July 18, 2003

Congress Looks To Narrow The Digital Divide, But Bush Administration Balks

Capitol Hill is looking to help shrink the so-called digital divide by considering legislation aimed at bolstering the computing and networking infrastructure available at colleges and universities that traditionally serve minority populations. But the National Science Foundation (NSF), which would administer the program formed by the bill, opposes the proposal.

Higher-education experts and lawmakers of both parties last week backed the measure, The Minority Serving Institution Digital and Wireless Technology Opportunity Act (H.R. 2183).

The bill would create a $250 million grant program at NSF. The legislation would establish within NSF an Office of Digital and Wireless Network Technology. The new office would award grants, contracts, or cooperative agreements to eligible institutions that would allow those institutions to acquire additional digital technology, networking capability, and hardware and software.

Minority serving institutions would be defined as colleges and universities with minority enrollment of at least 50 percent, according to the House Science Committee’s research subcommittee, which held last week’s hearing on the bill. Such institutions would include historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), and Native American tribal colleges and universities.

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) introduced similar legislation in the Senate in January (S. 196). The Senate subsequently passed its version in April by a vote of 97-0.

Allen and other supporters of the measure cast the bill in light of an economic imperative, citing statistics that indicate while minorities earn only one-tenth as many science and technology doctorates as their white counterparts, fully half of U.S. jobs will require significant technical skills within five years.

The term digital divide identifies the “haves” and the “have-nots” of digital technology. In a series of annual reports, the Clinton administration identified the have-nots as often being black and Hispanic populations who do not have the same access to the technology as other groups.

‘Critical’ issue

University officials endorsed the legislation.

“Enhancing the technology instrumentation and infrastructure at the HBCUs is one of the most critical issues affecting the education of African Americans and other minority students,” said Larry Earvin, president of Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Tex. Earvin testified on behalf of the United Negro College Fund. Hispanics face a similar situation, according to Ricardo Fernandez, who testified on behalf of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities and Hispanic-Serving Institutions.

“Lack of an appropriate infrastructure and equipment to provide access to students and faculty in classrooms are two important issues affecting HSIs,” Fernandez said. “This legislation would provide grants for new technology equipment and infrastructure expansion as well as new faculty development and technology leadership initiatives, and the funds to create cost-effective technology partnerships.”

Administration opposed

Despite the broad show of support for the legislation, its endorsement is not universal. In fact, NSF Director Rita Colwell testified against the bill.

The Bush administration has raised concerns about the cost of the proposal and whether the NSF is the appropriate agency to run the grant program, according the research subcommittee.

Although NSF supports the goal of enhancing technical infrastructure at minority-serving institutions, Colwell said the administration cannot support the legislation in its current form.

“NSF’s existing organizational structure, widely recognized for its efficiency and effectiveness, is already adequate to administer programs targeted at ensuring equal access to all institutions, including minority-serving institutions,” she said. “Adding an Office of Digital and Wireless Network Technology, as proposed in the legislation, would constrain rather than facilitate the integration of research and education programs within the foundation, and would operate with a mandate that is much more narrow than the broad, integrative approach consistent with our present plans.”

Also, Colwell said, the Justice Department is reviewing the bill to determine its constitutionality.

In addition, Colwell called the bill’s $250 million price tag unrealistic.

“It is NSF’s view that the current authorization levels in the bill would set unrealistic expectations within the community that could not be met,” she said. “It would be nearly impossible to fund anything near the levels currently authorized in the bill.”

The $250 million figure would represent nearly half of NSF’s current computer and information science budget, more than a quarter of the science agency’s current education activities, and 5 percent of the agency’s total budget, she added.

Published July 14, 2003, “New Technology Week”

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