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Speed read
● Survey finds that minority-serving institutions require broadband infrastructure support, among other cyberinfrastructure needs
● These universities aren’t receiving the funds necessary to facilitate their needs
● Collaborating in a consortium is helping these institutions navigate various CI problems

Despite obscene obstacles, minority-serving academic institutions have dug deep roots all over the US. In fact, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are so prolific that nearly a quarter of African American STEM majors earned their degrees from such a school.

“These schools serve as anchor institutions for the community,” says Dr. Damian Clarke, the chief information officer (CIO) at Alabama A&M. “In Orangeburg [which hosts South Carolina State University, or SCSU], the only other library is a small community-based library. That’s good for maybe K-5 research. Anybody else who wants to do more has to come to SCSU’s library.”

<strong>Dr. Damian Clarke</strong> is currently the CIO of Alabama A&M, but he also was educated by and worked at South Carolina State University.

Sadly, these “anchor institutions” aren’t getting the infrastructure they deserve. Bobby Clark, director of procurement and vendor management at CCIT in Clemson University, expanded on this point.

“There is not a lack of talent in HBCUs,” says Bobby Clark. “What’s happened is that most of those researchers need more effort to achieve the same amount merely because the bandwidth is not there.”

Cyberinfrastructure (CI), or the various computing tools required to complete research, is lacking at minority-serving institutions.

<strong>Bobby Clark</strong> is the director of CCIT procurement & vendor management at Clemson also has a connection to South Carolina State University. Not only did he grow up on the campus, but his parents also taught there for 35 years.

In fact, the Minority Serving-Cyberinfrastructure Consortium (MS-CC) that both Bobby Clark and Damian Clarke are part of has proven this. In collaboration with Internet2, the consortium includes members from SCSU, Clemson, Claflin University, Jackson State University, North Carolina A&T State University, and University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

Based on a survey conducted in December 2020, the consortium outlined some of the challenges HBCUs, tribal colleges and universities (TCU), and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSI) face.

Why CI matters

As Damian Clarke points out, the MS-CC has a long history. Beginning in 2018, a group of CIOs from a variety of academic institutions got together to talk about CI and what it meant for their research. They quickly realized that many of them saw separate HBCUs running into the same problems, and they decided to learn more. The consortium completed their first survey two years ago, and their most recent one finished at the end of 2020.

“The consortium is trying to build trust and engage with institutions that provide access to postsecondary education for historically underserved communities so that people could realize they're not alone,” says Damian Clarke. “When I started as the CIO of SCSU, I felt so alone. One of the key drivers of the consortium is accomplishing together what we can't do alone.”

<strong>Collaboration is key.</strong> This picture was taken at the Strategic Partnership in Advanced Cyber Infrastructure (SPACI) conference. Courtesy Minority Serving – Cyberinfrastructure Consortium

Bringing the story to today, Bobby Clark remarks that while the MS-CC certainly had its eyes on the future, no one could have predicted a disruptive event like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Why is CI important?” asks Bobby Clark. “When you have something like a pandemic, you have to switch to your cyberinfrastructure to make up for all of these lost items. I think we picked up even more momentum when people started to realize just how essential the services were — and frankly what CI was.”

That last point is more relevant than you may think. CI has quite a broad definition, or at least people think it does, and there’s often a lot of confusion as to exactly what CI does. To explain these gaps, Clarke tells us of his time as CIO at SCSU.

“At the beginning of every semester, we have orientation and it’s a rite of passage for many of our students,” says Damian Clarke. “Granny comes, uncle comes, auntie comes — this is often the first person in the family who’s going to college, so the entire family comes to campus.”

Clarke continues: “The IT infrastructure at SCSU had to accommodate this increase in on-campus visitors, all connected with their own devices to the campus broadband. My team had to come up with creative ways to ensure that all our new students and their guests did not lose connectivity. It wasn’t an easy task.”

A college that can’t handle orientation surges is obviously at a disadvantage to handle diverse computing research needs — and that’s where the MS-CC and Internet2 come in.

“Internet2, as an organization, has tons of resources devoted to higher education that had been underrealized at HBCUs, TCU, and HSIs,” says Bobby Clark. “Our consortium can serve as a place for awareness for some of those things.”

Missing funds

One of the most important pieces of information to come out of the MS-CC survey is that 57% of respondents stated that funding/resources were the “biggest barrier to achieving their cyberinfrastructure goals.”

Once again, Clarke has a story to drive this point home – and this one underscores the root of the problem that minority-serving institutions face.

<strong>Damian Clarke</strong> can be seen here with Jim Bottum, CIO of Clemson, at SPACI. Courtesy Minority Serving – Cyberinfrastructure Consortium

“When I was a student at SCSU, we asked for funding from the state to renovate a dorm that needed maintenance,” says Damian Clarke. “SCSU didn’t get the funding and that was an eye-opening experience for me on how limited state resources can be for minority-serving institutions.”

Clarke continues: “Even at the state level there is limited funding for smaller institutions. Cyberinfrastructure investments are not always an immediate priority because it’s not a problem you can physically see, like building renovations for example. When a campus does indeed get funding, IT teams end up competing for funding internally as our institutions try to address immediate needs and priorities.”

This story shows the flaws within our current funding system. Clark — who is currently affiliated with Clemson but also grew up on SCSU’s campus — is well aware of the complexity of the issue.

“I completely understand the kinds of issues that HBCUs have been presented with,” says Bobby Clark. “Although we at Clemson have had our hard times, we were never put in the same situation as SCSU. I'm very glad that we played some part in enabling SCSU and other institutions to have a more robust infrastructure to survive the blow that has happened in the last year from COVID.”

Clearly, the obstacles outlined here won’t be overcome with a simple can-do attitude. These systemic grievances took centuries to set up, and deconstructing them will also take time. Thankfully, some very committed people are ready to tackle the challenge.

“I think of the talent that I've seen in HBCUs, and I’m always reminded of what it was like when I was once on SCSU’s campus and I met people who shaped and molded me to be the person I am,” says Bobby Clark. “And I know that still exists on those campuses and it needs to be fully realized. Frankly, I want Clemson to be able to collaborate with SCSU and others because I think there's an opportunity there. This is a win for everybody.”

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