Taking it to the NEXT LEVEL
By Ronald RoachFew former college presidents can boast of a career as accomplished and varied as Dr. Michael L. Lomax. His résumé, which include tenure as a college professor, 12 years in political office as the Fulton County executive in the Atlanta metropolitan area, and the presidency of Dillard University in New Orleans have equipped him with an enormous depth of intellectual, managerial and political experience. Lomax eagerly embraces the ambitious task of leading the “oldest and most successful African American higher education assistance organization in the country.” In addition to leading the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), Lomax serves as the board chair of the United Negro College Fund Special Programs Corp., which provides support for institutions of higher learning to build relationships and create partnerships with the government and other organizations, and the chair of the UNCF’s advisory board for the Frederick D. Patterson Institute, which conducts, analyzes and disseminates research to the public, policy-makers and educators.
As the successor to William Gray, who led UNCF to great achievements in fund raising and scholarship program development, most notably the famed Gates Millennium Scholars program, Lomax says he believes he can take UNCF to even greater heights and influence. Black Issues spoke to Lomax in late August about the goals envisioned for the organization.
BI: Given the success of your predecessor at fund raising, increasing Washington access and program development, how would you describe your vision for the UNCF? In other words, where does UNCF go from here?ML: Well, I tell people more, better, stronger when they ask me what I have as a vision for UNCF. This is not a troubled organization; this is not a low-performing organization. I have the distinct advantage of following someone who set lofty and ambitious goals and achieved them.
Having said that UNCF is stronger, the landscape of minority higher education and African American higher education is still a very challenged landscape with a lot of hurdles out there. I see the role of UNCF in three areas.
The first area really has to do with our traditional, primary mission, which is to support our member institutions. Today, there are 38 member institutions educating about 50,000 young men and women. These colleges are better recognized and more fully embraced by American higher education than ever before.
Some of them are soaring and are highly competitive. Others are struggling — struggling to have robust enrollments, struggling to maintain modern campuses, struggling to offer challenging academic programs that their students want and deserve, struggling to raise the financial resources that are required to stay competitive.
So the first thing that I want to do is to really get out in front of these challenges and provide support for building capacity at these colleges. Can we grow the number of seats in our classrooms? Can we help garner the resources to invest in rebuilding the campuses and to making them not only historic but also modern? Can we help invest in innovative academic programs, and can we support the colleges in their efforts to garner resources as well?
I put that all under the umbrella of capacity building, and you’re going to see my administration at UNCF building the capacity of our colleges so that they have an even greater impact or be more secure institutionally in the years to come. So that’s number one.
Over the 60 years the College Fund has been in existence, it has really grown to be almost the bearer of higher ed aspirations of African American youth. I think if you ask the 90 percent of African Americans who know what the United Negro College Fund is and knows that “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” they’re going to tell you that’s the organization that makes sure that Black kids can go to college.
In one sense we’ve developed a brand and a mission to the general public, which is greater than the role we were established to perform. You see that played out by the fact that we’ve become, in addition to a provider of financial support to our member institutions, the largest minority scholarship program in the country. We have literally tens of millions of dollars annually entrusted to us to support primarily African American kids, but also Hispanic, Asian and American Indian kids in going to college and in their interface with corporate America through internship programs. That’s become a very vital and important part of what we do. I think it’s critically important.
The third area that I want to focus on is one I broadly term “leadership.” It’s the role we play in influencing public and philanthropic policy with regard to higher education issues generally and minority access issues in particular. It is the advocacy role that we play with the media that they attend to issues of African American higher education. I want us to continue to do that.
So I see making the case to White America; making the case to corporate America; making the case to Washington, D.C., decision-makers; making the case to philanthropic America to invest in a college education for minority students.
This is critically important. Sixty years ago when the College Fund was created, a college degree was desirable, it wasn’t absolutely necessary. In the 21st century, a college education is mandatory. It is absolutely necessary if you are going to be employed in a career that is not a dead end.
And the good news is 1.7 million African American kids are attending college. That’s a larger number than ever before. But we’ve got to help establish what the college attendance and graduation goals are going to be for African Americans, and we’ve got to make the case to African Americans to keep their eyes focused on that goal because I think as we ask questions about how do we judge the well-being of our community, increasingly that judgment has to be based on college attendance and degree attainment if we’re going to be a healthy community.
There are a host of external barriers that stand in the way of African American youngsters achieving a college degree: poverty, poor public schools, unchallenging academic programs, poor counseling programs, insufficient scholarship support.
This is the new piece of the UNCF agenda. I think they are issues internal to the Black community that UNCF has got to help our community come to terms with it if we’re going to see improved attendance and graduation rates with respect to college.
One of them is the gender disparity. We see African American women attending college at rates twice that of African American men. They are coming from the same communities. They are apparently influenced by the same values and social structures, but the impact on women is different than the impact on men. We’ve got to ask ourselves why is that the case. And UNCF wants to do research in that area.
And we want to figure out how to get the message to young Black men and young Black women that they’ve got to be serious about their academic performance in middle and high school, that they’ve got to plan to go to college, that they’ve got to establish habits of study and performance that will produce strong academic results. And we’ve got to start talking to young Black men at a very early age and convince them that they can be authentic and be scholarly at the same time. BI: How does being a former college president help you in this job?ML: I certainly think it helps me to work more closely with my colleague presidents. In some ways, Fairfax, Va., is very removed from the 38 individual campuses both physically and psychologically I suppose.
I’ve been there; I’ve struggled with cash flow. I struggled with the accrediting folks. I struggled with the challenges of living amongst thousands of adolescents. I think that gives a sensitivity of the day-to-day issues that our colleges face, and perhaps credibility as an advocate for change. BI: There’s been media attention around the relationship between NAFEO and UNCF over fund-raising disputes in recent years. How would you describe the working relationship between the two organizations?
ML: New and improved. I have worked with Dr. Bill Harvey, the president of Hampton University and chairman of the board of NAFEO, to build bridges that will connect the two organizations.
Washington is a difficult playing field, and it’s even harder to be advocates for minority education, African American access, when you are at odds in your community. I don’t think that needs to be the case.
Bill and I are committed to working closely together. We have recently — wearing my UNCF Special Programs hat and I chair that organization’s board, and Bill Harvey chairing the board of NAFEO — have put together a wonderful proposal that has gotten a million dollars in funding from the Department of Education. I think that reflects the benefits that can accrue when both parties are working together.
I have a tremendous admiration for Bill Harvey. I have talked to and spent time with Lezli Baskerville, the new executive. We intend to work closely and cooperatively with our NAFEO colleagues. BI: As a former elected official, how do you think that experience helps you as head of UNCF?ML: I feel more like I’m running for office than I have in a long time. This job is relentless — a tremendous amount of work on the road. I think that what I learned as an elected official was really how to be reasonably resilient, how to stay energized and how to sell a good idea. I think that so much of what I do is really making the case for support and asking for support. I think that politics more than anything else taught me how to deal with a really heterogeneous constituency, and I’m certainly continuing to do that in this job.BI: What do you regard as your legacy as president of Dillard University?ML: I think building the enrollment and strengthening the recognition of Dillard. There’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done to produce on the potential that Dillard has to be a really wonderful undergraduate college. I think it’s better recognized today than it’s ever been, and I think it’s got a really wonderful base of students and faculty. The plant is more modern. And all Dillard needs now is more financial resources. The next president is going to have to raise a lot more money than I did. BI: What kind of role can UNCF have with regard to K-12 reform?ML: Clearly, you can’t be in the higher education business without thinking K-12. I don’t think UNCF needs to get into the business of K-12 reform. I think that what we need to do number one is to make the case to the Black community that the K-12 reform is being undertaken to ensure that more kids are prepared to go college and do go to college. And I want to help the Black community understand just how critically important it is for significantly greater numbers of African Americans to attend college and to earn a degree.
What I want to do is join with other leaders of other organizations to work more cooperatively together around ensuring K-16 opportunities for our kids. I want to work with organizations as disparate as the Urban League as Marian Wright Edelman’s Children Defense Fund to the NAACP to make the case that we’ve got to do a better job ensuring that the kids who attend public schools, K-12, are getting the kind of education that will prepare them to go to college and to succeed in college.
As an academic institution and organization, I think we can be powerful allies with those other community-based organizations. I intend to work cooperatively and to join in engaging these forces to work as a team. I intend in the months ahead to talk with my friends at the League and Jack and Jill and at all of the community-based organizations to see how can we work as a part of that team so there’s more cooperation and less duplication.
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