Insiders privy to the search process for a new president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education say the next top executive of the organization created to oversee the needs of Black colleges could be soon-departing Fisk University President Henry Ponder.
The last time there was a vacancy for president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), it was filled by Dr. Samuel Myers nearly 19 years ago.
“I hope I am the next president of NAFEO, but I have not gotten the word officially or otherwise,” said Ponder, who refuses to reveal his age. “I would love to have that job, but a job hasn’t been offered to me.”
Ponder’s plans, if he gets the job, include: positioning the association as a more visible and vocal lobby for Black colleges among Washington policymakers; bolstering coalitions with Native American and Hispanic higher education groups; making NAFEO a “household word”; and weaning the organization from its dependency on federal grants.
Addressing the issue that has beset NAFEO and its membership of college and university presidents for decades — internal conflicts between public and private institutions — Ponder speaks, in a word, presidentially.
“We must realize that there will always be differences between private and public institutions. The role that NAFEO will play is to highlight and emphasize the fact that differences aren’t bad. We must find a common ground. We have to get our membership of 117 colleges and universities to understand that there are many ways of doing things and that there will be no preferences of one over the other.”
Most importantly, he adds “those differences must be kept within the family. Like the arguments between a husband and wife.”
Ponder announced last fall that he would retire from Fisk in June after 11 years at the institution. He is credited by many in the higher education community for turning Fisk around from an institution that, when he arrived, was $4.3 million in debt, losing hundreds of students and near closure.
Although Ponder offered no explanation for his decision to step down, he compared his retirement to that of a “sports great” who knew when it was time to finally bow out of the game. “Sports heroes should retire while at the top of their game,” he said.
Dr. James Lyons, president of Jackson State University, who was also a contender for the NAFEO presidency, decided to withdraw his name from consideration. He said he chose instead to shepherd his institution through yet another leg of a thorny university desegregation case.
“The presidency of NAFEO would be a tremendous experience, but so much is at stake here at Jackson State and in Mississippi with the Ayers case.” Lyons said. “I didn’t want to jeopardize the opportunity to get this case resolved.”
Jackson State stands to win new academic programs and millions in funding through a March 1995 federal ruling in United States vs. Fordice, also known as the Ayers case. But a battle in the Mississippi Legislature seems to have stalled the appropriation of funds. Some legislators have said that because state dollars are scarce, action should be delayed while the 21-year-old case is on appeal in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Lyons is also in the middle of another fiscal battle — resolving a $3.2 million deficit at Jackson State (see related story pg. 36).
Of the 20 applicants for the NAFEO presidency, four will be recommended to the nominating committee, said Dr. Talbert O. Shaw. NAFEO board chairman and president of Shaw University. Shaw would not reveal names on the short list or confirm whether Ponder’s was among them.
Although a national search for Myers’s replacement officially began a year ago, the process stalled when the board decided to concentrate instead on reorganizing and reviewing the association (see Black Issues, August 24, 1995). Shaw said the new NAFEO president will be named very soon.
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