By Sally Linder
Johnson C. Smith University considers study abroad so important to a student's global fluency that it has extended a creative incentive: It will cover all costs for every student to obtain a passport.
"We want our students to live and learn at the cutting edge," said Brian L. Johnson, chief of staff at the Charlotte, N.C., school.
Four hours away in Petersburg, Va., Virginia State University stepped in to create teacher-development programs and help map out a recovery plan after the city schools' ranking bottomed out.
"They were dead last in the state, so we partnered with the schools to help pull them out," VSU Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs W. Weldon Hill said.
These programs were two of many discussed Thursday at a public launch of The Interlink Alliance at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The new education partnership involving nine colleges and universities -- including Ohio University -- plans to work collaboratively to create more educational opportunities for African-American students.
In addition to Ohio, Virginia State and Johnson C. Smith universities, the alliance includes Spelman College in Atlanta; Hampton University in Hampton, Va.; Wilberforce University and Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio; North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C.; and South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C.
Members of the alliance have pledged to work cooperatively in three key areas: faculty development, student leadership and an African-American male initiative that engages and motivates prospective college students as early as middle school.
At a meeting that followed Thursday's announcement of the alliance, representatives of member institutions adopted a mission statement, put forth issues they'd like to address and identified existing programs that could serve as the basis for important work.
For instance, Associate Provost for Research Lilly McNair of Spelman College expressed a need for more research into the connection between environmental problems and health disparities between African-Americans and the population at large. She could see Spelman College's new Center for Health Disparities Research and Education serving as a catalyst, intersecting with environmental- and social-justice research at member institutions.
Hill said he would like to see more African-American students getting top national and international awards. Ohio University President Roderick J. McDavis shared the university's success in that area and discussed how the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards' comprehensive, structured approach could serve as a model.
All agreed that getting more African-American males into college and earning degrees is among the most important challenges to address. A desire to advance that work makes Central State University's Chief Information Technology Officer Collette Pierce-Burnette especially enthusiastic about The Interlink Alliance. Central State already has an African-American Male Leadership Institute, and she hopes the alliance will provide a multiplier effect that amplifies her institution's work.
"The benefit of the alliance is that it will provide connections for us to do something bigger than we can do on our own," she said, adding that "an initiative at one institution can be extended to at least eight others."
Chancellor Charlie Nelms of North Carolina State University, in a conversation with Outlook prior to the launch, said the alliance's "variety and diversity" are central to its potential for success.
"If we could take pilot ideas such as the African-American male initiative and see if they work in large schools like Ohio University, medium-sized schools like Central (NCCU) and small schools like Wilberforce, then we might have a model that would could work in any institution," he said.
Although the presidents of each institution officially entered into the alliance, working groups with multi-institution membership will drive the projects that result. McDavis said an African-American male initiative working group should be in place by January.
"It's such a critical topic in society. We want to move quickly but with [care]," he said. "The first step is research. Let's find out what's already out there. Then we can develop a project. It could be additional research. It could be a K-12 project. It could be a focus on recruitment."
McDavis said a faculty-development working group is expected to form in November. With members from all nine institutions, the group will start by discussing plans for a conference on blending technology with teaching pedagogy to increase teaching effectiveness and extend instructional reach. Ohio University's Tyrone Carr of the Center for Organization Development and Effectiveness and Laurie Hatch of the Center for Teaching and Learning will assist with planning.
Representatives also discussed forming a student-leadership working group. Several institutions have notable leadership initiatives that will serve as a foundation. Ohio University, for instance, has leadership programs in the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs and participates in the national LeaderShape program.
Support for the alliance will come from a modest annual membership fee -- yet to be determined, but likely in the $1,000 range -- and fundraising. McDavis, who believes that key Vision OHIO goals are in sync with those of the alliance, agreed to kick-start fundraising efforts with help and input from members. Carr will assume Interlink Alliance directorship duties part-time, including fundraising.
"We're sensitive to financial constraints of all the members. We want to move on initiatives, but in a way that doesn't pose hardship or take away from priorities," McDavis said. "The point is not to collect more money but to raise more money on projects of mutual interest."
McDavis expects donors will see the fact that nine institutions are involved in the alliance as an asset.
Pierce-Burnette of Central State believes dollars will be just one part of the alliance's currency. She sees substantive value in the form of sharing information, leveraging expertise at member institutions and expanding work already under way.
"(The Interlink Alliance) is almost like an investment club where you pool your resources and get a return on your investment," she said.