Wiring Minority Colleges Is a Live Issue

A program to spend $250 million a year to help African-American, Hispanic, and Native American undergraduates bridge the digital divide is speeding through Congress, thanks to some unusual political circumstances. Legislation would place the program under the aegis of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which argues that it may not be the proper organization for such work.

Last Wednesday, the House Science Committee held a hearing on a bill, already approved unanimously by the Senate, that would create a program of 5-year, $1.25 billion grants for some 400 colleges with a predominantly minority enrollment. It would award $2.5 million to each qualifying institution to acquire digital and wireless communications technology. The bill's rapid advance to date, say congressional aides, owes much to the fallout from racially tinged remarks made by Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) during a 100th birthday tribute to the late Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) last December. Lott's comments cost him his post as majority leader and sent Republicans looking for ways to make amends with African-American voters.

The proposal, HR 2183, has put NSF in a delicate position: It could be saddled with a program that isn't solidly based on peer review and that could also drain money from other efforts. Yet it's hard to argue against the concept. "Nobody wants to be seen as being opposed to helping minority institutions," says one NSF official. Last week, NSF Director Rita Colwell questioned how the program would be implemented but not its underlying premise. "Although there may be value in such an approach," Colwell told Representative Nick Smith (R-MI), who chaired the House hearing, "NSF would not be the right entity to administer it."

Smith has similar concerns, including the bill's exclusive focus on minority institutions. The White House has not taken a position on the legislation, but ScienceNOW has learned that budget officials asked NSF earlier this year to write a stern letter opposing the Senate bill, S. 196. No such statement was issued. Even so, Smith promised that his committee would take up the bill within the next few weeks, saying, "I don't want to hold things up." Senator George Allen (R-VA), who introduced the Senate's version of the bill (S. 196), says he hopes the House "can get this thing passed quickly" so that the spending panel overseeing NSF's budget can consider funding it in the 2004 fiscal year, which begins on 1 October.

Related sites
Thomas--Legislative Information on the Internet
"Historically Black Colleges and Universities: An Assessment of Networking and Connectivity" (a report by the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration)