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Can NAFEO Find Its Direction?

Can NAFEO Find Its Direction?

 By Michele N-K Collison

There was a time when thousands of Black college officials would block out the third week in April on their calendars so that they wouldn’t miss the annual meeting of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO).
The conference, held at the Washington Hilton in the District of Columbia and sponsored by NAFEO, attracted a who’s who assortment of higher education professionals who convened to discuss the latest issues facing Blacks in higher education. And high school students would arrive by the busloads to visit the conference’s Black college fair.
But judging by conference attendance in the past couple of years, it is clear that for some Black higher education administrators and faculty NAFEO’s bloom has withered. A growing number are choosing to attend other higher education conferences. 
Critics say attendance has dropped because the conference has developed a reputation as a place to socialize, offering little of value for those seeking substance. Run by old-school Black higher education leaders, they say, NAFEO is still reveling in past victories and failing to tackle the new challenges of the coming century.
To be sure, the grumbling about NAFEO is not new. In the past, Black educators have been reluctant to air the organizations “dirty laundry” in public. However, a new generation of Black college presidents — who are not fearful of upsetting the status quo — are voicing their increasing resentment about paying dues to an organization that they view as irrelevant.
“NAFEO needs a facelift,” says Dr. Marie McDemmond, president of Norfolk State University. “They’ve got the same conference, the same banquet. There are no new initiatives and there is a new crop of HBCU presidents who are questioning what these membership dues are for,” McDemmond  says. “The dues structure is very high and I really need to evaluate” what the institution is getting for the money. 
Moreover, amid the current backlash against affirmative action, NAFEO critics are frustrated that the organization is not taking greater strides to take advantage of the situation and make a case for Black public colleges.
Many of the larger member institutions have hired lobbyists of their own and formed alliances with other institutions to get more, some, or any federal research dollars. This development is both the symptom and cause of what many consider the root of NAFEO’s problems — a lack of resources.
To its credit, the leadership is now exploring new strategies for rebuilding attendance at the annual conference. Adding to the list of NAFEO’s woes, 56 of its 118 member institutions have not paid their dues — which range from $3,000 to $13,000 annually depending on the institution’s  enrollment size.
“The organization is languishing, it is faded,” says Dr. Julius Nimmons, president of the University of the District of Columbia. “We’ve got to recapture those things that were good.”

Stiff Competition
NAFEO was founded in 1969 to champion the issues of historically Black colleges and universities with Congress, federal agencies, and more recently, private corporations. The organization played a leading role in establishing many of the initiatives benefiting Black colleges during the 1970s and 1980s, including the creation of the  White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges, and increased funding for Title III. But NAFEO has lost influence in the 80’s and 90’s, say presidents and education leaders, because it has been wracked by internal fighting and been led by ineffective leaders, most notably Dr. Samuel L. Meyers, the organization’s leader for 18 years. Critics of the organization say NAFEO now needs bold new initiatives to advance the agenda of Black colleges.
But the chairman of NAFEO’s board says that the organization is going in new directions, including hiring a new lobbying firm and designing a new dues structure.
“NAFEO is a vibrant organization which has warts,” says Dr. Edward Fort, chairman of NAFEO’s board and outgoing chancellor of North Carolina AT&T. “We are trying to lance the warts.” Instead of criticizing the organization, he adds, critics should be trying to improve NAFEO. “It is very easy to sit in the grandstands and lob hand grenades.”
While NAFEO has been stumbling, other organizations have stepped in to fill the void — most notably, The College Fund/UNCF. And indeed, Black college presidents are turning to other associations, like the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) to fulfill needs that NAFEO has not. In addition, other annual meetings, like the American Council on Education’s One-Third of a Nation conference, and the University of Oklahoma’s National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE), have siphoned off administrators interested in broader issues NAFEO used to address. Moreover, educators say many other higher education associations, like the American Association for Higher Education, have formed minority caucuses.
“Twenty years ago, NAFEO could claim to be the voice of Black higher education,” says Dr. Reggie Wilson, senior scholar emeritus at the American Council on Education. “Now there are two [more] voices, Bill Gray of the The College Fund/UNCF, who speaks for the privates and Dr. N. Joyce Payne of  NASULGC’s Office for the Advancement of Public Black Colleges, who speaks for the publics.”
“Before [Black professionals] didn’t have any place to go,” says Dr. Henry S. Ponder, the president of NAFEO. “But now [NAFEO is] in strong competition with the organizations that [once] wrote off our clientele. Everyone of the higher education associations has a minority auxiliary.”
Ponder adds that colleges and universities are tightening their travel budgets and college administrators are becoming more discerning about which conferences to attend.
“This is a competitive marketplace,” Ponder says. “Budgets are tight. They might not necessarily come to NAFEO.”
Other presidents say NAFEO is not addressing some of the most pressing problems facing Black colleges, including increasing competition from predominately White state institutions for Black students.
“This has enormous implications for Black institutions,” says one Black college president who did not want to be identified.  “I don’t hear NAFEO addressing it. You don’t hear much being said [about the possibility] that not all Black institutions will be around. The organization needs to look at some serious issues.”
But college presidents and exhibitors say that more is at work than just competition. If NAFEO put on a substantial conference, college administrators could justify the costs of attending.
“I don’t need another opportunity for a corporate sponsor to help me play golf,” says Dr. Michael Lomax, president of Dillard University. “It is issues that bring us together, not a social organization.”
Lomax says the low attendance should be sending a message.
“There is a role for NAFEO,” he asserts. “Dr. Ponder’s challenge is how to make the meeting effective in advancing our agenda of increasing African American’s access to higher education.”
One exhibitor, who did not want to be identified, says that at a meeting of corporate sponsors held at this year’s NAFEO conference, exhibitors lodged many grievances.
“Participation was down,” says the exhibitor. “There is a lot of concern about what you’re getting because [vendors were not getting a lot of conference attendees walking past their booths]. If the organization doesn’t change, it will start to see a lack of [corporate] support.”

Doing More with Less
Ponder says the reason some presidents are complaining is because the organization is having to do more with less.
“It puts a strain on us,” he says. “We are stretching what we have, to do more with less.  A professional organization shouldn’t have to do this.”
Ponder says if more of his members paid their dues, he could provide more services like providing institutions with consultants to address fund-raising and development issues. Critics agree that the dues delinquency issue is a problem.
The members who are paying are “carrying the weight for the ones who don’t pay,” Nimmons says. However, the UDC president warns that if paying member institutions are forced to pay more and more, NAFEO could wind up “pricing-out its members.”
So if they’re not getting help from NAFEO, where are institutions getting the support they need?
Some presidents are turning to organizations like the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) to meet their needs. AASCU is sponsoring an institute in August called the “Millennium Leadership Initiative” to help identify and train a cadre of Black college administrators for eventual ascent into college presidencies.
Norfolk State’s McDemmond says budgets are tight at state institutions and presidents must therefore evaluate which memberships best further the goals of their universities. She says Norfolk State has not paid the entire $13,000 it owes this year for NAFEO dues. 
“We pay a tremendous amount of money to belong to NAFEO,” says McDemmond, adding that Norfolk State also belongs to the American Council on Education and AASCU — where Norfolk’s dues are $3,000. 
But she believes that NAFEO is still needed. “I’m not trying to put the nail in NAFEO’s coffin. I just want to make it better.”
Demands on presidents’ time are great but most would welcome opportunities to meet with their HBCU peers. Still, Nimmons says NAFEO’s Presidential Peer Summit, held each year in Hilton Head, S.C., is a waste of time.  “[The meeting is] expensive and time-consuming and nothing of any value happens,” he says.
 Some presidents say that there are colleges that are paying their dues, but not participating in the organization because, in their view, NAFEO is an insular organization that is reluctant to listen to new members.
“If you’re not part of the inner circle you won’t be listened to,” says one president who requested anonymity.
But others say that is precisely the problem with NAFEO.
“Those who stay away, leave NAFEO in the hands of a clique,” says a lobbyist who also requested anonymity. “If you stay in Denmark, S. C. or Lawrenceville, Va., you leave it to the clique. There are so few who are active because they don’t see the value in NAFEO.”
NAFEO used to attract faculty and administrators from predominantly White institutions in addition to professionals from HBCUs. But now many of those professionals attend other conferences dealing with race in higher education that have been created to fill the void.
“Representatives from White instiutions are not made to feel welcome,” says Dr. Issac Colbert, dean for graduate students at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology. To be fair, he says that many administrators used the association to raid the talent at Black colleges. But he says that many Black administrators from White universities stopped attending the conference because of the negative attitudes of Black college administrators.
 “We would get beaten up beacause we did not [work] at Black colleges,” Colbert says.

Need and Commitment
NAFEO represents a range of institutions — from large, state-run institutions like Prairie View A&M University to well-known, private institutions like Spelman College and small, struggling schools like Barber Scotia College.
“There is enormous diversity in the types of institutions in NAFEO and it is an extremely difficult agenda to manage,” says Dr. Carleton Brown, president of Savannah State University. “We need to strengthen and bolster NAFEO. Otherwise we will just be fighting each other like yard dogs for federal scraps.”
In today’s tight climate, most Black institutions can’t afford to have their own lobbyists in Washington, he says.
“How could I create a lobbying presence in Washington?” he asks. “I can’t afford to do it on my own. When budgets get tight, people start looking at NAFEO dues. But I would argue this is the wrong time to weaken NAFEO. We either have to have NAFEO or a NAFEO-like organization.”
Fort says NAFEO’s board members have set “a new tone for the organization. “The new board has insisted we break with tradition and hire a professional lobbying company,” Fort says. “In two to three years, we should see the results of that work.”
He also says board members have heard the complaints about dues from members and proposed a two-tier dues structure to provide relief for colleges that find it difficult to pay their dues. Those colleges that pay the minimum dues will receive less services than those paying the higher dues, Fort says.
In the absence of forceful moves by NAFEO, college presidents say The College Fund/UNCF has moved to fill the void. They point out that Gray has been so successful at raising money that foundations and corporations think that he virtually speaks for all Black colleges.
“UNCF is a brand,” says Dillard’s Lomax. “It has the name recognition, the staff, and [the] infrastructure to monitor Congress and the administration.”
Ponder acknowledges that NAFEO has fallen short on promoting awareness of the organization and its colleges.
“We didn’t see the value of [public relations],” says Ponder, who says that many Americans are familiar with the UNCF’s phrase, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
NAFEO now has its own slogan — “Keeping the doors of opportunity open,” which Ponder hopes can also become a household phrase. Still, he realizes that the organization cannot compete with The College Fund/UNCF or NASULGC’s Office of Historically Black Public Colleges and Universities.
“I have to find myself a niche where they are not,” he says.
Ponder also hopes to use the collective purchasing power of his institutions to develop partnerships with corporations, such as the one he developed last year with Educational Finance Group and G.B. Herndon Associates to begin a new student loan program (see Black Issues,  January 7, 1999)
Despite their criticism, most presidents interviewed by Black Issues hope that NAFEO will emerge a strong institution.
“We look to NAFEO for some of the camaraderie not found in larger organizations,” says UDC’s Nimmons. “It’s important that this happens.
“We need to refocus ourselves,” he continues. “We need a greater sense of commitment.”      


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