Tuesday, June 18, 2024

N.C. A&T’s accelerating ambition

N.C. A&T State University is poised to become a top-level research university under Harold Martin Sr., who became chancellor at the Greensboro campus in 2006.

He rubs shoulders with Gov. Roy Cooper, snipping a wide gold ribbon while faculty members, Greensboro townspeople and industry executives cheer. Some chant, “Aggie Pride!” 

This, says the lanky, one-time standout on the basketball court in a ribbon-matching yellow tie, symbolizes “possibilities for the future.” 

The new, $90 million, glass-walled building behind him bears his name. It’s the Harold L. Martin Sr. Engineering Research & Innovation Complex. 

When the longtime chancellor of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University finishes speaking, guests at the February grand opening wander through a lab where a robot hoists 40-pound loads with remarkably human-like movements, accompanied by Spot, a mechanical dog.

In another lab filled with virtual-reality mechanisms, holographics and other technology, the guests hobnob with scientists developing safety technology required if autonomous vehicles take over the nation’s highways.

On a quieter day in a more modest lab, an A&T researcher surrounded by petri dishes and microscopes works with far less fanfare. 

Dr. Yu working in the lab at N.C. A&T State University.

Over the years, Jianmei Yu has developed hypoallergenic peanuts, strains that permit millions with potentially deadly allergic reactions to eat them. The research creates potential use of peanut derivatives in hundreds of products.

The Chinese-born scientist with a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University also has developed varieties that don’t become rancid after roasting, enabling more use of peanut flour to help fight world hunger. She’s also experimenting with new strains of corn that resist potentially poisonous mold. Her efforts could expand markets for Tar Heel farmers, who produce $900 million a year in corn and peanuts.

Yu smiles at parallels among herself, A&T and George Washington Carver, who, in the late 1800s, developed scores of uses for peanuts, urging cotton-poor Southern farmers to switch crops. Carver was based at another historically Black college, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

“Our lab is small, and we don’t always have the best equipment,” she shrugs. “But we do the very best we can.”

Today, 131 years after the university’s founding, the Martin complex underscores A&T’s rising-star status as an increasingly influential center for engineering education in North Carolina and nationally. It’s not a coincidence that President Joe Biden gave a major economic talk at the site in April.

▲ A&T State University enrolls more than 13,300 students, the most it has seen ever over 130 years.

The new building follows a $6 million agricultural research pavilion that opened at A&T’s 492-acre research farm last year and a $90 million student union that debuted two years earlier.

Enrollment swelled 26.3% in the past decade to more than 13,300 students, making it the nation’s largest historically Black university and the third-fastest growing of the state’s public universities. The system overall grew 10% during the same time. 

Fundraising also tells the tale; A&T raised nearly $94 million in the 2021 fiscal year, compared with $18 million a year earlier. That included $45 million from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, whose ex-husband is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The balance comes from individuals and institutions, including $5 million from Walmart and $5.5 million from Corning, both targeting science and technology programs. 

It was a record annual haul for an HBCU, officials say, and put the university’s endowment at $157.5 million. That compares with $28 million a decade ago.

The momentum has A&T on the verge of being classified as a Research One Doctoral University under the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education framework, joining Duke University, UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State University, says UNC System President Peter Hans. 

“That’s important in higher education not only because it indicates the level of degrees — doctorates, master’s, bachelor’s — but the level of research at an institution,” he says. Research One institutions typically attract highly regarded professors who, in turn, lure greater funding and notoriety.

Moreover, A&T would be the first historically Black university to be classified as R1.

A&T already plays a valuable role in Tar Heel economic recruitment, similar to how Stanford University helps feed intellectual capital to Silicon Valley industries. “These days,” says Brent Christensen, CEO of Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, “talent is the new currency in economic development.”

Last summer, Christensen asked Chancellor Martin and A&T College of Engineering Dean Robin Coger to meet with out-of-town visitors involved in the secret Project Darwin. Over lunch at Grandover Resort and Spa, university officials described their efforts to boost science, technology, engineering and math programs and success in graduating more Black engineers than any other U.S. university.

The guests listened politely. Project Darwin was Toyota Motor Corp’s plan for a $1.3 billion, 1,750-employee electric-vehicle battery plant in nearby Randolph County. Coger has since been named provost at East Carolina University, starting in July. 

“A&T was key,” says Randolph County Commission Chair Darrell Frye, who helped recruit Toyota. “Their engineering school in particular helped Toyota tick off one of their must-haves.” 

No easy climb

For generations, A&T’s future was far from dazzling. It’s been an uphill grind for the school and its rambling campus of red-brick buildings in east Greensboro. Like its HBCU counterparts in the UNC System — Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State, N.C. Central and Winston-Salem State — A&T has been a refuge for students from mostly Black public schools that, in some cases, left them ill-prepared for higher education. 

North Carolina Agricultural and Mechanical College for the Colored Race was founded under a federal land-grant mandate in 1891 because Black Tar Heel residents had no college to attend and their futures were limited mostly to farming, teaching, nursing and menial jobs, says Rodney Dawson, a community historian at the Greensboro Museum. A&T quickly became the center of the Gate City’s Black middle and upper class.

The institution opened only seven years before the Wilmington Massacre, when a mob of 2,000 white supremacists burned Black businesses and homes, killing 60 and sending hundreds fleeing from the Port City. A&T’s second chancellor, James B. Dudley, was a Wilmington native who had taken the reins in 1896, two years before the massacre. 

A&T was also born into the state’s Jim Crow politics. Northerners Caesar and Moses Cone moved denim-maker Cone Mills to Greensboro in 1891, when most Tar Heel Black people were sharecroppers and farm laborers. Cone factories hired them for mill jobs that provided more stability but often came with inferior wages and dangerous work.

Unwittingly, Cone and other mills helped A&T morph into the present. 

“We went from an agricultural school in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s to more industrial training,” says Dawson, who is an A&T graduate. “Mills and plants needed engineers who could help them restructure, and A&T students knew if they couldn’t find a job here in Greensboro, they could go to Charlotte or Richmond or somewhere else.”

A neighborhood of small houses and mobile homes a dozen blocks north of the A&T campus makes up what was once one of Cone Mills’ segregated mill villages. Its centerpiece is the immaculately restored East White Oak Community Center, which was built as a school for Black mill children in the early 1900s. 

On A&T’s campus, a bigger-than-life bronze statue honors the four A&T  freshmen who, in February 1960, began a sit-in at the local F.W. Woolworth whites-only lunch counter. The movement spread nationwide. By July, Woolworth was seating Blacks at its lunch counters nationwide. 

Some historians say the 19-year-old students were acting mainly on their own, with little encouragement from A&T. Chancellor W.T. Gibbs defended them, saying, “We teach our students how to think, not what to think.” He took a hands-off approach, not uncommon for HBCU leaders during the civil rights era.

“The attitude was heads down; don’t be too aggressive, because the legislature could cut funds even more,” Dawson says. 

Other civil rights leaders emerged from A&T, including Jesse Jackson, a 1964 graduate who was student body president. He became a two-time presidential candidate.

The historic inequity of funding of A&T and other HBCUs has drawn attention in recent years. “The case of HBCUs is clear and obvious,” Hans says. “But for them to have an overdue moment is not sufficient to right all historical wrongs.”

A Forbes story in February concluded that HBCUs nationwide have been underfunded by more than $12 billion between 1987 and 2020, based on the disparity in per-student funding with land-grant institutions. It cited A&T as the prime example, contending it received $2.8 billion less over the years than N.C. State, which is among the nation’s top-ranked engineering and agricultural research institutions.   

Hans, president of the UNC System, didn’t dispute the research but cautions that such figures can be misleading. Research funding in universities comes from a wide variety of public and private sources, and N.C. State’s enrollment of about 36,000 students is nearly triple that of A&T.  

Moreover, the UNC System has provided greater per-pupil instructional expenses to N.C. State and UNC Chapel Hill than the other 14 campuses, reflecting higher costs, history and other factors that have long favored the two flagship schools. 

The difference between A&T and N.C. State was about $8,000 per student in 2020, Forbes noted.

N.C. lawmakers have taken notice, providing an additional $11 million to A&T this year to support doctoral programs and research. The UNC System now allows A&T to admit as many as 25% of its students from out of state, compared with 18% at most campuses. Out-of-state students pay higher tuition, which aids the university’s finances.

North Carolina’s unrivaled commitment to HBCUs raises the question of how they fit in a society that some believe should be focused on becoming colorblind. Three miles west of A&T is UNC Greensboro, which has been led since 2015 by Franklin Gilliam, a former UCLA dean, who is Black. He has emphasized diversity and helped make UNCG a national leader in helping students from lower-income households improve their economic status. 

“If everything were as it should be, there would be no HBCUs or TWIs,” says Tyrone Courey, president of the 106-college National HBCU Alumni Foundation in Silver Spring, Maryland. TWIs are traditionally white institutions. “Unfortunately, it isn’t. Without HBCUs like A&T there would be no Michael Regans or Kamala Harrises.”

▲ On move-in-day, Chancellor Martin has helped new freshmen move into their residence halls.

Despite decades of academic integration, Courey adds, A&T still underscores the value of HBCU. Half of its students are the first in their families to attend college, just like Goldsboro native Zeb Regan, a Vietnam War veteran and former agricultural extension agent who earned a degree in 1969.

 “I chose A&T because of its rich history,” says his son, Michael Regan, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “But most importantly my father was the first member of his family to graduate from a four-year college, and I still look up to him. He’s my mentor.”

Aggie asset

Virtually everyone familiar with A&T stresses the key to its resurgence is its highly regarded chancellor.

Harold Martin, 71, grew up in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood in neighboring Winston-Salem, the son of a truck driver for a meatpacking company who doubled as an itinerant preacher. The family traveled Carolina back roads from one rural church to another, dining on lunches packed by his mother, a domestic for a white family. “We were really poor,” though better off than some neighbors, he says. 

The family avoided restaurants and drove long hours to return home rather than seek out the rare hotels that would admit Blacks. 

Martin graduated from a segregated high school in 1970 and passed up a chance to play basketball at Ohio Wesleyan University to enter A&T’s engineering school. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees there, then received a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Virginia Tech University in 1980. He later returned to the Greensboro campus to teach and was the engineering dean from 1989 to 1994, then a vice chancellor for five years.

He moved to Winston-Salem State as chancellor from 2000 to 2006, helping boost enrollment as it recorded a 70-plus point increase in average SAT scores for incoming freshmen. In 2006, UNC System President Erskine Bowles promoted him to oversee academic affairs for the entire system, then named him to the A&T post in 2009. He’s the first alumnus to hold the job.

Soon after taking office, Martin introduced A&T Preeminence 2020, a plan to increase research, enrollment and academic scores for incoming students. Many goals have been achieved even as more than half of students qualify for federal financial aid. 

This coming fall, first-year students will have an average GPA of 3.7, slightly higher than the national average for all colleges. “We set our minds 12 years ago to go toe-to-toe with other great universities, and that has paid off,” says university spokesperson Todd Simmons.

Martin also is raising the school’s athletic ambitions. After leaving the HBCU-dominated Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference for the Big South Conference in 2020, A&T is moving to the higher-profile Colonial Athletic Association in July. Elon University and UNC Wilmington are Colonial members. Martin says A&T expects to be “competitive, not just a member.”

Regan was secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality for four years before going to Washington last year. He calls Martin the best chancellor in A&T’s history.

“When I graduated from high school in Goldsboro, my guidance counselors encouraged me not to go to an HBCU, because they perceived them as less competitive than white
colleges,” he says. “Not only is A&T competitive now, but companies like Google and Apple know it’s the largest source of Black engineers in the world. It has an excellent nursing program, and they just announced a Ph.D. program in environmental science.”

Regan initially was more interested in fun than studies. “I lived in Scott Hall and enjoyed dorm life, hanging out in The Yard, Gym Jam and all the parties,” he says. “I was cruising at a level I thought was adequate. I changed my major a couple
of times.” 

Professor Godfrey Uzochukwu stepped in. “He saw in me someone who needed to exercise more discipline. He ran me through the paces and never let up, but he cared about me and invested in me as an individual.” Regan earned a bachelor’s degree in earth and environmental science in 1998 and now helps the U.S. combat climate change.

Martin’s emphases include caring for students, according to several faculty members, administrators and students.

“We recognize freshmen might not have the support systems at home, so that welcoming nature is quite relevant,” says Sanjiv Sarin, a special assistant to the chancellor. “We’re not a liberal arts college, and [Martin] constantly reminds us that first and foremost we’re a land-grant university. We’re focused. Our mission is to constantly find ways to benefit our students and communities.”

Sarin is in his 39th year. 

This is Levi Burks’ first.

The 18-year-old from Westerville, Ohio, visited UNC Chapel Hill, the University of Cincinnati and other schools before choosing A&T. She’s studying to become a civil rights lawyer and chose A&T because of its HBCU status.

Another first-year nursing major, Kalia Coleman, a 19-year-old track athlete and honors student from Dumfries, Virginia, chose A&T for the same reason. 

“It’s like a home away from home,” says Coleman. She calls the academic environment “safe, supportive. I can confidently say the teachers, the atmosphere is different here.” 

Both students say they wrestle with sensitive racial issues that experts say are endemic to the nation’s HBCUs. 

Burks struggles with her admiration for her father, a police officer, and the tug of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests over police-involved violence. She and Coleman attended predominantly white high schools where racism — some subtle, some not — made them uncomfortable. 

“I was a high-achieving student, and my teachers would seem surprised,” Coleman says. “If I got a B and was mad at myself for not getting an A, the teachers just shrugged. That’s not the case here.”

Concerns that HBCUs perpetuate voluntary resegregation are more than offset by other benefits, says Hans, who himself is a first-generation college graduate. “They’re supportive, and their economic impact today is clear.”

Late October annually brings homecoming week to Greensboro, typically drawing 40,000 alums for steppin’ performances, marching bands, concerts and the homecoming football game. Merchants say its economic impact exceeds $20 million.

It’s called GHOE, for “Greatest Homecoming on Earth,” a title that fits, Michael Regan and others say.

“It’s real,” Burks says. “Everywhere I go, people are shouting, ‘Aggie pride.’”

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