By Chinwe Ohanele

The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) Unite was an incredible conference running from July 17 through July 20 in Atlanta Georgia that brought together educators from over 47 historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and over 1000 attendees dedicated to the success of Black students. The Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property (Michelson IP) was honored to both sponsor the conference and facilitate “Democratizing IP Education.” The panel was in partnership with Dr. Muhsinah Morris of Morehouse College, Professor Tuneen Chisohlm of Howard University School of Law and Kene Turner of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship. 

Day One: Dr. Johnnetta Cole on Supporting Black Students in Higher Education

On the first night of UNCF, the audience was enlivened by Dr. Johnnetta Cole, former president of Spelman College and Bennett College, the only two HBCUs for Black women in the U.S.  Ushered into the hall by West African drummers, in the style a mother or female elder is ushered into a celebration, Dr. Cole set the stage for the first annual commencement address to the UNCF Unite audience. Once on stage, she joyfully danced and pantomimed a lovely call and response with the musicians who mimicked the call and response that would occur during her riveting speech. Before a single word was said, it was evident that we were in the presence of a master, a woman who understood the impact and power of the past, the significance of the present and the need to connect them all to build towards a more prosperous future. At times invoking great leaders like Maya Angelou and Booker T. Washington, at other times deferring to meaningful insights gleaned from her colleagues and fellow HBCU presidents, Dr. Cole’s commencement address was akin to a powerful preacher’s Sunday sermon, trading in deep truth, unflinching clarity, and overwhelming love for her community. 

Source: UNCF

Dr. Cole made it clear that the work of supporting Black students in higher education, and setting them up to be unafraid, unabashed, and life-long contributors to their communities is a feat for the courageous—especially now as many question the value of institutions like HBCUs and Predominantly Black Institutions (PBI). Despite the criticism, Dr. Cole called on the community to be steadfast and lead collaboratively, making room for more tenured educators who can leverage their voices more confidently on behalf of students, and to stop undermining the work that is being done by putting crusaders under undue scrutiny, particularly female HBCU presidents who have experienced oversize criticisms from Boards and Regents that remain increasingly male. 

Fearlessly, but with humor, Dr. Cole completed her address with a general call to arms, and a welcome. To all who wish to support the advancement of Black Higher Education, much has been done, but much more needs to be done collectively if we are to survive these uncertain times. As she closed her commencement address, she was met with a nearly minute long standing ovation. The room was alive with energy and clear admiration.

Day Two: Student Success, How Spelman Is Leveraging Video Games and Democratizing Intellectual Property

The second day began with breakout rooms discussing student success. During the morning session, the Clinton Global Initiative University held a panel moderated by CEO Ragina Arrington and three rising HBCU students who shared the truth of their lived experience. Not only did they discuss learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, they also dove into the impact of attending institutions that value their cultural identities, their ambitions, and above all, are invested in their success. It was heartwarming to learn how the students felt that anything was possible for them given the support they received from their home institution and the pride they carried for the communities they built there.

After the plenary session, we were able to sit in on an incredible presentation by Spelman College’s video game program. As a result of student interest and the faculty’s desire to expose their students to new and cutting-edge technology, Professor Jerry Volcy shared how the Game Design and Development Minor was built to merge the computer sciences and the humanities providing an avenue for students and educators to be innovative around video game technology. As a result of those efforts, the students are now being supported by various grants from companies like Google through their 2023 HBCU Game Jam, Zynga, and the Unity Charitable Fund, administered by Tides Foundation. There has been early success and enthusiasm for the program and with the current demand for more diversity within the video game industry, this program seems headed for far more success in the coming years.

Panelists discuss “Democratizing Intellectual Property.”

On the second day of the conference, Michelson IP hosted a panel on Democratizing Intellectual Property, which sought to explore how HBCUs can ensure that black students are not being left behind. In a rapidly evolving world where institutions are beginning to look to technology transfer and the movement of innovation from the ivory towers of four-year institutions into the dynamic marketplaces of tomorrow, it is crucial to address the intentional inclusion (or potential exclusion) of Black students. 

Panelists had first-hand experience with the challenges of incorporating intellectual property education into their curriculum with the intention of ensuring that entrepreneurs, creators, and innovators within the Black community are equipped with the necessary knowledge to thrive in the competitive marketplace. With that perspective, panelists shared how they are leveraging the resources developed by Michelson IIP to bridge the gap. Some educators, such as Professor Tuneen Chisolm from Howard Law School who is an IP practitioner, shared the importance of IP education at every level, including the graduate level. Without the information, students are left in the dark as to options that can build passive income and assets that can mature not only a lifetime but several generations.

Dr. Muhsinah Morris, Professor, Morehouse College

Dr. Muhsinah Morris spoke of her experience as a highly-skilled biomolecular scientist doing research in her early career and how handicapped she felt without the IP education she now shares with her students at Morehouse College. For Dr. Morris, IP education wasn’t just about an impact on students, it was also about professors and educators. With the blueprint-making work Morehouse is doing in the metaverse as the first institution to develop a Meta-University, the team of professors and educators involved in the project were very particular about the third parties they worked with because they wanted to preserve their IP rights, which could open up unique licensing opportunities down the road. The ability to make operational decisions like that, Dr. Morris said, was based on her exposure to IP education, which she now has as a result of her partnership with Michelson IP

Kene Turner, Partner Success Specialist for the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE)

Finally, Kene Turner, a community partner with the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) who is beginning collaborations within the HBCU space, said it was clear that IP is a critical key to unlocking entrepreneurship opportunities for students and alumni who got through the NFTE program. Furthermore, Mr. Turner emphasized that working with HBCUs also improves the pipeline effect since students who work with NFTE gain some IP knowledge and then move on to  HBCUs, where they receive additional IP education, further amplifying and deepening the students’ understanding and awareness of IP. That way, no matter when the students begin their entrepreneurship, they will always be mindful to protect both their tangible and intangible assets.

All People Are Welcomed to Co-Create a Better World

All in all, UNCF Unite was an incredible experience and a timely clarion call to supporters of Black higher education to be courageous, not give up, and reach out to other partners to deepen impact within the community. We left agreeing with the UNCF motto “ A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to invest in. Michelson IP’s support of the conference and the HBCU ecosystem is a recognition that the world is a better place when all people—regardless of color, creed, religion, class, sexual orientation—are welcomed to co-create a better world. We undermine ourselves when we leave creators and innovators behind, and Michelson IP continues to walk alongside any organization who looks to bring everyone along for the journey.