By Max Dickstein
Tougaloo College is thinking big.
Led by President Carmen J. Walters, the 700-student college 10 miles north of Jackson has carved out a potentially game-changing role in a $90 million federal research project.
By negotiating Tougaloo’s entry into a consortium led by Howard University in Washington, D.C., Walters placed her institution at the center of a five-year, $90 million research contract with the United States Air Force and Department of Defense.
“Dr. Walters was able to get Tougaloo on the team,” said John Rosenthall, who, as president of the Tougaloo College Research and Development Foundation, is supporting the college in the project, known as a university-affiliated research center (UARC).
Tougaloo, currently the recipient of $5.35 million annually in federal research funding, will now be able to secure research funds and contracts through the UARC vehicle in a manner like major research institutions that host a UARC, such as Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins, and MIT, flashing the potential of creating a well-funded research portfolio for this small liberal arts school.
The UARC will allow the college to ramp up its research capacity and output in the area of “tactical autonomy,” including artificial intelligence and machine learning. Plans include leveraging the school’s historical relationship with Brown University, Mississippi State University, and other corporate partners to tap the advisory expertise needed to compete for research dollars within the UARC, which comprises a total of nine Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
At his January announcement of the UARC, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin pointed out that HBCUs graduate nearly 30% of Black STEM professionals and a third of STEM Ph.D. students, and yet HBCUs only receive 0.5% of institution research funds — an inequity Tougaloo and the new project aim to reverse.
“The impact that Tougaloo College has had on the state of Mississippi, and by extension, the entire nation, is immense,” Walters said. “Tougaloo’s ability to participate in the UARC distinguishes it from other small, liberal arts institutions and provides it with a unique competitive advantage and the ability to strengthen its research activity and capacity in meaningful ways.”
According to Rosenthall, a goal of $25 million in annual research revenue for Tougaloo is within reach. Those funds will allow the college to reduce teaching loads, increase the research activity of current faculty, and hire new faculty and researchers.
“We have a tremendously talented faculty that is highly trained and can stand on equal footing with faculty members anywhere given the opportunities and resources,” Rosenthall said.
Every research dollar includes a certain amount above and beyond that required for
direct labor, equipment, travel, and supplies. So, as the research portfolio increases, funds for other areas of need at Tougaloo, such as enrollment and student success, will also increase.
“Being a part of the HBCU UARC allows Tougaloo College to provide additional opportunities and resources to our faculty and students,” Rosenthall said. “It supports our financial stability, recruitment efforts, infrastructure, and almost every other phase of our operation.”
Mixing drive with compassion
Entry into the UARC follows a challenging period for Tougaloo College (and all of higher education) as the college’s leadership steered the institution through morale and enrollment challenges during the pandemic.
Schenika T. Harrison, Tougaloo’s Title III Director, had a front-row seat to watch the nimble leadership of Walters.
Among the initiatives Walters championed and Harrison helped execute were:
- a $2 million Cares Act grant from the U.S. Department of Education to upgrade campus technology,
- the creation of the Tougaloo College E-sports Program,
- the complete renovation of Science Labs in Kincheloe Hall,
- and participation in the Project School Emergency Response to Violence (Project SERV) Grant Program: increased campus security measures, targeted mental health services on campus, and adjunct personnel support for full-time faculty who were receiving counseling services.
During a particularly acute phase of the pandemic, in Spring 2021, Walters scheduled five Mental Health Days for students, faculty and staff spaced out across two months.
“Everyone took a break and still got paid for that,” Harrison said. “Dr. Walters is at the forefront encouraging the faculty, doing all that she can to build the momentum to make the faculty feel engaged.”
Not only did faculty survive the always-on challenges of remote instruction, so did the institution.
“The institution survived a pandemic,” said Harrison, who helped the college develop a new strategic plan. “We came out of that in the green, without having to get any loans.”
Bolstering enrollment post-pandemic
At the height of the pandemic, the total enrollment at HBCUs nationwide fell to its lowest level in nearly two decades, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While several institutions like Tougaloo have struggled to rebound, Walters has embraced strategic partnerships to help the college weather the storm, including work with a transformation project through the United Negro College Fund’s Institute for Capacity Building (ICB).
The goal of the partnership is to secure gains in student enrollment, success and workforce outcomes. The mission of ICB is to propel student success, community advancement and the fight for racial-justice equity by focusing on six strategies: transformation support, executive leadership, financial sustainability, digital solutions, knowledge management and strategy development.
“The transformation partnership with ICB has changed the DNA of how presidents think about improvement,” Walters said. “It’s made us wiser and more strategic. Indeed, when we go together, we go further for our students and communities. In Tougaloo’s case, this partnership will help us rethink the ways in which we attract and nurture prospective students.”
The ICB’s mission goes hand in glove with Tougaloo College’s new strategic plan. Over the next several years, the college will focus its efforts on increasing enrollment, retention, and graduation; strengthening experiential learning, internship, and career activities; ensuring affordability through increased scholarships; and tailoring its offerings and support for first-year, first-time, and transfer students.
Tougaloo is also focused on increasing access to higher education, particularly for students in the state of Mississippi. To support the work to bolster enrollment, through the ICB, Tougaloo is partnering with higher education enrollment giant EAB to find creative ways to drive prospective students’ interest in Tougaloo.
Tougaloo’s partners are duly impressed with its progress.
“Tougaloo College is laser-focused on advancing its strategic goals through participation in the UNCF transformation project,” said Ed Smith-Lewis, vice president of strategic and institutional partnerships at the United Negro College Fund. “By kickstarting deliberate initiatives designed to increase enrollment and redesign recruitment strategies, the institution is determined to go from good to great, and continues to model the behavior of an institution driving transformation to improve student success and institutional outcomes.”