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Dr. Victor McCrary, Vice President for Research and Economic Development at Morgan State University, created a Vice Presidents of Research Forum that hopes to impact networking between global corporations and historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). Dr. McCrary spoke to  USBE recently about the forum.

Why is the role of Vice President for Research important?

It is really important because more schools in the past decade have broken out into the position of Vice-President of Research or in some places the Vice Provost of Research. From a business point of view, Academic Affairs brings in tuition; that’s a revenue line. Athletics and Student Affairs are revenue lines, also. Research has to be considered a revenue line as well. Research doesn’t directly make money for schools, but it raises the school’s profile in terms of its capacity to be seen as innovators and creators of knowledge.

People go to a place like Stanford not because they can get a calculus course; they go there because of the reputation of its research and its reputation to translate and commercialize that research. Students go there because they can get their start-ups funded. That’s why the VP is important.

In 2011 and 2012, approximately $65 billion in federal research and development was given out to America’s colleges and universities. Of that, less than $500 million went to all 105 HBCUs. That’s less than one percent!

I had an idea two years ago to bring five vice presidents for research together from what I consider the top five HBCUs in research – Howard University, North Carolina A&T State, Florida A&M, Tuskegee, and Morgan State.

This was around the same time the White House had its annual HBCU Week initiative in Washington, D.C. One of the things we explored was how HBCUs could participate in more of those $65 billion federal opportunities. When I look at that $500 million versus the $65 billion, I figured we could either get depressed or look at getting those numbers.

One of the big things we discussed was contracts. Traditionally, HBCUs, as well as majority schools because of their teaching mission, have gone after grants, but contracts are really where the big money is, as well as the opportunity to build capacity. We decided to band together to approach contract opportunities. We left the conversation asking how we could all work together within the different opportunities each of us has.

We think it’s now time that the VPs of these universities, who have influence with the presidents and are respected by the boards can meet and talk about how we can develop a path forward to make sure our institutions are competitive going forward.

While this idea was forged from the Black Engineer of the Year Awards conference and supported by Tyrone Taborn, who is also a Regent on our board at Morgan, our focus is not just going to be STEM, even though that is extremely important. All of us are VPs for research. That is one thing I have to constantly remind everyone. But engineering and STEM provide a convenient meeting place.

If you look at the national stage, many of the issues students are facing are in these areas. Take, for example, cyber security. There are not enough cyber security professionals. HBCUs have a great opportunity because they have a higher percentage of U.S. students who attend their institutions.

Has the forum for the strategy been successful so far?

Building research capacity in our institutions is going to be critical for student success. It will also be a differentiator for why parents send their kids to historically black colleges and universities.

As you probably know, 90% of African-American students do not go to HBCUs. The questions are, what attracts that 10% that does, and how do we make that number more inclusive? While we have a legacy of being an HBCU, we want to attract a diverse population, from Latinos, Caucasians, international students, you name it.

Again, people go to school because they want to get credentials, and they want to gain experience. From the social experience of meeting different people, to also getting educational and research experiences, students want to know that when they get off the stage, there is a job that is waiting for them because they have been exposed to cutting-edge research.

Is this the first time an executive council like this has been created?

This is one of the first in about a quarter century since the creation of the Deans Council. We are now bringing the HBCUs together, but we are starting small.

We invited the 15 ABET-accredited schools of engineering who make up the Advancing Minorities in Engineering consortium. If you look at the Carnegie classification of schools, there are only 10 HBCUs who are classified as doctoral research universities.

Right now we want to start with a focus on that group of HBCUs to be able to work together and then move forward, starting with the question of how we can join forces and put joint proposals in for large contracts and grants.

What value can the Executive Forum bring to corporate America?

The industry is looking for quality people. They realize that diverse teams, as has been proven by studies, produce highly-developed, creative outputs. These teams bring solutions that monetize themselves between 10 and 15 percent on the S&P’s. That’s real money. We’re not talking about diversity from an altruistic or feelgood sense. It makes economic business sense.

The second thing the industry would like to engage is actually doing research. There are very few corporate research laboratories. A lot of research in the industry has been subbed out to universities. We see this as a great opportunity. By building strategies and considering how we engage industry, we want to start doing corporate research already being done in other large institutions.

So the Executive Forum will hopefully bring new people as well as new avenues for research?

Exactly. Let’s say a drug company is looking for drugs that impact STDs or HIV and needs to understand public health patterns; it can come to a place like Morgan State and talk to Dr. Lorece Edwards, who is doing great research in the area of prevention. Or, a company could talk to Dr. Kevin Kornegay, who is doing work with the Internet of Things in the School of Engineering. I  envision the industry coming to him to discuss how he can help with presenting the packing of our embedded computer systems. I see this happening because graduate students and graduate faculty are more economical to employ than maintaining an in-house public research faculty.

This forum is about HBCUs becoming leaders in the business of research. This forum is important because this is where America’s executives can come and engage initially with the university. I’m not suggesting that we take away the traditional path to university presidents and provosts, but often times in the business of research you want to talk to an executive who is about the business of research.

The VPs of research are the touch point where representatives from GE, IBM, Google, Facebook, Oracle, etc., can call and talk directly about research and collaborations in developing technology. This forum creates a corporate portal where many industries can directly engage. These VPs of research can and will be that portal.

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