Innovation, Focus and Agency (IFA) – A New Vision for HBCU Research

Posted by: Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D. on June 25, 2020

In response to the recent racial unrest, the National Science Board (NSB) issued a statement on racism calling for "increased inclusion of Black people in Science and Engineering (S&E) at all levels, from the classroom to the research lab to the boardroom... We recognize the unique legacy and important role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in contributing to the S&E research enterprise and in educating future STEM leaders."


HBCU’s success with broadening participation in STEM is unmatched. According to a report from the National Science Foundation 21 of the top 50 institutions for producing Black graduates who go on to receive their doctorates in S&E are HBCUs. Studies indicate that the mentoring that occurs naturally from HBCU faculty having higher teaching loads and more contact with undergraduate students can evince positive outcomes for HBCU STEM students (Kendricks, Nedunuri, & Arment, 2013). The number of faculty members of color at HBCUs, specifically Black faculty members (Jett, 2013) that understands Black culture (Toldson, 2013), has also been cited as a factor that enhances mentoring and student success at HBCUs in research.


Although the STEM advocacy community recognizes HBCUs’ success with cultivating diverse STEM talent, STEM advocates and funders do not demonstrate similar esteem for HBCU-based research. Wide funding disparities between research based at HBCUs compared with traditionally White institutions (TWIs) threaten to undercut HBCU’s larger efforts to diversify STEM. Research grants and contracts are essential for an institution’s long-term viability, reducing tuition dependence and providing important funding for society-shaping innovations. Funding disparities create a caste system in higher education, whereby students at better-funded institutions benefit from enhanced facilities, equipment, and opportunities to earn income while studying (Toldson, 2016). While gaps in funding between HBCUs and TWIs can be attributed to selection biases among funding agencies, HBCUs also need to advance a new vision for research that responds to today’s most pressing societal issues and harnesses the latest scientific innovations.  


Innovation, Focus and Agency

Nearly 80 years ago, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark used innovative research to help dismantle the legal justification for segregation in schools. Both Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Clark were HBCU educated. Dr. Kenneth Clark started the psychology department at the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). In coordination with lawyers based at the Howard University School of Law, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark completed the seminal “doll experiments,” which they published in The Journal of Negro Education, an HBCU-based publication started by Howard University School of Education Dean, Charles Henry Thompson (Clark and Clark, 1950).


Today, we would consider the doll experiments to be “convergence” research. The experiments directly responded to a societal issue. In addition, the research was transdisciplinary, connecting psychology, law and education, using rigorous scientific methodology that were novel at the time. Moreover, the research was conceived and interpreted from a Black perspective, enabled through publication in a Black operated peer-referred research journal. Rather than perpetuating deficit narratives that focused on disfunctions of Black identity, the studies interrogated institutional racism. A Black child identifying with a White doll was not positioned as the central issue, rather it was a by-product of the true central issue – legal segregation. This audaciously Black research enterprise compelled the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Plessy vs. Fergurson in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark decision that ruled segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional (Carter, 2007).


Contemporary HBCU research needs a similar level of innovation, focus and agency to resolve longstanding problems in the United States and abroad. IFA (innovation, focus and agency) can help HBCUs cultivate a distinctive style of research, that harnesses the creative and compassionate genius that is endemic to Black creed and culture. 


Innovation will come from employing cutting-edge strategies, such as convergence, data science, artificial intelligence, blockchain and technological augmentation. Society needs science and technology to fight racism, not science and technology that enable racists.


Focus will come from being problem focused and agenda driven. The social issues of today demand more than what TWIs have the capacity to deliver. Instead of HBCUs trying to conduct research that is just as good as research at TWIs, HBCUs need to elevate and expand the meaning of good research.


Agency will come from controlling our means of dissemination. HBCUs can no longer allow White-owned and operated publications and media outlets to be gatekeepers of research from a Black perspective. We need to use the social media and the digital revolution to broaden access and visibility of HBCU research.


How IFA can expand HBCU Research Capacity

HBCUs are currently expanding their research capacity. Under the previous Carnegie system for institutions of higher education only 5 HBCUs were classified as "R2 - High research activity" universities. Under the new 2018 system, 11 HBCUs are now R2 institutions including: Clark Atlanta University; Delaware State University; Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University; Hampton University; Howard University; Jackson State University; Morgan State University; North Carolina A & T State University; Tennessee State University; Texas Southern University; and University of Maryland Eastern Shore. These HBCUs were all awarded at least 20 research doctorates in 2016-17, and reported at least $5 million in total research expenditures.


This recent increase of R2 HBCUs presents a rare opportunity to develop a network between them and those exhibiting evidence of research growth. IFA can serve as a unifying principle to support guide HBCUs in cultivating common goals, shared metrics, and mutually reinforcing activities. IFA can emphasize scientific innovation as a catalyst for improving the social, educational, health, security and economic status of African Americans. We can use select components of NSF’s “Big Ideas” (Gropp, 2016) to guide the community of practice. Specific concepts exemplified by videos in the selected playlist  include:

  • Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier – HBCU research has the potential to shape the technology necessary to create a more equitable workplace. Without conscious development, emerging technologies can enable racist systems, rather than mitigate them. HBCUs participating in IFA can envision a future workforce whereby emerging human-technology partnerships can create novel opportunities to advance a more equitable society through humanistic skills augmentation.
  • Growing Convergence Research – IFA can emphasize transdisciplinary convergence, which merge ideas, approaches and tools across sectors and institutional types to address issues, such as institutional racism, that traditional research cannot adequately resolve. Harnessing community resources, such as Black professional and civic societies, conscious elected officials, and antiracist federal agency executives, HBCUs can expand the scope, reach and impact of their research.
  • Harnessing the Data Revolution – IFA can emphasize the need for a data infrastructure and data-capable systems at HBCUs and the workforce in general to develop the humanistic agency necessary to advance more workplace and social equity. Using tools from “Data 4 Black Lives,” HBCU can discuss Black issues in data sciences, and the importance of ethics in data use, culturally responsive data, and diversity in data science.
  • NSF INCLUDES – IFA is based on the idea that “NSF programs can integrate an inclusion and diversity mindset.” The desired outcome of IFA is to empower HBCUs to be central to strategies to diversify STEM and use science to mitigate institutional racism. HBCU can be a catalyst to the nation having more inclusive educational and career pathways.


The disparate burden of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black communities, the recent high profile police involved murders of Black people, and the longstanding racial achievement gaps in education underscore the need for IFA among HBCUs. The cultural dispositions that produced soul food, jazz, and hip hop can bring about a new enlightenment to extend beyond the confinement of objectivist research. IFA can explore the use of technology in building more socially conscious systems to mitigate institutional racism. HBCU-based researchers can leverage their talents, perspectives, and resources to advance technology-infused ideas that have potential to disrupt institutional racism, and other societal problems, in ways that have not been realized in the past.




National Science Board (NSB) statement on Racism in Science and Engineering (2020).,-Science%20%26%20Engineering&text=We%20recognize%20that%20racism%20is,the%20potential%20of%20Black%20people.


Clark, K., & Clark, M. (1950). Emotional Factors in Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children. The Journal of Negro Education, 19(3), 341-350. doi:10.2307/2966491


Carter, R. (2007). Brown's Legacy: Fulfilling the Promise of Equal Education. The Journal of Negro Education, 76(3), 240-249. Retrieved July 7, 2020, from


Gropp, R. (2016). NSF: Time for Big Ideas. BioScience, 66(11), 920-920. doi:10.2307/90007683


Jett, C. (2013). HBCUs Propel African American Male Mathematics Majors. Journal of African American Studies, 17(2), 189-205. doi:10.1007/s12111-011-9194-x


Kendricks, K. D., Nedunuri, K. V., & Arment, A. R. (2013). Minority Student Perceptions of the Impact of Mentoring to Enhance Academic Performance in STEM Disciplines. Journal of STEM Education: Innovations and Research, 14(2), 38-46. Retrieved from


Toldson, I. A. (2013). Historically Black Colleges and Universities can promote leadership and excellence in STEM (Editor's commentary). Journal of Negro Education, 82(4), 359-367. doi:10.7709/jnegroeducation.82.4.0359


Toldson, I.A. (2016). The Funding Gap between Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Traditionally White Institutions Needs to be Addressed* (Editor’s Commentary). The Journal of Negro Education, 85(2), 97-100. doi:10.7709/jnegroeducation.85.2.0097


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