Leaders Say Black, Tribal Colleges Need More Than Broadband

High-speed Internet can certainly help students and faculty at HBCUs and TCUs, but experts during a recent webinar discussed how cyberinfrastructure is a multi-faceted challenge for 21st-century educational institutions.

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Broadband connectivity alone doesn’t make a postsecondary institution inclusive or competitive, said tech leaders from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) during a National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) webinar Wednesday.  

The main point at the webinar was that HBCUs and TCUs must view cyberinfrastructure from a broad lens in order to better serve students and capitalize on research opportunities that can bring dollars to educational organizations. Deborah Dent, CIO at Jackson State University (JSU), said institutions need the right trained workers and tools to take advantage of what one can do with a high-speed network. 

“A lot of times when we hear the word cyberinfrastructure, we think it’s just the network … [but] it’s more than just equipment,” Dent said. 

“We know that most states are experiencing budget cuts,” she later observed. “It’s important that we increase our research capabilities because we’re just not going to be able to survive on state funding.”

Al Kuslikis, senior associate for strategic initiatives for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), said if you don’t have cyberinfrastructure on campus to support research that involves large datasets, it can be very difficult to attract faculty. This fact presents a challenge to TCUs, which are often resource-challenged, but there’s still hope if all an institution has is broadband access.

“Cloud computing is big … you can do a lot with Amazon without having the local computing horsepower,” Kuslikis said. 

Dent said JSU transferred “just about everything that we have” to a cloud-based system over the last three years. JSU was nervous about the change at first, but then came COVID-19, which made the benefits of moving to the cloud clear: socially distanced students and faculty still had access to everything they needed.

“Our biggest challenge was training our traditional faculty to move to that online environment,” Dent said. 

Curtis Bradlee, interim director of University Computing and Information Technology Services at South Carolina State University (SCSU), said his institution is actively replacing fiber to increase bandwidth across campus. Another critical activity, however, involves setting up a secure connection with Clemson University so that resources can be shared for research purposes. 

Bradlee said one challenge comes down to who has immediate access to the research network. 

“The research network is separate from the commodity network, so we’re looking for a way for students across the country to access the resources across that research network,” Bradlee said. 

Although both HBCUs and TCUs face similar pressure to make the most out of limited resources to serve particular populations and communities, leaders highlighted key differences between the two types of institutions. 

Bradlee and Dent said that Internet speeds at their universities fall in the gigabits per second range, while Kuslikis cited research showing that TCUs, on average, have an on-campus Internet speed of 336 megabits per second, which is significantly lower than national averages. Moreover, Kuslikis pointed out that hardware at TCUs tend to be refreshed every eight years, compared to three to five years for all postsecondary institutions. 

Tribal institution students also face substantial connectivity issues at home on reservations. Jason Arviso, vice president of operations at Navajo Technical University, said while the Navajo Nation has taken advantage of the Federal Communications Commission’s spectrum program for rural tribal populations, the FCC’s current broadband maps greatly underestimate the connectivity limitations of the Navajo Nation. 

Kuslikis said it will take the right type of wireless technology to give TCU students the home Internet that they need. 

“There’s mountains, there’s valleys, there’s canyons, there’s just a lot of challenges there,” Kuslikis said. 

On the encouraging side, Kuslikis said because environmental sciences is a popular field among TCUs, AIHEC is developing a “climate change data analysis training and support platform” that will be made available to faculty and students, who will be able to analyze data from NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Kuslikis added that partnerships with the Texas Advanced Computing Center and the University of Miami are providing analytics mentorship opportunities for TCU students. 

Dent said one potential key cyberinfrastructure resource for educational institutions is The Quilt. According to its website, The Quilt facilitates the ability of research and education networks “to develop, deploy and operate advanced cyberinfrastructure that enables innovation in research and education.” 

“We have to be able to take our workforce from one side and take it over to the other side,” Dent said. “That’s why it’s important to collaborate with each other.”

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.