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Thurgood Marshall College Fund President Johnny Taylor Seeks New Partnerships, Support for Public HBCUs

When veteran educator Dr. N. Joyce Payne handed the reins of the organization she founded, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, to entertainment lawyer and board member Johnny Taylor, Taylor began pursuing a remake of the prestigious group that has turned it on its head in just a matter of months.

Today, with just more than a year of leading the organization under his belt, the changes put in place by Taylor have essentially overhauled the fund launched by Payne in 1987.

Out are the big reception staged each fall in Washington in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative weekend, the Marshall Fund fashion show and the Prestige awards reception and flag events honoring Blacks in the military. In are more visits to Capitol Hill for hearings and meetings, making cases for continued support of public HBCUs, more programs aimed at institutional capacity building and efforts to raise more funds to support programs at public HBCUs.

“I’m not knocking the CBC, but those are the kinds of things that pull your already limited resources,” says Taylor, who assumed the title of president and chief executive officer of the fund in the spring of 2010. “We’ve really re-tuned our message, and we’ve been very clear about where we are,” says Taylor.

Before taking the reins at the Marshall Fund, Taylor was with New York City-based IAC Interactive Corp., the Barry Diller firm that owns and operates dozens of widely used retail websites.

Taylor, who earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Miami and law degree at Drake University, acknowledges some supporters are, to varying degrees, bent out of shape over his expansion of the group’s work to include “capacity building” and “advocacy” in addition to scholarship assistance.

Taylor says the organization is not abandoning scholarships (which account for only 20 percent of annual spending). But it also is responding to a growing chorus of donors who are saying they want to try some different strategies, he says. Taylor offers several examples.

Allied Financial, a regular supporter of the Marshall Fund, recently told Taylor it would support programs the fund comes up with to help its 47 member schools, but “no more scholarships. They did not reduce their funding,” Taylor says. “They said their dollars need to go a different way. You’re seeing more of that. These folks are saying, ‘I’m not so sure about scholarships. Let’s try this angle for a while.’”

The fund’s presence on Capitol Hill is changing and growing, too, Taylor says, noting he spends two or three days a month visiting federal lawmakers and attending congressional hearings. He uses these opportunities to pump up the volume and expand the pitch for support of public HBCUs amid intense competition for increasingly scarce federal funding.

“Increasingly, we are not seen as ‘just go to CBC members or just Democrats.’ We go to people who are friendly to HBCUs, who support their issues,” says Taylor, noting that expansion of reach includes a surprisingly larger number of lawmakers who are unaware of the history and educational role of HBCUs as well as Republicans who have not been courted in the past.

On the capacity building front, Taylor points to the chronic need of HBCUs for state-of-the-art computer equipment and software to use in classes where students are earning degrees in fields where high-tech skills are required. Too often, he says, HBCUs are graduating students who have training on computers with software that is considerably dated; thus, they are not ready for the jobs of the future. Getting capacity support like the agreement recently reached with Microsoft to provide $8 million in state-of-the-art software support to several of the fund’s schools is something he hopes to replicate in the coming months.

Programmatically, Taylor cites the group’s orchestration of an effort to make public HBCUs more “globally sensitive.” They took representatives from five HBCUs—Prairie View A&M, Texas Southern, Alabama State, North Carolina A&T and Florida A&M—to four countries—South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore and China—to meet with officials at major schools to establish firm relationships for faculty and student exchange programs and joint research projects.

The new efforts are getting mixed, but overall complimentary, reviews. “Although there will be an initial decrease in scholarship funding, the impact realized by the expansion will positively impact our university’s moving forward,” says Dr. George Cooper, president of South Carolina State University, a Marshall Fund member.

At North Carolina Central University, Chancellor Charlie Nelms also sees the virtues of the new Marshall Fund strategy.

“The most significant factor in the long-term strength and stability of HBCUs rests with their capacity at all levels—leadership, curriculum, finance, facilities and technology,” says Nelms. “We’re indebted to the fund for embracing capacity building as a signature tenet of its strategy.”

However, Dr. Frederick Humphries, past president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education or NAFEO (the nonprofit that is an umbrella organization for HBCUs and predominantly Black institutions) and a past president of Florida A&M and Tennessee State universities, disagrees, saying he believes that the Marshall Fund should be focused on “collecting as much funding as [it] can to help students with the costs of education. … That’s a far more remarkable and useful thing to do,” says Humphries, noting costs for tuition, housing, books and travel are skyrocketing and students who can borrow are being forced to go deeper and deeper in debt.

Humphries says he and others he’s talked to feel the Marshall Fund is “getting sidetracked” by pursuing agendas beyond its historical role and mission.

Taylor acknowledges such observations. He also takes note of those who express concerns that the new Marshall Fund strategy will also put it in competition with rival UNCF, the principal collective advocacy group for private HBCUs. To the contrary, he says. The two groups partner for the welfare of all.

Working with the UNCF, the umbrella recipient of a $1.8 million Kresge Foundation green energy grant in 2009, the Marshall Fund and associations representing Native American colleges and Minority Serving Institutions have participated in the Building Green Initiative focusing on campus-wide sustainability efforts from physical program improvements to curriculum. The Marshall Fund, representing public HBCUs, “has been a critical partner,” says Felicia Davis, who directs the facilities and infrastructure enhancement program at UNCF.

The two groups plan to do more, Taylor says, such as the recent joint effort by the two groups to seek support for HBCUs from Wal-Mart.

Still, Taylor says, there will be occasions when his advocacy for public HBCUs may find him standing alone or at odds with UNCF and NAFEO.

“I’m pro-HBCU, and then I’m pro-public HBCU,” says Taylor. “We’re not all monolithic.”

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