HBCUs and the United Negro College Fund: Another Grand Betrayal

Updated: November 20, 2013

by Jane Biral

One thing is certain: the last three UNCF presidents have made out like bandits.”

Misleadership and the Mission

Misleadership is not the sole province of the political class.i In fact, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) is in a class by itself when it comes to misleadership. Started in 1944 by presidents of three historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), UNCF was created to raise money for 29 HBCUs (original number in 1944) in order to fulfill the dreams of generations of black students who wanted a good education at a reasonable price. HBCUs were the means to that end. As the head of UNCF’s direct mail marketing from 1974-2004, I believed we were telling donors the truth when we made that message the centerpiece of our solicitations. We pointed to the fact that most (90%) UNCF students were the first in their family to attend college and encouraged donors—predominantly white—to give a “hand up, not a hand out.” (Typical of the white liberal bootstrap-themed messaging of the Seventies and Eighties.)

We argued that giving to UNCF generated “more bang for the buck” than giving to individual HBCUs. Was it true? Sure, in one sense there were economies of scale (one fundraising organization’s administrative costs vs. individual HBCUs) that improved the cost-effectiveness of every donation.

But when it comes to who has and is receiving the largest share of the benefits, the case is shaky. One thing is certain: the last three UNCF presidents have made out like bandits. I remember a UNCF vice president (who, by his own admission, hadn’t made out so badly himself) joking that the last two UNCF presidents (Christopher F. Edley and William H. Gray) had come into the Fund prosperous and left millionaires.

Bill Gray is Exhibit A in the political sausage making that is the dominant feature of the selection of a new UNCF leader.

Rev. Gray, senior minister at Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, future UNCF president, “misrepresented” Pennsylvania’s 2nd district as their congressman starting in 1978.

In the nineties when I first met him, Bill Gray combined charm, boyish good looks, and, like Obama, a powerful presence and seeming empathy for the “common man” (a tactic he reserved for public appearances – not for his staff, as I painfully recall) that made him a huge hit on the rubber chicken circuit. Had he kept his hands out of the cookie jar during his congressional career, he might well have been Obama’s predecessor in the White House.

His political bona fides were equally impressive. First Black chairman of the House budget committee, and first to serve as majority whip from 1989-1991. His advancement potential was further confirmation of his political juice as he was reputed to be the odds on favorite to fill out the term of Senator John Heinz, who had been killed in a plane crash.

It all came crashing down in 1991 when he abruptly resigned from Congress, amidst talk of a criminal investigation into campaign finance hanky-panky as well as a grand jury investigation into unholy financial maneuvers at his church (laundering excessive speaking fees through church accounts).ii Later came the revelation that he was also involved in the House Banking Committee scandal to the tune of 60 bounced checks while in Congress. (Of course he had plenty of company with 178 Democratic congressmen and 87 Republicans also implicated).

The Message Goes Corporate

Why were the captains of industry who sat on the UNCF board so eager to give Gray a golden parachute from Congress? Part of the answer can be found in a statement by John Nash, then president of the National Association of Corporate Directors: “Bill Gray knows his way around government and he’s very astute when it comes to how corporations should be dealing with Congress.iii

Consider this statement from one of Gray’s home state newspapers:

“Sources said Gray will be offered the chance to serve on the board of directors of at least two corporations, a common practice to help supplement the income of the fund’s presidency.iv (emphasis mine)

Testifying to his enormous potential value to corporate America, Gray exceeded expectations by being named to the boards of 5 big firms. [When he retired, Gray’s predecessor served on 3 corporate boards and one putatively “non-profit board,” (80% owned by Citigroup); by comparison when Gray retired he served on more than 8 major boards].

Of course it’s all about raising money when occupying the top spot of a non-profit and that was Gray’s major attribute “…in terms of someone who can get [the UNCF] the money, I can’t think of anyone better.”v [Former Gray staffer who didn’t want his name in the paper.]

On the other hand, having so many board commitments meant long absences from UNCF headquarters and limited time to fulfill the responsibilities of his office. John Nash agreed: [I]f you are a retired CEO or somebody like Mr. Gray – if that is all he is going to do, devote his energies to being a professional director – then you can serve on five boards.vi Little did Nash know.

In case there was any doubt about the corporate community’s embrace of Gray, a Grumman spokeswoman put that to rest: “He knows his way around Washington, and for a company like Grumman, that is extremely valuable to us. That’s where our customers are.” Shortly after resigning from Congress, Gray joined the board of Grumman.vii

Gray’s statement to the media gave a different spin on his decision to leave Congress and head the UNCF: “If there’s anything that those of us who reach success ought to do, it is to be willing to go back, reach back, and give back.”

From the pulpit, Rev. Gray delivered a resignation homily taking hypocrisy to new heights, reminiscent of the discrepancy between the rhetoric of candidate Obama and the performance of President Obama: “If I wanted money, I would not have become an educator; I wanted mission. If I wanted money, I would not have gone into public service; I wanted mission. I have never been motivated by money. The reason I am changing careers to be head of the United Negro College Fund is because of its mission.”viii

In the birds of a feather category, Obama’s official statement after Gray’s death in 2013, while commenting on some of his attributes, failed to take note of his powers of self-promotion and enrichment: “Bill Gray was a trailblazer, proudly representing his beloved Philadelphia in Congress for over a decade… Bill’s extraordinary leadership… made our communities, our country and our world a more just place.ix

For someone who was never motivated by money he sure managed to come away from UNCF with lots of it. And his retirement package, according to a former VP of UNCF, included goodies like a “bonus” of several millions and an annual payment of $150,000 that became part of his estate at his death. Add in his pension, the board memberships his tenure at UNCF made possible and, once again, in what was fast becoming a UNCF droit de seignor Bill Gray entered the UNCF moderately wealthy and left with a sizeable fortune (his wealth from board memberships alone is valued at $12.4 million).x

Why Does It Matter?

For the first twenty-five years of its existence [1944-1969], the men who ran UNCF were professional educators and with the exception of Dr. Trent, former presidents of one of the HBCUs. In 1969, (white) corporate leadership, which raised by far the lion’s share of the annual total and usually got their way on policy matters, started tinkering with the selection criteria for the UNCF CEO. Opting to create a CEO in their own image, these captains of industry looked for a man whose basic values were in keeping with standard corporate ethics, i.e self-aggrandizement and greed. The college presidents got on board as this train was leaving the station.

The first UNCF leader in the corporate mold was Vernon Jordan, a lawyer with an impressive civil rights background before becoming UNCF president in 1970 and developing a whole new set of ambitions. He stayed at UNCF for two years until the more prestigious Urban League presidency opened up with far more lucrative potential. In a July 23, 1981 article in the New York Times, Jordan, having long ago shed his progressive patina, commented on the direction of the Reagan administration: “I do not challenge the conservatism of this Administration. I do challenge its failure to exhibit a compassionate conservatism that adapts itself to the realities of a society ridden by class and race distinction.” Now worth an estimated $15 million, he has been an advisor to President Clinton, a board member of American Express, Xerox, Lazard Ltd and J.C. Penney and was recently named one of the ten richest American lawyers. What he has done to advance the cause of HBCUs in the past 40 years is not part of his resume.

And so it goes. Christopher Edley, who followed Jordan was a lowly program officer at the Ford Foundation when he was selected. Eighteen years later, he left the Fund a very rich man.

It Started With A Dream

Working at the Fund, I knew some of the men whose vision, insight, commitment, and, yes, cunning, built it. I had the honor of being schooled by Drs. Trent and Dent (President of Xavier College and a driving force behind the Fund’s creation).

They were committed to the Fund’s mission to build strong, thriving, prosperous predominantly black colleges and universities. But theirs was not tunnel vision. They knew how to play ball with the “man” (in this case the men, white and rich, who in the beginning controlled the Fund’s access to corporate philanthropy). They were operators in the best sense of the word. They weren’t in the education business to become mega rich. They weren’t into poverty either. They were leaders who understood that in order to stay on top they had to produce.

Like most of the college presidents, the ones I knew best, Patterson, Trent and Dent were courtly gentlemen but with an inner core of steel. They wrung every cent they could out of the rich men who ran corporate America. And they did it charmingly. They bore the noblesse oblige attitude of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his cronies because in the early years it was the only way to guarantee the Fund’s survival. Beyond a doubt, the thing they cared about most was education, in particular education of their young people. Without HBCUs, a whole generation of Black children would have grown up without the chance to get a college education.

Corporate Educators

The “new broom’ era that began with Vernon Jordan in 1970 changed the rules. Paraphrasing Bruce Dixon, for these leaders “[their] true causes were their own careers and seeking the favor of those in power.” Careful attention to these two areas made all three, Jordan, Edley and Gray, very rich and very powerful. The HBCUs, on the other hand, are still limping along, bedeviled on two scores – by the leaders entrusted with keeping the dream alive and the Black president they supported and dare not speak against.

“The first Black president is no fan of historically Black colleges.”xi Neither, it appears, is UNCF’s current leader. Michael Lomax, breaking the mold of his recent predecessors, was president at Dillard University, an HBCU. Philosophically and materially, he appears more corporate than educator, more concerned about personal advancement and enrichment than about the future prospects of the young people at UNCF colleges and universities. How else to explain his membership on the boards of KIPP and Teach for America, organizations which seek to privatize America’s public schools encouraging conformity — children thinking inside the box and, primarily for children of color, military academies where the next generation of soldiers to fight and die in the Empire’s increasingly disastrous wars will be trained. To get the real skinny on where privatized education is leading, look at its most ardent funders – the likes of the Walton Foundation, the Gates, Eli Broad, Dell, Bezos, Atlantic and Bradley Foundations, even Romney’s old firm Bain. On the wealth procurement front, Lomax is traveling a well-worn path. According to Forbes.com, for FY ending 3/31/11, Lomax made off with $1,271,939 in total compensation.

Beware of Self-Serving Corporate Giveaways Masquerading as Charity

You will remember that it was on Gray’s watch that the Gates Foundation bestowed a historic $1 billion gift on UNCF in 1999. As staff present at the negotiations between Bill Gray and Bill and Melinda Gates told me, despite staff objections to certain provisions of the gift — designed, it would appear, to steer the best and brightest students away from HBCUs and into predominantly white institutions. Bill Gray brushed aside their objections, proceeding to commit UNCF to this ignoble project. One thing the gift did do: it made Bill Gray a star.

It’s All About the Money

Gray’s successor, Dr. Michael Lomax, in a 2009 interview about the future of HBCUs, was singing from the same hymnal as his predecessor: “…But the world has changed and our work has changed. We don’t just support students at HBCUs. We support students all over.” In the same interview, he described the “conditions” for receiving the billion dollars. “They really felt we’d be great stewards…And they asked us to stretch a little bit…We continue to do our heritage work. But we’re stretching. We are being muscular and agile…finding a balance between the…work that we’ve always done and the new work that we have to do. I view UNCF as an organization that began to address the needs of one community and now is called to help the nation address its needs.”xii (emphasis mine)

If “stretching” is a synonym for “selling out,” and “nation” is a synonym for corporate rule, Dr. Lomax is right on the money. When asked how much of the Gates money is supporting the education of African-American students, “We’ll have 5,000 Gates scholars…Sixty-five percent of those are not African-American.” (many do not attend UNCF institutions, free choicer another stipulation of the gift)xiii (emphasis mine)

How UNCF Left the HBCUs Behind

Before Bill Gray, staff made the case for supporting UNCF schools the priority. When we talked about UNCF students, it was always in the context of the schools. Fundraisers call it a “bricks and mortar” appeal and it worked brilliantly for almost 50 years.

All that changed when Bill Gray took over in 1991. The new sales pitch shifted the focus from UNCF HBCUs to the students, and the schools they attended, HBCUs and predominantly white schools alike. UNCF’s current president in a 2009 interview was unapologetic about the change in UNCF’s mission and its impact on UNCF HBCUs: “We are still in the fundraising business…But the world has changed and our work has changed.”

For over twenty years, UNCF has continued to put the HBCUs that were the only reason for creating a UNCF, at the back of the bus. In the Winter, 2012/Spring 2013 edition of the magazine Diversity/Careers in an article “UNCF partners with minority groups to administer Gates Millennium Scholars Program” the emphasis is once again on the students not HBCUs. (In case you are unfamiliar with this magazine, the latest edition features an article entitled “Walmart Commits to Offer Jobs to Honorably Discharged Veterans.”)

Why We Shouldn’t Let Them

Drs. Patterson, Trent, Mays, Dent et al devoted most of their professional lives to establishing a way forward for HBCUs. They nurtured their dream through the immediate post war when the rigors of segregation threatened to derail it. They persevered after the Brown decision in 1954 when even their staunchest allies (the likes of Rockefeller and Hoving) proclaimed the end of the line for Black institutions. After all segregation was dead, no need to continue funding HBCUs. “Hallelujah, it’s all over, and there isn’t any need for black colleges…it’s going to be just great”xiv In a speech to a mostly white audience in 1959, five years after Brown, UNCF President Benjamin Mays laid out the case for perpetuating HBCUs: “You are silently asking me, are we not perpetuating segregation when we support the UNCF colleges? I answer with a resounding “no.”…We are convinced that the private Negro colleges have done more to foster good human relations in the nation, and especially in the South, and have built more permanent bridges of interracial good will than any other agency in our nation.”xv

How It Ends

Now the likes of corporate-funded, corporate-owned shills like Michael Lomax dance to the corporate tune of creating a free market workforce that translates to a low wage, non-union, benefit-free workforce.

President Obama, the biggest corporate shill of all, in curtailing the funding of Black colleges and universities is fulfilling his role in the destruction of the original mission of the HBCUs. It’s been a twenty-year effort and it’s working.

Where are the voices and the raised fists demanding that Obama stop the wanton destruction of a dream so many have fought so hard and so long for? Where are the howls of rage that should be emanating from the executive suites of the UNCF, the Urban League, the NAACP, The Legal Defense Fund, The Congressional Black Caucus?

The silence is chilling.

Perhaps when Dr. Lomax is feeling particularly “muscular and agile,” he could “stretch” his vocal chords to protest this outrage. Don’t hold your breath.

Jane Biral is currently working on a book about the United Negro College Fund. She can be reached at biralundercover@gmail.com.

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