Minority-Serving Institutions: Building the Human Connection

In its crudest definition, the "digital divide" is a matter of a hardware count: The "haves" have computers; the "have-nots" do not even have access to the computer technology that is changing the way we learn and earn a living. In this divide, the access scale clearly is tilted in favor of non-minority populations.

According to the latest U.S. Department of Commerce report in 2000, non-Hispanic white households have the highest level of computer access at 55.7 percent. The rate of computer access is 33.7 percent among Hispanic-American households, 32.6 percent among African-American households and a mere 26.8 percent among Native-American households. A similar pattern emerges in the same report on the issue of Internet access.

But bridging the access chasm d'esn't always begin with the hard wiring. Building the human connections can also make a difference. A unique human connection has been created by an alliance of diverse minority populations seeking to bridge the Internet technology gap with the shared expertise and leverage of the colleges and universities that serve them. Geographically closest to the largest minority communities in every state and most familiar with their needs and resources, these minority-serving institutions, or MSIs, have been enlisted as culturally astute bridge builders. While historically their resources have been limited, their potential impact is not. MSIs are home to the largest concentrations of minority faculty, staff, and students at the most advanced levels of technology training.

The President's Information Technology Advisory Committee in 2000 cited a compelling "same needs and hopes" argument for minority-serving institutions to come together to reach IT parity. As the committee's report stated, "These institutions fear that if they do not succeed at transferring the technology and culture of the information age into their communities, they will have failed the cause of racial and economic justice in minority communities for, perhaps, several more generations. They will have failed to help their people achieve the promise inherent in the new wealth and opportunity that is so much a part of the Information Age."

Advanced Networking

Enlisting MSIs as part of a new network to address the digital divide began in late 1999 with a four-year, $6 million National Science Foundation grant to create the Advanced Networking with Minority-Serving Institutions project, better known as AN-MSI. New partnerships evolved, bringing together an alphabet soup of acronyms on a list of members representing Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs).

Together, these more than 300 campuses serve the largest concentrations of Hispanic-American, African-American, and Native-American higher education students. HSIs, for example, are those colleges and universities with a student enrollment rate that is at least 25 percent Hispanic. Because Latinos are the nation's youngest and fastest-growing minority population, HSIs today are located in every major U.S. city and many have a Hispanic student enrollment rate that far exceeds 50 percent.

Indeed, minority populations already are becoming the majority in cities throughout the country, and achieving full participation in the information age is crucial. California is the first major state as of the 2000 census to have no majority population. Texas is not far behind. The goal of the AN-MSI project is to help members of these "emerging majorities" become full participants.

Through the AN-MSI project these "have-not" communities, which historically have separately sought parity on issues ranging from civil rights to federal education aid, have now formally joined forces to address the IT gap. It is the strength and sheer reach of this larger, united front that has so quickly attracted the support of additional private and public sector partners.

Human Connectivity

In just one year's time, the human component of AN-MSI has enabled the MSIs to build bridges across their communities. The National Science Foundation grant was awarded to EDUCAUSE. A sub-award was made to the Education, Outreach and Training Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (EOT-PACI), a joint activity of the National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (NPACI) in California, and the National Computational Science Alliance (NCSA) in Illinois. EDUCAUSE established partnerships with those associations formally representing MSIs: the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities representing Hispanic-Serving Institutions, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium representing Tribal Colleges and Universities, and the Executive Leadership Council representing Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Also joining as partners were the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, and the United Negro College Fund.

This new community is already making a difference. Human connectivity basically becomes a matter of human networking after first introductions. That network has been in action since the first meeting of representatives of MSIs and AN-MSI partners in Washington, D.C., in January 2000. Since then, additional partnerships have been formed in support of the project's four main activities: assisting campus leadership in IT planning, network technologies, Internet connectivity, and academic applications.

For example, to assist with network technologies, Yale University staff worked with MSIs to develop a campus network architecture model to conduct preliminary internal reviews of campus networks and make future plans. From the private sector, Nextira, LLC came on board to assist MSIs in assessing their individual data and voice communications needs. In the process, Nextira has been providing technical training to campus staff.

Internet connectivity is being addressed through establishing wireless connections between geographically isolated Tribal Colleges and Universities and by working with Hispanic-serving institutions in Puerto Rico to enhance Internet network bandwidth capacity on the island. Meanwhile, small teams of experts from several of the MSIs are visiting other participating colleges and universities to review IT issues and offer recommendations.

In the area of academic applications, even as basic Internet access is being addressed, proposed Internet2 projects involve research on cross-cultural "collaboratories" between MSIs such as the University of Texas at El Paso, Howard University, and the University of Michigan.

The Alliance for Equity in Higher Education had been formed earlier by MSIs to promote shared higher education concerns to Congress. This Alliance joined the AN-MSI project to convene a technology summit at Howard University as an idea-sharing platform. With AN-MSI funding, selected MSI presidents and executives also were sent to Seminars on Academic Computing, which offers popular annual seminars on IT issues to the larger higher education community. Computer network security specialists from CERT, CREN, and SANS agreed to come to the aid of MSIs to train and grow a new problem-solving human infrastructure at these colleges and universities.

The digital divide remains a formidable challenge with a high price tag, but if this chasm is not bridged in coming years, the consequences will be even costlier, especially among the nation's fast-growing minority communities. The focus and human connectivity component of projects like AN-MSI will create the community of bridge builders necessary to create a nation of the digitally undivided.

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