Higher Education’s Money Man
An Interview With United Negro College Fund President Bill Gray
When William H. Gray, at the age of 50, announced in 1991 that he was leaving his Majority Whip post in the U.S. House of Representatives to head the United Negro College Fund, many believed his brightest days were behind him. Two weeks ago, he successfully negotiated a $1 billion deal with Microsoft that made headlines around the world and which philanthropy and higher education professionals will be analyzing for years.
Not only is Gray piloting the UNCF to unprecedented heights, he clearly is demonstrating that his days as a high-stakes power broker are far from over. Black Issues’ Frank Matthews and Cheryl D. Fields spoke with him recently about the growing breadth and influence of The College Fund, his relationships with other higher education leaders and his reputation as somewhat of a despotic manager. The following is an excerpt of that conversation.
QWhat have been some of the significant changes that have affected how the United Negro College Fund has evolved, especially under your tenure, as compared to the pre-desegregation days?
A Prior to the 1960s, the Fund’s focus was basically on raising revenues to support the [member] institutions. … Historically Black private colleges didn’t have sources of income prior to the 1960s. They had to raise it all themselves. They got it from churches. They got it from alumni. They got it from people of goodwill who took interest in a poor Black college and gave them a lot of money, like the Rockefellers at Spelman.
When the first major change occurred with desegregation in the ‘70s, African Americans, male and female, could be accepted, admitted to traditionally White institutions. … The challenge became, how do you keep people focused on supporting these institutions when you have an integration of the society and Blacks who were excluded by law [from traditionally White institutions] can now go to any college they want to? … It affected students. It affected faculty. It affected Black administrators.
Q What was the message you used to counter this?
A That was the big challenge, the funding. … The other factor that the fund faced as a result of the schools facing it was, what is going to be the meaning of historically Black colleges? If the old mission has been that you are the sole source of baccalaureate degrees for 95 percent of all African Americans prior to 1965, and this rapidly is changing … what now is your new mission? …
When I came in, UNCF had already decided what its mission was going to be. We had to not only raise money from traditional sources, but we also had to expand to nontraditional sources. That meant increasing the numbers of African Americans contributing to the fund individually. It also meant going more into corporate America. It meant facing the reality that donors were shifting away from supporting institutions to supporting individuals — from what we call unrestricted gifts, to restricted gifts. And how do we position ourselves to take advantage of that sea change in philanthropy?
So UNCF, before I got here, had already positioned itself to continue its traditional mission, which is to raise unrestricted money to provide for these schools. Because that unrestricted money is like a scholarship. What that unrestricted money does is help a school keep its tuition, its fees, its board and housing costs low. And that’s why UNCF schools today have basically the lowest tuition in private education in America. Our average tuition at UNCF schools is $6,000 per year, whereas at a traditionally White private institution, it’s $13,000.
QAn interesting experiment just unfolded at one of your member institutions, Benedict College. What Dr. David Swinton, the president, discovered is that because his product was so good, he was able to turn that institution around by raising tuition. Not only did he raise tuition, but he increased enrollment substantially.
AI know that argument. Let me just say this. There are some schools that can do that and emerge stronger. … But the average Black family income in America is about $37,000. … If you look at our statistics, and look at where Black kids are going to school and why they choose those schools and why Black kids are successful in graduating, it’s money. So, if you start raising the [tuition and fees] at all Black colleges, whether it be the privates or the publics, I’ll tell you right now, you’re gonna leave some Black kids behind.
QHow is the money The College Fund raises divided up among the
A What we have here is a pot of money called, “unrestricted.” That money is given out on a formula that presidents themselves set. It’s based on three things: [first, each school receives] an equal share, [there are] 39 shares. Then, funds are disbursed based on enrollment. Are you big or little? If you’re bigger, you get more money per capita. And thirdly, [funds are awarded based on] how much money are you raising yourself?
QIs this last part a
A It’s a carrot for self-development. … So you can actually have a small school like Voorhees [College] do better than a big school like Clark Atlanta [University] if fund-raising among its trustees [and] its alumni is significantly larger proportionally.
QWhen was this
AThis formula was created when the fund was created. It has changed slightly over 55 years. And about every eight to 10 years, the presidents reexamine the formula. … It was designed to be fair, designed to be equitable.
Q How critical a problem is it that unrestricted giving has not grown as rapidly as restricted giving? Restricted giving, it seems, is most available in fields that are tied to corporate objectives such as engineering or medicine. What happens to the humanities if your member institutions don’t have funds available to nurture these departments?
AThe challenge to the UNCF is to make sure that we cover the waterfront with the unrestricted funds so that there are no gaps in dollars like the ones you just described. … So what I do is I go to the arts people, private people and say, “We need to produce Alice Walkers, Nikki Giovannis. We produced them in the past, but you know, I’m worried. We don’t have any scholarship money for kids like that. Quincy Jones, we want to produce another one of you. And all of the money is in engineering and medicine, I need some music scholarships.” That’s what we have to do to manage that. That’s the challenge.
QHow competitive is it out there now in terms of getting money for Black students who attend Black colleges — especially when traditionally White colleges are also trying to get money for Black students?
AWell, it is a tug-of-war. We had one major contributor who gave us a significant gift of $2 million, maybe $4 million. He turned around three years later and gave his alma mater $60 million for diversity. You have to understand what motivates people to give. One of the biggest mistakes we make in fund-raising is for me to get mad at you because you give money to that which you value most.
QHow has the anti-affirmative action movement affected what you’re doing at The College Fund?
AThe [Proposition] 209-[Initiative] 200 phenomenon has not really had a major affect on our fund-raising or our strategies because our strategies have been built over a long-term view of the importance of educating African Americans and maintaining African American educational institutions. Our argument has been consistent: These are valuable assets to the pantheon of American higher education. Why? Because they are low-cost, they are bargains, they are productive and they out-produce [the competition, in terms of Black graduates]. … That’s been our argument, that’s been our strategy and I think it’s worked in terms of fund-raising.
The second thing we have looked at from a marketing point of view, is what I call the demographic revolution of the 21st century. That is, if America is going to prosper and lead in the global marketplace, we’ve got to have people highly skilled. When you look at the demographics of this country, the 21st century, by the middle of that century, half of everybody who calls themselves American will be Hispanic, African American, Native American, Asian American or some combination. MicroSoft, General Motors, Chase Manhattan Bank, [Bank of America] cannot be profitable, productive or even run unless they help to develop a skills base in those communities for two reasons: One, those are the consumers; and second, those are the people you need to hire to run your enterprise.
QWhat are the issues that you anticipate that are going to be problems for the fund in the near future?
AWell, for 55 years we have been the preeminent higher education fund for African American people. We are the largest Black charity — $139 million in revenues last year — we’re the largest educational charity. I think that we are happy to see that people have caught up with our message. Now everybody is interested in doing higher education. We see a much more competitive environment and we welcome that. We don’t feel challenged or threatened by it because more people want to raise money and inspire Black kids and minority kids to go to college. That’s fine with us.
QDid the Title III struggle of last summer between HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions portend anything for you?
AWe have helped develop three college funds. The American Indian College Fund, we were a direct participant in their creation. We don’t see that as a threat. Secondly, we have also been a partner and have supported the Hispanic College Fund, which is out in San Francisco, run by Sarah Tucker. We think that our model is a model that works. And we are proud to see the Hispanic community adopt our model. The American Indian community adopt our model. What I’m talking about in terms of competitive charities is not other ethnic groups. It’s within the Black community.
QWhat’s wrong with that?
ANothing. I don’t see anything wrong with that. In fact, I see it as a compliment that others are joining the field that we have been the only advocate for 55 years and raised $1.4 billion. I don’t see anything wrong with it. But you said, “Hey, are there challenges?”
That will be a challenge in the sense that you will have four or five people coming in the doors, where before it was only us saying, “I want your money for Black higher education.” And it just means you have competition. That’s not bad, competition.
QThe government contracting that you do, how do you square it with NAFEO [National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education]? Do you use the same process that they use in terms of going after money from federal agencies for HBCUs?
AWe don’t conflict at all with NAFEO. … On most of our contracts, NAFEO is our partner. We hold the contract and we shell a piece of it out.
QSo you don’t just go for the private [college] part of a contract, you go for the public part too?
AWhen you bid on a contract for the federal government, you don’t bid on a part of it, you bid on the whole contract. Whoever gets the contract is charged legally with the responsibility of providing the services of the contract. So, what we will do is we’ll look at it and say, “Hey, this calls for services to be provided to all 103 HBCUs. Let’s do this, let’s go get [NAFEO President] Dr. Henry Ponder and his staff and say, ‘We want you to partner with us. You take the publics, we’ll take the privates. And we’ll split it.’
We don’t look at government contracts as a source of support for the UNCF. We’re very selective about which government contracts we bid on. It must have what we think is a direct link to the college institutions and to Black higher education. And it must address a critical need that we think is a high [African American and national] priority.
So, this is a part of who we are. We are much broader than strictly a fund-raising group.
QAre you going to, or do you now give scholarships to other students, not African Americans, to go to historically Black colleges?
AYes. We don’t give them directly, but our schools do. … We have gotten some nasty letters from people saying that’s turning away from your own people. I say, “No, it’s not.” What do you say to the Black kid who goes to Notre Dame and gets a Catholic scholarship? Is it fair? Give me a break. Our institutions are to empower people, primarily African Americans. But if Whites and non-Whites, Asians or anybody else decides, “Hey, this is the school I want to go to,” that’s a sign of our growing excellence.
QAn ad you’ve run in recent months with Michael Jordan shows sort of a potpourri of students, some of whom don’t look Black. The message of that ad is that The College Fund no longer serves just African American students. Was that the intent?
AI got a very nasty note from a fellow here in northern Virginia who saw the Michael Jordan ad. It was one of the most racist letters I’ve ever gotten. [He wrote,] “How dare you do false advertising? It’s the United Negro College Fund, but yet most of the people in these pictures are not Black.” I said, “Oh yeah, how did you determine that? Did you ever look at Black people — you probably didn’t because you are so racist. You have to understand that Black people come in all colors … from dark brown to middle brown to what we call high yellow. The picture that you are talking about [in that advertisement], everybody in that picture except one is Black. That one that is not Black is Hispanic. So, I’m sorry that we don’t fit your racial profiles and that we don’t fit what you think we ought to be.” We support Black institutions. That’s our primary purpose.
QYou scare a lot of people. They won’t go on record, but you as an individual scare the hell out of a lot of people. Is any of that well
AYou have to tell me what was said. I don’t need to know who said it, it doesn’t really bother me.
QObviously, the presidents of your member institutions are very happy with their relationship to you and the UNCF. But one of the criticisms we hear of you, primarily from some of those at non-UNCF institutions, is that the UNCF makes it a lot more difficult for everybody else out there who is trying to raise money. They say you skim the cream off the top and when they come later there is nothing left.
AI’ve heard that. … People often get upset because I’m so driven and focused. I’m 58 years old, and according to the statistics, I’ve got 12 more years. Black men die around 70. My father died when I was 16. So, you’ve only got a short period to do what you want to do and make your mark and go ahead and do it. I believe in intensity. I used to upset my colleagues in the Congress, too. … So, I know that often frightens, scares, rubs people the wrong way because I don’t waste a lot of time. I’m very direct and bold.
I’ve been here [at the UNCF] eight years. I think we’ve accomplished something. Fifty-one percent of all the money that’s been raised in 55 years has been raised by me. I’m proud of that. … But what I’m more proud of is when you see a school that got $750,000 in 1991 and they get $3 million in one year, that means opportunity for Black young men and women. It means the possibility that that institution is going to survive and be here in year 2020. It means that if they close the door at Clemson, University of South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Harvard, for whatever reason — [Proposition] 200 or [Initiative] 209 — … I ain’t worried about it because we’ve got a place to go.
QAll of that is more important than people who may be scared of
AYes. … I’m just building on the success of those who’ve gone before. … I cannot be responsible for people’s jealousies about the success of UNCF. This is a UNCF story, it’s not a Bill Gray story. …
You should know this, though, some of those who give me the harshest criticism from the public [HBCUs] also are the recipients of the largest amounts of money from the UNCF. Non-member institutions, since I have been here, have gotten $17.5 million.
QThe fear may be, though, that the situation’s falling victim to the “one-leader-at-a-time” syndrome. Jesse Jackson, for example, speaks for everything that comes up, whether it is Ebonics this week or the war in Kosovo the next week. He’s the all-around expert.
ASuddenly here’s Bill Gray taking over the podium for all of higher education.
QAll higher education for Blacks.
AI can understand folks worry about that. But can somebody claim that Bill Gray ain’t sending the right message out there?
I think the question has to be asked, “Why are you worried about Bill Gray being the spokesman? Is he saying something wrong? Are his facts right?
OK. Then, why wouldn’t you want him to use that pulpit to encourage investment in all Black institutions and Black kids?”
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