By JEFFREY MERVIS
Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States have had outsize success in launching Black students into physics. Although only 9% of all Black undergraduates attend the country’s 100 HBCUs, those schools for decades have awarded the majority of physics degrees earned by Black students. HBCUs also claim all the slots on a top 10 list of schools graduating the most Black physicists, despite having departments that are much smaller and have less funding than those at predominantly white institutions (PWIs).
How do they do it? The key, say dozens of Black scientists who have worked at HBCUs or are knowledgeable about them, is that they provide a nurturing environment that addresses the academic, financial, emotional, and cultural needs of their students.
But HBCUs’ ability to do so is threatened by declining overall enrollments over the past decade and the worsening of already serious financial constraints. In 2019, HBCUs garnered $341 million in federal research funding, down 15% from 2001; over the same 2 decades, the amount going to all U.S. universities grew by 65%, to $38 billion. The absolute number of Black students earning undergraduate physics degrees from HBCUs fell by half between 1996 and 2018, according to data from the American Institute of Physics (AIP). And HBCUs’ share of all Black physics graduates, which stood above 50% in 2006, was only 28% in 2019. (Only one-third of HBCUs offer an undergraduate degree in physics.)
Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) once accounted for more than half of all U.S. physics degrees awarded to Black undergraduates. That share has now declined to less than one-fifth of the total.
That shifting balance would matter less if the physics departments at the nation’s research heavyweights—all PWIs—were doing a better job of deploying their large research budgets and hefty endowments to fill the pipeline with Black physicists. But even those with the best records are falling far short of what’s needed to improve diversity.
The data for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the nation’s leading universities, bear that out. Between 2012 and 2017, MIT awarded more undergraduate physics degrees to Black students—12—than any other PWI, according to AIP statistics. Even so, none of the 42 physics majors graduating from MIT in 2017 was Black. By comparison, eight Black students earned physics degrees that year from Morehouse College, an all-male HBCU in Atlanta.
That stark racial disparity is why Sylvester James Gates, an eminent theoretical physicist who is Black, views HBCUs as a precious resource for the community. “They are our intellectual lifeboats,” Gates said last year during an American Physical Society webinar on diversity that he chaired as APS president. “Investing in them is a bet on ourselves.”
FOR HBCUS TRYING TO BUILD robust physics programs, Morehouse has long been an exemplar. A 2020 report from AIP’s National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy (TEAM-UP) found the college produced 32 Black physics majors between 2012 and 2017, a dozen more than second place Alabama A&M University. A generation earlier, Morehouse had enjoyed similar success under Robert Dixon, a Black physicist who led its physics department from 1988 until 2004.
“Bob Dixon has probably trained more African American physics undergraduates than anyone else in the country,” says Warren Buck, a Black physicist and former chancellor of the University of Washington (UW), Bothell. “He’s underrated because he doesn’t look for glory. But he’s very effective,” adds Buck, a former chair of the physics department at Hampton University, an HBCU in Virginia.
Now 80 and semiretired, Dixon has worked as a faculty member and administrator at a half-dozen HBCUs over more than 5 decades. Arguably his greatest success came at Morehouse, where he earned an undergraduate degree in 1964 and then returned 2 decades later to join its faculty. Its small physics program was limping along, he says, and after becoming chair he realized the only way to build it up was “to look for grant opportunities.”
Bob Dixon has probably trained more African American physics undergraduates than anyone else in the country.Warren Buck, University of Washington, Bothell
His success in winning federal funding allowed him to grow the number of faculty from three to 11, offer scholarships, and hire staff to plan a range of events that raised the department’s campus profile. “We became a hub of activity,” he says, “and it drew students into the program.”
Nicholas Fuller was one of them. Raised in Trinidad and Tobago by a single mother who regarded a good education “as the only path to success,” Fuller excelled at science in high school. When it was time to go to college, he chose Morehouse because it offered him a full scholarship. Dixon’s approach to training the next generation of physicists also resonated with him.
“The level of nurturing is the key,” says Fuller, who went on to earn a doctoral degree in applied physics at Columbia University and now directs global hybrid cloud services for IBM. “If you failed an exam, Dr. Dixon let you know that you still had a bright future. Without that support, students lose confidence in their ability to become a scientist or engineer, especially if they don’t see many people in those jobs who look like them.”
In 1996, Dixon won a $7.3 million grant from a U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) program designed to strengthen undergraduate science at HBCUs. “DOD’s original plan was to fund 20 schools,” he recalls. “But I asked for all of the money, on the grounds that we had the best proposal.”
Dixon used the money to create the Center for Excellence in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics (CESEM) at Morehouse. CESEM provided full scholarships and intensive academic and career guidance to 50 Morehouse freshmen seeking an undergraduate degree in the natural sciences, math, and engineering, including 17 in physics. Some 85% had earned degrees by the end of the grant, and upward of 80% chose to continue to a graduate science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) program. Two hundred additional Morehouse STEM majors were able to take advantage of a subset of those activities.
The grant also supported a cohort of 50 ninth grade students from Atlanta public schools, providing academic and career counseling for the students, all of whom graduated, and professional development for their teachers. Although the program was not designed to be a recruiting device for Morehouse, some participants enrolled there and majored in science.
Yet Morehouse’s success, like that of other physics departments at HBCUs, rested on a shaky foundation. In 2001, DOD officials declined to renew the 5-year grant that supported CESEM, and Dixon asked senior college administrators for internal funding to continue the program. But they turned him down, he says, forcing him to shut the center and lay off its five-person administrative staff.
Without the scholarships and paid internships, students drifted into other fields. Over the next 2 years, Morehouse’s annual production of Black physics majors plunged from six, a number that had sustained its top ranking, to zero. In 2004, after 16 years as department head, Dixon threw in the towel and took a job at Grambling State University, a Louisiana HBCU. “It was very disappointing that the college didn’t give us a chance to continue what we were doing,” he says. Physicist Walter Massey, Morehouse’s president at the time, declined to comment.
However, Dixon had sown the seeds for the program to thrive again when, in 1997, he recruited Willie Rockward, a Black physicist. Rockward had graduated from Grambling, where he was drawn into the field by the school’s small but nurturing physics department. “Dr. [Odom] looked like me,” Rockward says about the department’s longtime chair, Thomas Odom Jr., one of several Black faculty members in the department. (Black science faculty are often in the minority at HBCUs as well.)
Rockward went on to earn his Ph.D. from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), where he was part of a first ever cohort of five Black students recruited by physicist Henry Valk, a senior administrator. A few years later, Valk, who is white, recruited a second cohort of similar size. It was a short-lived attempt to diversify the physics department, and Valk, long since retired, said recently that seeing that initiative falter was one of his biggest regrets.
Even at the time, Rockward and his colleagues say, Georgia Tech didn’t match the welcoming atmosphere of an HBCU. Rebuffed when they tried to join a study group, for example, the Black students converted a departmental storage room into a retreat they called “the Black Hole.”
Moving to Morehouse required Rockward to make adjustments. “No startup package, and all I had to work with were undergraduates,” he recalls. But he won a string of federal grants that included collaborations with colleagues at research-intensive universities, which provided internships for students to apply what they were learning in class.
In 2011, Rockward became department chair, giving him a chance to revamp a sequence of three calculus-based courses with notoriously high attrition rates. He reshuffled the instructors to match their strengths with the content of each course. Their success in retaining students led to larger graduating classes in physics, a virtuous cycle that made it easier to attract more majors.
Those and other moves helped Morehouse return to the top of the national rankings in producing Black physics majors. But eventually Rockward, like Dixon, felt that his efforts were not valued and that his career was stagnating. “I didn’t get promoted to full professor,” he says. “So I said, ‘OK, that’s your call.’ And I started to look around.”
In 2019, Rockward landed at Morgan State University, an HBCU in Baltimore. One big attraction was the chance to replicate his success at Morehouse on a larger scale. “[Morgan State] had a strong record in the 1980s for graduating African Americans before things started to slide, and they were interested in reviving that tradition,” he says.
Even better, Rockward says, school administrators had vowed that Morgan State would become a Tier 1 institution by 2030, a designation based on the amount of its external funding. Rockward hopes meeting that goal will catapult Morgan State into the ranks of Georgia Tech and other heavyweight physics programs at PWIs.
WARREN BUCK, FORMER PHYSICS CHAIR at Hampton, is another Dixon protégé who built a successful program at an HBCU by following his mentor’s template—and by adding his own wrinkles. Buck was an undergraduate at Morgan State in 1966 when he met Dixon, then a new faculty member in his first academic job. “Bob convinced me I could do physics,” Buck says.
He earned his Ph.D. from the College of William and Mary and joined the Hampton faculty in 1984. He expanded its physics department and also created a doctoral physics program, one of only five at an HBCU. Those efforts profited from the university’s proximity to the Department of Energy’s newly opened Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (JLab), home of the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility. Buck also won federal funding for a research center of excellence in nuclear and high energy physics, using the money to recruit faculty as well as to fund students to work with the world-class physicists at JLab. “I wanted to show that we could play with the big guys,” he says.
That approach appealed to Devin Walker, now an assistant professor at Dartmouth College. In 1994, Walker was a Black high school student in Memphis, Tennessee, with his sights set on MIT. “I had the grades, they had lots of resources, and I knew that smart kids went to MIT.”
MIT accepted Walker—but didn’t offer him a scholarship. So he sought out Buck during an event at Hampton, where Walker’s siblings were enrolled. Walker’s initiative—and resume—convinced Buck to offer him a full scholarship. In 2006, Walker became the first U.S.-born Black student to earn a physics Ph.D. at Harvard University, working under prominent particle physicist Howard Georgi, whom he had met during a JLab summer internship.
Despite Buck’s success at Hampton—in 2001, five Black students earned physics Ph.D.s, an extraordinary feat the department repeated in 2002—he says the school’s senior administrators balked at supporting his vision for a more robust program. “Physics is expensive, and they didn’t see its value,” Buck says. Hampton officials declined to comment. But the online biography of its longtime president, William Harvey, emphasizes his concern for the bottom line by noting that “Dr. Harvey is an astute businessman who runs Hampton as a business for educational purposes.”
Buck, who says he was “worn out and very frustrated” at Hampton, saw UW Bothell, an emerging 4-year college that caters to students from groups traditionally marginalized in science, as a chance to start over. Within a few years after he left to become UW Bothell’s first chancellor in 1999, the flow of Black graduate students into physics at Hampton had dried up.
TOP U.S. RESEARCH UNIVERSITIES have long relied on HBCUs to be the first rung on the academic ladder for Black physicists. The success enjoyed by Dixon, Rockward, and Buck shows how crucial federal research grants are to that role. But those dollars are in short supply at HBCUs. In 2019, for example, North Carolina A&T State University led all HBCUs in winning federal research support, with $22 million. In contrast, five PWIs received more than $750 million each in federal research that year.
In competing for those funds, HBCU faculty are at a decided disadvantage compared with their peers at PWIs. Heavy teaching loads often leave them little time to do the preliminary work needed to win a federal grant, and few HBCUs have the institutional funds to supplement any grants to support student research.
In addition, the federal government prefers to back one-off experiments in education. “We don’t make long-term, sustained investments in STEM education like we do for research projects,” says physicist Claudia Rankins, former dean of science at Hampton who recently retired from the National Science Foundation after 2 decades of managing programs to broaden participation. “If you study some small particle, you can … be funded for decades as long as you show progress. But if you are proposing to do something in STEM education, or institutional capacity building, you’re fortunate to get 5 years of funding. And then you’re expected to move onto something else.”
The TEAM-UP report calls for U.S. physics departments to double the number of Black majors by 2030. Reaching that goal will require PWIs to boost their output, and collaborations with HBCUs are one obvious route to success. But Marta McNeese, chair of the physics department at Spelman College, an all-women HBCU in Atlanta, says those relationships will need to be genuine partnerships, not a check-the-box exercise.
“I’ve had people ask me to sign a letter of support [on a grant application], giving me 48 hours to sign, and telling me that all I need to do is send our students to their summer program,” McNeese says. “They want to address diversity, equity, and inclusion, but they don’t involve us in the planning.”
The PWIs will also need to emulate the nurturing environment at HBCUs. “Our students are already stressed academically, politically, and economically,” McNeese says. “The role of an HBCU today is to give students a place where they can be themselves.”
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