An Insider Moves Front & Center
By Ronald Roach
Lezli Baskerville is no stranger to the ways of Washington. As the fifth president and the first woman to head the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), Baskerville brings more than two decades of Washington-based advocacy and legal experience to the task of representing the organization’s base of 118 historically and predominantly Black colleges and universities before the U.S. Congress, the federal judiciary and the Executive branch.
For Baskerville, the presidential job provides a fitting capstone to her career, which began when she was a Howard University law school student working with NAFEO as a legal research associate. Work with NAFEO continued in various capacities that included a stint on the legal team that negotiated the consent decree in the landmark higher education institutional equalization case of Adams v. Califano; as a member of the NAFEO brief writing teams in the landmark Supreme Court affirmative action cases of Bakke, Weber, and Fullilove; as a program director; and as outside counsel.
Baskerville has also served as vice president for government relations of The College Board, and was the founder of The Baskerville Group, a legal and legislative services firm in Washington.
“We need a zealous advocate who understands how to get our issues heard in a crowded field, but who also has honed the art of compromise… Attorney Baskerville brings all of these strengths to NAFEO,” proclaimed NAFEO board chairman and Hampton University president Dr. William R. Harvey in June when the NAFEO board approved Baskerville’s appointment.
In late August, Black Issues sat down with Baskerville to learn about her vision for the organization.
BI: How would you describe your vision for leading NAFEO as an advocacy organization?
LB: NAFEO can offer our members a strong unified voice around public policy issues of concern to them, things that have to do with need-based financial aid, things that have to do with infrastructure development, infrastructure enhancement, capacity-building, those types of things. But also NAFEO can work to generate a political climate that is conducive to, and receptive to and understands the importance of historic and predominantly Black colleges and universities. And we can do it working solo and we can do it working in tandem with partners.
As you know, and anybody who’s been in the advocacy or in the public affairs business, the best approach to realizing your return is to get other opinion makers, opinion shakers to join you. And that means that in trying to serve as a powerful, accurate, resourceful voice for historically, predominantly Black colleges, I have to have a team of in-house seasoned professionals who understand the issues and who have the skills to effectively communicate them to build and meld relationships that will allow us to be heard in a crowded field.
Washington is perhaps the most crowded with lobbyists and those who have issues of importance that they want to get heard. They have to have internal capacity. And then I have to have external relationships — some that I bring to the table based on my years of experience and those of my many members, each one of our 118 members. The presidents and chancellors themselves have relationships that are invaluable. Their administrative teams, their faculty have them. Our alumni — they all bring to bear relationships that are essential to getting our voice heard and getting our positions advanced.
So, I have to bring all of those pieces together. And then bring them together with the UNCF, HACU, which is the Hispanic-serving colleges and universities, and AIHEC, the American Indian Higher Education Council, with leadership coming from Leadership Conference on Civil Rights on some issues, with the coalition for education funding, with a wide range of stakeholders that share some of our issues in common.
BI: How would you describe how that vision improves Washington-based representation as well as membership services?
LB: First thing that NAFEO has to do is to develop the infrastructure and put in place the systems that will allow us to serve our members. And in serving our members, I’m going back to your question about the representation because we are an advocacy group, our goal is to serve as a potent and reliable voice for Blacks in higher education and for HBCUs.
So, once our house is in order, my vision is that we will more narrowly focus our work. We will work strategically in two primary areas. One is on the advocacy. We will serve as a voice for our member institutions and for Blacks in higher education in courts, before administrative bodies, regulatory bodies, before corporations, foundations and others. We want to be a strong voice across the gamut where our members need a strong relationship in order to realize their goals.
And the second thing is stepping up membership services. In offering members services, we’re initially going to look at a couple of areas. One is in the area of governance. There are a lot of changes to governance, regulations and laws that were wrought by some of the challenges in corporate America, but they pertain to nonprofits as well. We’re looking at what those changes actually mean in terms of governance, not only of the board here, but of our members. Each one of our members has a governing board.
We’re also looking at how we can work with them to strengthen their relationship with their boards so that their boards will freely buy into their missions; they will support them; they will become advocates for their institutions. They will understand the climate, the arena of higher education better so that when they go to them they can talk about negotiating compensation packages for themselves, for their spouses. They will understand the type of things that are becoming the norm and the type of things that are essential to recruiting and maintaining the quality of chief executives that we have to have at the helm of our institutions.
We’re working on leadership development for presidents and chancellors. We’re also looking at leadership development for a wide range of what I’m calling infrastructure persons. And these would be for administrators; they might be for business officers; they might be for those involved in financial stewardship. Working with accreditation and a range of support services that will enhance our members’ infrastructure and to enable them to better realize their mission.
Marketing. We’ll have a public affairs team and they’ll focus some on a wide range of routine public affairs (activities). I think one of the most important things that we have to do is generate a message and market our members. So we’re not going to do public affairs for the sake of NAFEO, but as a membership service. Most folks know about five, 10 HBCUs. We’ve got nearly 120 that are members of NAFEO. So how can we, NAFEO, offer the service of marketing the uniqueness of our members so that those who are interested in nursing realize that we have a number of institutions that have the best nursing programs. Those that are interested in engineering, we have some institutions that (are) the best. And so that they are not just familiar with the 10 big ones or the 10 that have historically gotten a lot of coverage.
We also want them (the public) to know (the answer to) “why HBCUs?” People ask that regularly, and so as a part of this marketing package, we’re going to tell them. And while people tend to focus on the Greek shows, the step shows, the bands and those types of things, I think it’s essential that NAFEO help them to focus on the fact that HBCUs should be the institution of choice because our schools are doing a disproportionately better job of graduating African American students.
We’re three percent of the total higher education population; our institutions are three percent. We enroll around 13 percent, but we graduate between 25 and 30 percent of African American students receiving a four-year degree annually. In math and the sciences, we’re graduating nearly 40 percent. So, we’re doing an incredible job of graduating students where other institutions are failing, and so there’s something that we’re doing right. That story has got to be told whether it’s a small nurturing environment; whether it’s the culturally sensitive teaching; the diverse faculty; the way in which we’re integrating technology; those types of things have to be told.
BI: There is some sentiment that Washington-based representation of HBCUs is too fragmented and therefore confuses policy-makers. Do you share that assessment?
LB: I’m not familiar with that sentiment. But if that is the sentiment, then one of my jobs is to change that. And the way that I change that is to bring disparate groups together so if there’s no cohesive voice for Blacks in higher education, then we’ve missed the mark.
Our goal is to be that cohesive voice. And how we do that is to bring the various partners together and to develop a strategy. We have more in common with those who may not think there’s a cohesive group than we have differences. So we come to the table and we talk about those issues around which we could coalesce and recognize that sometimes there may be differences. But where there are differences, they will be honest differences, and we will agree to go our own way.
We have to recognize that not only are minority-serving institutions and minority-serving associations interested in our success as thriving historically, predominantly Black colleges and universities, there’s the larger higher education community who we may have not tapped in the past. I will certainly welcome the support from a broad and diverse range of allies, some of them who have been traditional and some of them new.
BI: Can you describe the recently announced capacity building grant that will be managed by UNCF, Hampton University and NAFEO?
LB: Down at the (NAFEO) Presidential Peer Seminar, we announced a million-dollar grant that (involves) Hampton University, UNCF and NAFEO, and it’s a capacity building project sorely needed among our members. It’s been in the works for some time. As I understand it, Hampton University and UNCF had developed and were advancing a project.
I was privileged to come in at the time when it was in the final stages and to add my imprimatur, and involve NAFEO in an effort that will be designed to build capacity of our institutions. I talked a bit about the budget shortfalls. I talked to them about executive leadership training, financial stewardship, accreditation issues and a range of capacity building projects. We’re going to do those together.
The immediate impetus is that some of our institutions are thriving, but some of them are in trouble. We’ve got six that are presently on academic probation; we have two that recently lost their accreditation. What we have to do is have a reservoir of persons with expertise in financial management, budget office team development, enrollment management, facilities management, and the range of expertise that makes for effective and efficient management of our institutions.
And when our institutions need someone to come down who has gone through an accreditation and successfully come out, we’ll have a team of people who can go to those campuses, can meet with presidents and chancellors, and all those who will be involved in the accreditation, and tell them things that they’ve learned that may work for them. If they’re having a challenge with enrollment management, they can call NAFEO and NAFEO will have a reservoir of the best HBCU enrollment management expertise from around the globe. If they have legal challenges, they need to look to NAFEO as the resource with which to facilitate access.
BI: As a veteran of Washington-based advocacy groups as well as having owned your own lobbying firm, how would you describe the talents and experiences you bring to NAFEO’s leadership?
LB: I’ve been an advocate for more than two decades. I’ve been an advocate for historically and predominantly Black colleges and universities for more than two decades. I got my professional footing first as an outside NAFEO counsel intern under (the late civil rights attorney and Howard University law professor) Herb Reid and subsequently as outside counsel to NAFEO.
I know our member institutions. I’ve been on a good number of campuses. I know the challenges that our institutions face. I know their strengths. I know the richness of the climate, the culture, the curriculum. I know many of our leaders, and I’m getting to know more.
I personify the best lessons of success from HBCUs. I’m a Howard law graduate; I’m actually a third-generation Howard alumni. And then professionally, as I said, my life, my career has been in seeking to achieve equal educational opportunity and strong thriving HBCUs. I worked on the Adams v. Califano litigation and worked with Herb Reid to achieve a settlement in that case that would keep open our HBCUs, but require states take steps toward equalizing dollars that go to our institutions, enhancing infrastructure, and otherwise undergirding our institutions.
I have an unique perspective and the passion for the opportunities that are created at HBCUs, for the unique and enriching environment that we have at HBCUs.
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