The U.S. military is eager to tap into the talent network of the country’s historically Black colleges, which graduate nearly a quarter of all Black STEM professionals. Some students aren’t as excited about the relationship.

Howard University is the first HBCU in the country to lead such a project, partnering with the U.S. Air Force to develop autonomous technology. It’s one example of the government’s efforts to connect with the graduates leaving HBCUs with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.

Sam Anthony is one of several Howard students who have criticized what they see as the militarization of HBCUs after the university secured the $90 million research contract earlier this year.

When Anthony first learned of Howard’s contract, it came not as a surprise, but as an example of what he viewed as the university’s willingness to separate itself from the “global African community.” That separation isolates Black people and makes it possible for the government to further capitalist aims through militarization, he said.

“Racial capitalism is sustained through militarization. … Black people in the states have to identify with America to continue to sustain racial capitalism,” said Anthony, a junior Africana studies major. “That system is only sustained if Black people are separated, internationally and domestically.”

While much of the dissent is centered at Howard, the university will be leading a group of nine other HBCUs in the project through what’s known as a university-affiliated research center. Other involved universities include Bowie State University and Jackson State University.

Howard was selected from a pool of three other candidates, according to the Air Force. Morgan State University, in Baltimore, pursued the contract, but ultimately wasn’t selected to lead the project. Morgan State students in the B.L.A.C.K. Underground, a student group there, have partnered with Howard students in condemnation of the center. The military’s pursuit of HBCU relationships exploits students, they argue.

Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick said in a statement to the campus that the contract could move Howard closer to Research 1 status. According to the Carnegie Classification scale, a Research 1 status is designation for institutions with the highest level of research activity. There are currently no HBCUs with Research 1 status.

Scrutiny at Howard

Walking through The Yard on Howard’s main campus, flyers criticizing militarism at HBCUs, with phrases printed on them such as “Black University, White Interests” and “African Blood is on Howard’s Hands,” are common on bulletin boards and building entrances.

Student and community organizations such as Revolutionary SOS, which Anthony is a part of, and the HU Dissenters have played a major role in challenging the student body to be critical of Howard’s recent contract. Those organizations focus on issues like African liberation, political education, and community organizing.

Howard has a historic relationship with the military. It was founded in 1867 by Union Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, who served as its third president. Howard has maintained its militaristic traditions with programs such as Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

Still, some see the recent military contract as a contradiction to the mission of HBCUs — educating people who have a historically fraught history with the U.S. armed forces.

“Contracts with corporate-militarist interests are incompatible for an institution that claims to uphold genuine intellectual curiosity and academic scholarship as well as claiming to function in the interests of the masses of Black people domestically and abroad,” representatives from the Claudia Jones School for Political Education — an education organization focused on building political consciousness — wrote in a letter to The Hilltop.

Some Howard graduates protested against the military contract during this year’s graduation ceremony, standing and turning their backs toward the main stage during President Joe Biden’s keynote speech. The protesters, the Howard University Graduates for Solidarity, released a statement laying out their frustrations.

“We understand US imperialism to be the greatest threat to life on the planet, and we demand to live. We demand structural change, so that all African people domestically and internationally can live full happy lives,” they said.

Howard administrators didn’t respond to questions from Open Campus about their reaction to student criticism.

Trevor Kinlock — an adjunct sociology professor at Howard who specializes in race analysis, urban studies, and social inequality — said that arguments in support of, or against, the contract have “dual needs.”

Many HBCUs have historically received less government funding than predominantly white institutions. The Department of Defense contract provides funding and could attract future investment.

“You begin to understand this challenge of funding and the need to be able to run institutions that are viable,” Kinlock said. “You can’t do that if you don’t have the resources and if you’re simply dependent on tuition.”

Frederick, Howard’s president, acknowledged the potential in his statement. The tasks associated with the research center “grow over time and will provide the school with financial stability not possible through grants or donations,” he said.

The university should be more critical of what its partnerships look like and the indirect impact they have, Kinlock said.

“When we talk broadly just about military and partnering with government, we understand just from a historical perspective that when it comes to its presence, the United States has pursued an imperialist, neocolonialist-type policy in the way that it deals and interacts with nations in the Global South and Africa,” Kinlock said.

Tapping into HBCUs’ science and technology research potential is critical for the success of the military, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall III said in a statement.“Part of the future of the military is going to be autonomy,” Kendall said. “It’s here to stay, and we need to be at the front edge of that. This is an opportunity to tap into universities that have an enormous amount of capability in science and technology.”

Smith is an inaugural fellow in the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus. Support the program here.