the first step.”