Successful Strategies for Enhancing Research Capacity among Early-Career HBCU STEM Faculty

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were created to educate formerly enslaved Americans of African descent. During the twentieth century, HBCU attendance became a major factor that moved Blacks into the middle class, and those institutions have continued to play a major role in educating a significant portion of African American students. The Higher Education Act of 1965 defines an HBCU as an institution that was created prior to 1964 with the explicit mission of educating Black Americans. The mission of HBCUs has evolved to include a focus on service and social justice as they continue to serve a population of marginalized and minoritized students. Today, there are those who ask whether HBCUs are still relevant in an age when African American students can attend any institution for which they qualify. This question has become increasingly common in the face of declining financial support for public institutions, stagnating endowments, dysfunctional leadership in many institutions of higher education, and increasing competition for high-achieving students.

US News & World Report consistently ranks HBCUs far below non-HBCUs. These rankings are based primarily on how institutions perform in the following areas: first-year student retention rates, assessment by administrators at peer institutions, faculty resources, admissions selectivity, financial resources, alumni giving, and graduation rates. The 2017 “Top Colleges” ranking by Forbes rated the nation’s top 660 institutions using the following education-based metrics: post-graduate success (35 percent of the score), student debt incurred in pursuit of the degree (20 percent), student experience (20 percent), graduation rate (12.5 percent), and academic success (12.5 percent). For the 2017 rankings, only eight of the nation’s 102 accredited HBCUs made the list, with Spelman receiving the highest ranking of all HBCUs at number 326. The other ranked institutions were Howard University (435), Fisk University (605), Bowie State University (628), Morehouse College (638), Florida A&M University (645), and Tuskegee University (648). It should be noted that Spelman College and Morehouse College were the solitary two undergraduate-only HBCUs to make the Forbes top colleges list. These institutions are also the only HBCU members of the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS), a consortium of nationally ranked colleges and universities.

What was not considered previously by either the Forbes or the US News & World Report methodologies is the fact that HBCUs disproportionately serve a population of marginalized students who may not have had access to the same level of preparation as the average student at a predominantly White institution. For example, more than 50 percent of the students enrolled at Morehouse College and Spelman College are Pell-eligible compared to an average of 20 percent at the other ACS schools (Forbes, n.d.). Nevertheless, Morehouse College’s six-year graduation rate “is often 20 percentage points higher than the national average for Black men, and 52 percent of graduates enroll in graduate or professional school within five years of graduation” (US News & World Report, n.d.). For the 2019 rankings, US News & World Report took into consideration the social mobility impact of an institution. The rankings factored in a “school’s success at promoting social mobility by graduating students who received federal Pell Grants” (US News & World Report 2018), and although this only accounts for 5 percent of the total weight, it is a step toward equity in the methodology used to rank highly selective schools and those who serve underrepresented populations.

According to a recent United Negro College Fund report, if non-HBCUs were to admit a “demographically identical population” of students as HBCUs, then by all the metrics that are used to measure college success, HBCUs would outperform non-HBCUs (Richards and Awokoya 2012). It is therefore both important and necessary to acknowledge the contributions that HBCUs have made and will continue to make toward diversifying the national STEM workforce by developing and training young Americans of African descent and those from other underrepresented backgrounds, despite the many challenges that these institutions face.

HBCUs are relevant and necessary because, though they make up only 3 percent of all colleges and universities in the United States, HBCUs awarded 14 percent of the baccalaureate degrees earned by African Americans in 2015−16 (National Center for Education Statistics, n.d.). HBCUs are the baccalaureate institutions of origin for more than 30 percent of all African Americans who go on to earn doctoral degrees (National Science Foundation 2017). Moreover, according to the National Science Foundation, the top ten baccalaureate institutions that produce African American students who go on earn doctoral degrees in science and engineering were, except for one institution, all Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

One of the deciding factors in acceptance to graduate programs is previous research experience, and STEM students at HBCUs seem to be engaged in research at a higher rate than African American students at predominantly White institutions (Hurtado et al. 2009). This raises the question: How do HBCUs, with all the challenges they face, continue to engage their students in authentic research experiences, thereby leading the nation in educating and training African American students who enter the STEM workforce? One way to gain a better understanding of how HBCUs produce high-quality graduates who go on to careers in STEM is to take a close look at faculty-focused interventions that are aimed at broadening participation in STEM careers. Here we focus on the factors and strategies that influence faculty success in establishing and sustaining research programs, thereby allowing them to be effective educators and mentors to students who go on to earn doctorates in STEM disciplines. We also summarize the mechanisms that Morehouse College implemented to ensure the success of early-career STEM faculty research programs.

Strategies for Supporting Early-Career Faculty

Perhaps the most important intervention that has been employed at Morehouse to support early-career faculty and to establish a teacher-scholar model was to hire a critical mass of early-career faculty in a relatively short period of time (approximately five years), most of whom were products of the Fellowships in Research and Science Teaching (FIRST) postdoctoral program based at Emory University and the Atlanta University Center Consortium institutions. The FIRST Program is an Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award (IRACDA) program funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health to produce new faculty who not only excel in research but also in teaching (i.e., teacher-scholars). While the cohort of tenure-track faculty members who were hired in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and psychology over a five-year period had little in common with regard to research, they had similar preparation for assuming a faculty position at a small liberal arts college and shared common concerns about how to develop a research program or gain promotion and tenure. The development of those early-career faculty began with institutional support facilitated by the dean of the Division of Science and Mathematics. The faculty were provided generous start-up packages, which included 50 percent release time from teaching for the first two years. Additionally, a senior faculty member in the division held regular discussions with the group to discuss various issues relating to their achieving success in the goal of becoming teacher-scholars. As a result of these discussions, the early-career faculty developed a seminar series that significantly contributed to a growing collaborative research environment and provided a forum for scholarly discussion among STEM faculty at the college.

The early-career faculty also benefitted from various research training grants for students from private (e.g., Howard Hughes Medical Institute) and federal (e.g., National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Department of Defense) funding sources that allowed Morehouse to develop core research facilities and computation rooms, and to purchase equipment and supplies that were also used by faculty members for their research. Other grants to establish new program areas in STEM, such as in public health, permitted us to provide research funding and release time for faculty. Institutional relationships between Morehouse College and research-intensive institutions provided the early-career faculty with opportunities for collaboration and visiting fellowships. Finally, participation in external professional development workshops, sponsored by professional societies and nonprofit organizations such as the American Society for Cell Biology and Quality Education for Minorities, resulted in several early-career faculty members receiving grants.

The success of this cohort of faculty is due in large part to the commitment of the dean of the Division of Science and Mathematics to establish a research culture at Morehouse, again pointing to the importance of institutional leadership and quality of the early-career faculty who were hired. The concerted effort by early-career faculty members and strong support by division leadership in tackling obstacles that limited their development as faculty members worked synergistically to facilitate the success of the faculty. These faculty members have gone on to assume major leadership roles at the college, including chairing departments, serving as principal investigators of research training programs, and directing major administrative departments.

Next Steps

Although the faculty cohort described above has been extremely successful in attaining tenure, receiving federal grants, publishing, and moving into leadership roles, obstacles still exist that could impede future faculty members from advancing in the professoriate. Perhaps the most significant barrier is the lack of institutional support for research at Morehouse, a problem that is common to institutions with small endowments, particularly HBCUs and small liberal arts colleges. Another barrier common to teaching institutions is the excessive teaching load, which does not permit adequate time for research, grant writing, and publishing. A third barrier is inadequate institutional support for proposal development and grants management, which, when combined with the high teaching load, reduces the chances of obtaining or successfully managing a grant. Finally, early-career faculty at Morehouse are having the same difficulty that other early-career faculty across the country are experiencing because of the decreasing availability of federal research funding, which limits chances of success, particularly for new investigators.

These obstacles are common at many institutions, and solutions vary based on institutional culture and resources. However, institutions can take several approaches to move toward achieving a sustainable model for research development for early-career faculty. Leadership in academia is critical but may be extremely difficult, in part due to the structure of the institution and the autonomy of faculty. Listed below are three specific recommendations aimed at removing the obstacles described above, thereby initiating the kind of institutional change that could lead to a sustainable model for developing and continuing research capability among early-career faculty in STEM disciplines:

  1. Senior leadership of the institution, in conjunction with faculty, must ensure that research is a part of the institution’s strategic plan. This could include hiring faculty who cluster in related areas of research and encouraging interdisciplinary groups of faculty members to work on research related to aspects of the institution’s mission.
  2. Every effort should be made to reduce teaching loads in order to provide adequate time for research. We know that this will probably require an increase in the size of the faculty, which in turn must be funded. Additionally, at primarily teaching institutions, the scholarship of teaching and learning should be valued as highly as other research. This is particularly important in disciplines such as STEM education as they emerge as prominent areas of research.
  3. Institutions must continue to expand their capacity to acquire and manage large grants. Many small institutions struggle to provide their faculty with adequate resources to develop proposals and manage grants. One solution may be to take advantage of external resources, such as training provided by funding agencies and other professional organizations, collaboration with other institutions of similar size, and professional networks to assist in grant writing. These strategies could also be used to increase efficiency in business practices to better manage grants.

Institutional change requires a vision from the top that is shared by all constituents who then work collaboratively to bring that vision to fruition. The theoretical framework described by Bolman and Gallos (2011) in Reframing Academic Leadership could be used as a guide for developing effective policies and practices that result in institutional change. While it will be necessary to take a structural approach to leading an institutional initiative, an effective leader must also be able to navigate the political terrain of academic institutions, while also being sensitive to individual agendas and concerns. Many faculty at small colleges, and particularly at HBCUs, view themselves as a family rather than as employees of a business. As such, strategies that have been transformational in the corporate world may not be effective in academia. To effect institutional change, one must be able to build relationships, create a nurturing environment that supports and encourages growth, empower others, and, most importantly, be transparent and communicate effectively. As previously stated, leadership in academia is difficult, and one of the most difficult tasks may be leading a campus-wide initiative that will result in a significant change in the status quo. Bolman and Gallos (2011, 65) remind us that successful academic leadership “depends on the three P’s of change . . . patience, persistence, and process.”

This not only requires institutional change, but also a shift in the way we think about and prioritize institutions of higher education. In a recent letter, six Democratic US senators implored US News & World Report to revise its methodology used to rank colleges and universities to more heavily weigh the extent to which an institution practices inclusive excellence (Coons et al. 2018). While the recent changes to the US News & World Report ranking methodology finally take into account the contribution of each institution toward social mobility, it is not sufficient to highlight the importance of institutions that serve marginalized and minoritized populations. The contributions that HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions have made to educating the nation’s lower- and middle-class students have long been overlooked. It’s time to stop asking whether these institutions have outlived their usefulness and start following their lead to identify and implement best practices in the training and education of a diverse STEM workforce.




Bolman, Lee G., and Joan V. Gallos. 2011. Reframing Academic Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Coons, Christopher A., Corey A. Booker, Brian Schatz, Kamala D. Harris, Christopher S. Murphy, and Tammy Baldwin. 2018. Letter to Brian Kelly. December 3.

Forbes. n.d. “America’s Top Colleges.” Accessed May 1, 2019.

Hurtado, Sylvia, Nolan L. Cabrera, Monica H. Lin, Lucy Arellano, and Lorelle L. Espinosa. 2009. “Diversifying Science: Underrepresented Student Experiences in Structured Research Programs.” Research in Higher Education 50 (2): 189–214.

National Center for Education Statistics. n.d. “Fast Facts: Historically Black Colleges and Universities.”

National Science Foundation. 2017. “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering.”

Richards, David A. R., and Janet T. Awokoya. 2012. Understanding HBCU Retention and Completion. Fairfax, VA: Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, UNCF.

US News & World Report. n.d. “Morehouse College.” Accessed May 1, 2019.

US News & World Report. 2018. “How U.S. News Calculated the 2019 Best Colleges Rankings.” September 9, 2018.

Triscia W. Hendrickson, Associate Professor of Biology; Director, MARC U-STAR Leaders in Science Program; and Interim Director, Research and Sponsored Programs; and John K. Haynes, David Packard Professor in Science—both of Morehouse College

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