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Taken for Granted

In the federal grant game, black colleges cry foul: How VCU took Virginia Union for a one-sided, $6.6 million ride.

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When Virginia Commonwealth University applied for a grant to study the differences and deficiencies in health care for minorities, it sought the partnership of Virginia Union University. It's common practice in the world of federal grants, and all but necessary for the type of grant VCU wanted from the National Institutes of Health.


The grants foster partnerships that give historically black universities such as VUU access to the research capabilities of larger institutions. They give larger universities such as VCU a financial incentive to take on research that they otherwise might not.


But the game is rigged, say some black university leaders, whose frustration boiled over during a recent meeting at Virginia Union.


Of the $6.6 million that VCU and VUU received from the institute's National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities in 2006, all but $100,000 went to VCU. Such lopsided scenarios are becoming common practice, according to some educators at historically black institutions such as Virginia Union and Hampton University who question the equity of such partnerships.


The disparity in funding for historically black universities dominated a Nov. 20 board meeting of the Virginia-Nebraska Alliance, a partnership between historically black colleges in Nebraska and Virginia aimed at getting more minority students into graduate medical and health-care programs.


“The aggregate is the government gives out about $87 billion” for research, says Bill Thomas, associate vice president for government relations at Hampton University. “The total given to historically black universities is about $600 million — and I think I'm $200 [million] over. That's 107 schools … that graduate the vast majority of African-American students that go to college.”


At the Nov. 20 meeting, held on VUU's campus, Thomas called the token inclusion of that university and other black colleges “patronizing,” suggesting black schools are brought on board for appearances only.


Indeed, less than three years after the grant was awarded, VUU's portion of the $6.6 million is running out. The $100,000 VUU received funded a pilot project looking at the effects of environment and heredity on low birth weights among blacks in Virginia. The money will be gone by summer, university officials say.


“You're getting $6 million and I'm getting $100,000 and you're leveraging my school to get it while I'm getting no return on my investment,” Thomas fumes.


Thomas had a receptive audience at the board meeting, which included VCU officials. VCU is a major financial contributor to the Virginia-Nebraska Alliance.


Dr. PonJola Coney, the senior associate dean for faculty affairs at VCU, the school's representative to the alliance, had just completed a presentation on VCU's mentorship of students from black institutions when Hampton University's Thomas let fly with his concerns. His complaints followed a question to Coney about black college participation with VCU on the project. She said there was none.


“VCU can't have it both ways,” Thomas lectures. “It is not fair for you to take all of the money. You need to be a better partner — otherwise we need a divorce.”


One of VUU's representatives at the meeting, Dr. Frank Royal, chair of the school's board of trustees, also expressed frustration with such arrangements, suggesting “counseling” rather than divorce.


“Maybe you don't need VCU — maybe a Hampton and [Virginia] Union could put pieces together [for a grant],” Royal offered. “I can tell you we're not going to be used and showcased and nickeled and dimed.”


Dr. Louis Sullivan, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and president of the Alliance, seemed surprised at the outburst. 
“Historically, there have been instances where there are minority institutions that felt that linkages with majority institutions were used as cover for getting a grant where the minority institution benefited very little from it,” Sullivan acknowledged. But he said that changes in how grants are disbursed and monitored have largely smoothed those kinks. “What [Thomas] was referring to, I really don't know.”


Coney also was taken aback. A former dean at Meharry Medical College, a historically black school in Nashville, Tenn., she says her own experience working with large research colleges — in her case Vanderbilt University — also proved unequal, but she says the NIH “listened to us and they changed the [funding] mechanism.”


She defended the NIH grant shared by VCU and VUU: “It's not a shared, 50-50 grant,” she says. “The grant is written by VCU faculty. Virginia Union only has one investigator on the grant. Generally there are at least three or four projects on a grant.


“I think Dr. Royal hit the nail on the head. If we want more — if the alliance members want to be more involved in research funding … they're going to have to put together the partnerships. … to apply for that funding if they want to be successful,” Coney said. “But right now, none of the [black institutions] are in a position to conduct the kind of research” called for in the type of NIH grant VCU received. 


Thomas sees that last point simply as evidence that funding to black schools has never been on par with counterpart schools. Black schools, he says, lack infrastructure and programs only because there never has been a capital investment in these programs.


“Money makes everything,” Thomas says. “Just a fair opportunity — we're not asking for anything else. But that's not happening, and it has to change.” S

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