By David Baker and Howard Henderson

The overrepresentation of Blacks in the criminal justice system is widely acknowledged.  Unfortunately, there are few Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) producing the necessary research to support the criminal justice reform movement. A quick Google search on the role of HBCUs in criminal justice reform produces few results. Limited resources and no directed marketing approach – issues not unique to HBCUs –  make it difficult for HBCUs to be part of the reform. However, if we are going to ensure that we participate in the necessary changes to the criminal justice system, there must be more collaboration between HBCUs, the government and private organizations.

Partnerships between universities and foundations have existed for decades and is ever more necessary today (for recent examples see Center for Advancing Opportunity and the Charles Koch Foundation). The growing complexity of problems in our criminal justice system demands  an interdisciplinary approach. HBCUs are positioned to solve the complex challenges in creating a more equitable justice system. These partnerships are especially helpful to institutions traditionally limited in research dollars and human capital. Research grants are becoming more  difficult to acquire as a result of greater competition and fewer funding opportunities. Public universities used to thrive entirely on government funding. These days, higher education is receiving less and less of this funding, particularly in those areas researching social ills.

As government funding for social science research continues to decline, with the majority of available research dollars slanted toward STEM-based programs, criminal justice reform research has had to take an interdisciplinary approach. HBCUs are equipped to embrace both collaborative efforts and traditionally siloed disciplines, creating evidence-based solutions for the countless members of resilient communities. After all, research conducted at universities should be focused on improving everyday life for members of the community. Thus, amid the growing presence of research funded by foundations, every partnership provides its own nuanced distinction. If HBCUs are to remain relevant, we must take advantage of these necessary partnerships. In fact, the National Research Council notes that “Strengthening Partnerships with Business” is a top ten recommendation for competitive universities most likely to overcome the budget reductions of the state and federal government.

Contemporary Model

The Center for Justice Research (CJR) at Texas Southern University uses a multi-pronged funding approach to address social ills, motivate faculty research, and train the next generation of researchers respective of a culturally sensitive approach. There is a need to ensure criminal justice reform embraces the cultural and personal impact of those processed through the system. The value of this multi-pronged funding model lies in its ability to foster interdisciplinary reform-based research that has the potential to mature into a long-term university and community benefits.

CJR is a contemporary example of an HBCU – foundation partnership necessary to address a contemporary concern. This partnership model has the ability to change policy using locally accessed research, allowing agencies in need of research to maintain a link with the university as their programming matures. Providing a residence for start-up research in criminal justice reform within the HBCU academic space allows professionals to become embedded in the research setting with access to much needed information. At the same time, giving researchers and students direct access to professionals builds a network of knowledge and collaboration that is mutually beneficial.

However, long-term strategic alliances, focused around a specific area of study such as criminal justice reform efforts, has a great potential for immediate impact. Opportunities exists for HBCUs to partner with foundations at a variety of levels as they embrace a common set of objectives. This has indispensable efficiencies, such as breaking down barriers to intellectual data rights, creating transparency between entities, pooling resources, and streamlining the process of bringing research results from intellectual positions to stakeholders. Thus, the CJR model creates a framework for the rapid and open exchange of information between parties with shared vision and goals. Integrating an evidence-based, culturally responsive approach further expands the reach of the criminal justice reform movement.

This model can also inspire democratic innovation and discovery by linking together academia, government agencies, philanthropic organizations, non-governmental organizations, private investors and individuals who would otherwise remain disconnected.

Along these lines, any success of a partnership depends largely on several key factors, including:

  • research and funding collaborations;
  • mentoring the next generation of researchers;
  • developing a shared vision that identifies the purpose, framework and goals of the partnership;
  • identifying leaders who are capable of navigating that sensitive space between public and private entities;
  • creating a shared platform for the exchange of ideas and information that contribute to the overall goals of the partnership;
  • investing in long-term relationships.

By fostering more partnerships between HBCUs and foundations, we are better able to develop meaningful research and reforms intended to improve life chances for the countless members of resilient communities.

David Baker is a Research Fellow in the Center for Justice Research & Associate Professor and Howard Henderson, Director of the Center for Justice Research & Professor School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University

This article originally appeared in the Houston Forward Times. 

It Will Take Partnerships to Dismantle Criminal Injustices

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