Power Play: HBCUs Seek Clout in Washington
By Ronald Roach
As president of Langston, a historically Black land-grant state university in Oklahoma, Dr. Ernest Holloway says it’s gratifying that his school and the other historically Black schools covered by the Higher Education Act’s (HEA) entitlement grant programs have seen consistent increases in HEA program monies over the last few years. Though pleased with the reception the Bush administration and the Republican-led Congress have shown the Black college community, Holloway knows deep down that federal resources invested in HBCUs remain far below their potential.
“Dollars are being spent in higher education everyday, and we’re still getting a small part of the pie,” he says. “With the little increases we’re getting, it’s still not a representative share of the pie as far as I’m concerned.”
In a time when state higher education budgets have been shrinking and the climate for private colleges has toughened so much to currently threaten at least two HBCUs with permanent closure, leaders of the nation’s historically Black institutions have increasingly turned to the federal government for support and assistance. That focus by Black college leaders has also meant that the landscape of representatives lobbying on behalf of HBCUs in Washington has grown complicated.
Ten years ago, just prior to the Republican takeover of the Congress, the key players representing Black colleges were the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and the Office for the Advancement of Public Black Colleges at the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges (NASULGC). Back then, members of the Congressional Black Caucus exerted considerable sway over the congressional budget process that resulted in funding for Black colleges and universities. Through the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which is based at the U.S. Department of Education, Clinton administration political appointees helped facilitate friendly access for HBCU officials to the federal agencies and departments.
In 2004, the Washington landscape has been altered not only due to the Republican control of the White House and the U.S. Congress, but also due to the emergence of newer players, such as the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, and powerbrokers, such as former congressman J.C. Watts, an influential African American leader in Republican leadership circles. In addition to developing programs through big-picture legislation, such as the HEA, individual schools as well as the Black college organizations have hired lobbyists to seek “earmarks,” a term which refers to the funding that goes to special projects written into legislation during the congressional appropriations process.
WORKING AS A TEAM
One of the more closely watched developments in the Black college community with regard to whether its clout grows in Washington will be the performances of Dr. Michael L. Lomax and Lezli Baskerville, respectively, the newly installed president-CEOs of the United Negro College Fund and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. For UNCF, the appointment of Lomax, the former president of Dillard University, represents a move by the 38 member colleges and its leaders to entrust its leadership to a seasoned former college head who’s demonstrated fund-raising prowess and the visionary leadership critical to UNCF’s position as the leading proponent of African American success in higher education. For NAFEO, which is the political advocacy arm of 118 historically and predominantly Black schools, Baskerville is a proven Washington-based lobbyist who’s expected to build the organization’s political strength in Washington.
“I am very optimistic about what these new leaders will do to enhance the position of Black colleges and universities,” says Dr. John Waddell, president of St. Paul’s College in Virginia.
“I think the new leadership is going to be great,” says Dwayne Ashley, president of the New York city-based Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund. “Change is always good. Michael brings …university leadership experience. I think that brings a deeper level of understanding of the needs of the institution, someone who has actually sat in those president’s seats everyday. That’s going to help build more consensus with UNCF, Thurgood Marshall and NAFEO.
“I think Lezli is an outstanding leader. She’s dynamic, she’s got a lot of fresh ideas, and joining forces with Michael — it’s going to be great,” Ashley adds.
There’s an expectation that the organizations under fresh leadership will move forward with a closer working relationship than has been the case in recent years. Disputes over fund-raising boundaries had put strains on the groups’ relationship a few years ago, but officials insist now as in the past there’s considerable common ground, particularly in regard to the federal legislative agenda, on which they can collaborate.
“If you look at the UNCF presidents’ federal agenda, 90 percent of it is the same as NAFEO…So in those areas where we are in agreement, we’re going to work very hard to achieve goals. And that’s on the big-ticket issues, the access issues. The issue of the Pell grant, the issue of federal student loans, those are the biggest legislative issues,” Lomax says.
“I think there are more areas that we share in common and on those few that we disagree we can do that in a way that is mutually respectful and does not drive a huge wedge through the minority-
serving community,” Lomax adds.
Currently, UNCF, NAFEO and Hampton University are working together on a $1 million project, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, to develop teams of college officials, who will be able to intervene and provide technical assistance to
HBCUs on financial, legal, professional development and accreditation matters.
After having worked in appropriations in the U.S. House as a committee staff member under former U.S. Congressman Louis Stokes, Washington attorney Anita Estell launched a lobby practice in 1993 that focused on helping historically Black schools gain access to the congressional appropriations process. Over the years, she has lobbied on behalf of NAFEO, Spelman College, Bennett College, Tennessee State University, and other schools to secure earmarks, or project funding, for them.
For Black college advocates at that time, the new focus on appropriations meant a shift in legislative strategy. Previously, advocates had largely pursued congressional funding through legislation that would authorize a certain level of funds from year to year. Inclusion of the Title III B section of the Higher Education Act, which authorizes an annual entitlement grant to nearly all HBCUs, has been considered the crowning achievement of Black college advocacy, according to observers.
While some individual Black schools through the help of lobbyists and their U.S. representatives and U.S. senators have secured funding through earmarks, it’s said that HBCUs are barely present in the process. “The game has shifted and we’re not players in that game,” says Dr. Marshall Grigsby, a senior scholar at the Council for Opportunity in Education and former president of Benedict College.
Grigsby notes that the earmarking phenomenon has exploded under Republican control of the Congress. And for HBCUs seeking individual earmarks, they have had to cultivate strong ties to their Republican representatives in the House and the Senate.
Estell notes that in 1993, the year she started a lobby practice, there were less than 10 Black people in the nation who had experience working on a congressional appropriations committee. She also says it took a few years for HBCUs to gain steady footing in the Republican-dominated Congress and credits the 2000 move by Watts, then an Oklahoma congressman, to establish an annual Washington, D.C., conference for HBCU officials to meet with Republican House and Senate leaders.
“It’s been an evolutionary process. We’re still getting up to speed with having people who know our institutions and who have the right experience,” Estell says.
Langston University’s Holloway says he’s worked with lobbyists and the Republican congressman who represents the district where Langston is located to secure earmarks for biotechnology research and scholarship funding. In addition to individual schools, Estell has worked with NAFEO to get earmarks for programs developed for all of the NAFEO membership. The congressional appropriations process has even offered opportunity for the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, which raises scholarship monies for students attending historically Black public colleges, to develop a Washington-based presence and strategy for its member institutions.
Recently, the Thurgood Marshall fund hired a full-time government relations staff person who is based in Washington. In addition, the fund retains a lobbying firm and is represented by a lobbyist, “who’s well known on the Hill,” according to Ashley.
“We receive an appropriation from Congress annually, and we have partnerships with several of the agencies. We work very closely with members who sponsor our appropriations annually and those kinds of things, and all of that goes toward our programs,” Ashley says.
Part of the fund’s growth strategy, says Ashley, is to open up a Washington office in the next year.
This month the White House Initiative holds its annual Historically Black College and University Week in Washington, D.C. Since President Jimmy Carter established a White House initiative on historically Black schools, the week has been one of the ways presidential administrations have showcased federal opportunities for the HBCU community.
Dr. Wilbert Bryant, the executive director of the White House Initiative and a deputy assistant secretary in the Education Department, says the Bush administration has worked hard to provide access and resources. Citing the Title III B program in which funding has increased from $185 million to $222 million with the administration’s backing, Bryant says “this is a significant achievement,” and reflects the commitment President Bush has demonstrated to Black colleges.
Black college officials and advocates express disappointment that over the years federal agencies have been difficult places with which to develop relationships and to secure grant funding.
“If you look at it, there are some agencies since the Executive Order was originally signed decades ago that have created a kind of space and perspective and momentum, which has begun to, regardless of the (presidential) administrations, regardless of leadership, produce strong programs that have a beneficial effect on historically Black colleges and minority institutions. There are other agencies that have really had a tough time — never had an advocate, never had programs developed and don’t have the tradition,” Lomax says.
Lomax, who is a member of the President’s Advisory Board on the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, notes that “the obviously successful agencies” are the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“Within Republican and Democratic administrations, they have programs that persist. With other agencies, Department of Defense being one of them, we really haven’t gotten the kind of powerful programs that I think that a huge department should have,” Lomax says. “When it’s working right, it’s working from one administration to the next, regardless of party.”
Holloway, who is also on the President’s Advisory Board, says it’s been discussed among the presidents for some time and it’s felt that the White House Initiative should actually be based at the White House instead of the Education Department. It’s believed that at the White House the initiative would have more teeth to force federal agencies and departments to do business and research with historically Black schools.
— Hilary Hurd Anyaso
contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com