UNCF Gray’s Way
With Billion-Dollar Bill Gates Coup, ‘Bottom-Line’ Bill Gray Affirms His Stature and His Leadership Style
FAIRFAX, Va. — When software tycoon William H. Gates III made a $1 billion pledge earlier this month to fund scholarships for minority college and graduate students in science, engineering, math and education, he turned to the United Negro College Fund to administer the massive gift.In doing so, Gates delivered a gilded endorsement that instantly quells any doubts that this organization that began in relative obscurity more than five decades ago today has become a behemoth to be reckoned with in the evolving American higher education landscape. The software mogul’s announcement also may prove to be the crowning achievement in the career of William H. Gray III, the former Baptist minister turned rainmaker, given Gates’ deliberate, contemplative approach to giving away a chunk of his massive fortune. He is not one to just toss money at any old group.Gray, president and chief executive officer of The College Fund/UNCF, single-handedly orchestrated the donation — which is the single largest philanthropic gift to date in the history of American higher education.It is testimony to Gray’s salesmanship skills and ability to open doors that he arranged an audience with Gates and his wife, Melinda, while traveling with them in Alabama.“Between Montgomery and Demopolis, we discussed their concern with the challenges of access to higher education for minorities,” Gray says, recounting his discussions with America’s wealthiest couple. The coup offers further proof Gray has a Midas touch for fund raising, soliciting unheard of sums of money that have propelled the UNCF from a modest charity into the nation’s wealthiest Black nonprofit — one that outstrips even such well-known groups as the NAACP and the Urban League.“This gift represents a substantial change from where we, as a nation, began this century — when minorities were denied access to higher education and opportunities to participate in American life,” Gray said during a news conference to announce the Gates Millennium Scholarships Program.“It’s an extraordinarily big responsibility to administer all that money. It’s a sign that UNCF will be here for quite a long time,” says Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a Washington, D.C.-based biweekly trade newspaper that tracks nonprofit organizations.
A Tough Task MasterNearly everyone agrees the credit goes to Gray. But the charismatic former Philadelphia congressman’s success at turning the UNCF, founded 55 years ago to raise funds for private Black colleges, into the darling charity for everyone from Manhattan’s elite to Microsoft’s co-founder to middle-class White Americans, has not come without a price.Gray has numerous critics. Former employees cast him as a man who rules with an iron fist, one whose brash, aggressive and occasionally tyrannical management style make him an insufferable boss who runs roughshod over those who work for him and the organization.Others complain that the UNCF operates under a cloak of secrecy, releasing only that information that paints the group in a favorable light, and that Gray keeps its 39 member institutions on a tight leash, tolerating no criticism. Because it is private, the UNCF does not have to disclose certain financial information.Indeed, one is hard pressed to find anyone within the UNCF inner circle willing to publicly voice their criticisms of Gray, who has been known to reward UNCF boosters who were loyal supporters with lucrative, UNCF-secured contracts. Preferring not to take chances, observers note that he leaves little to chance and that he tends to surround himself with those whose strengths he knows he can count on.Some fellow higher education advocates contend Gray and the UNCF have grabbed more than their fair share of the spotlight — and donations — given UNCF’s constituency. Some also fault Gray for playing fast and loose with facts and figures, making it seem the UNCF helps far more students than it does.Although The College Fund/UNCF’s 39 member institutions enroll a mere 3.4 percent of all Black students attending the nation’s 3,500 colleges and universities, Gray still is considered the most powerful advocate for African Americans in all of higher education.The College Fund represents all but a handful of the nation’s historically Black private colleges and universities. Its member schools account for 25 percent of all students attending the nation’s 118 historically and predominantly Black institutions.Gray “makes no distinction between the colleges he represents and the other Black colleges that don’t belong to UNCF,” says one critic who requested anonymity because the person still has to work with Gray on occasion. “The public is confused. They don’t know that he only speaks for 39 Black colleges. It is important that the country invest in all its institutions.”
A Competitive ReputationGray and his supporters dismiss such complaints by pointing to The College Fund’s record under his eight-year tenure.The UNCF last year ranked as the second-largest education nonprofit in the United States — ahead of the National Merit Scholarship Corp., according to an analysis by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.Observers say Gray has molded the UNCF into an organization that wields power and influence far beyond what its founders ever envisioned. It’s now considered as influential in the halls of Congress and federal agencies as it is in Fortune 500 fund-raising circles.“Here is a group with a critical mission. The UNCF is the most visible organization in Black higher education today,” says Dr. Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. “And Bill Gray has given it a greater sense of direction, visibility and power. That was an important thing to have happen in this country — particularly with the number of Black colleges feeling hard hit both demographically and economically.”Dwyane Ashley, executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Fund and a former aid to Gray, says that his former boss “decided that the UNCF would become the voice of Black higher education and Gray would go out and sell the institutions. He saw far ahead where the organization should be.”The UNCF last year raised $139 million. Its imprint can be found on everything from higher education policy and research, both here and abroad, to government contracting to providing schools with technical assistance. It even offers scholarships now for Black students who attend traditionally White institutions as well as for White students who attend historically Black colleges and universities.Some wealthier UNCF institutions, like Spelman College in Atlanta, that don’t need the group’s fund-raising muscle anymore, remain in the UNCF fold because of other perks — such as student scholarship programs, faculty research and development initiatives and eligibility for participation in government-sponsored, UNCF-administered research programs.The programs run in the hundreds — everything from the IBM Faculty Fellowship Program and the Prudential Faculty Development Program to the UNCF-John Heinz Environmental Fellows Program and the Henry C. McBay Research Fellowship.UNCF-administered initiatives funded by the federal government include the UNCF-Department of Defense Infrastructure Development Assistance Program and the UNCF-Department of Environmental Education program.“As the president of Spelman College, I never even gave [leaving the UNCF] a second of a thought,” says former Spelman College president Johnnetta Cole. “I couldn’t imagine that Spelman would pull out of the UNCF. For at least two reasons: No. 1, From a purely selfish standpoint, I think it would have hurt Spelman. I think people would have said, how dare she, how dare Johnnetta Cole [and Spelman] feel that they are so above any other historically Black institutions. “No. 2: In the most sincere sense of collectivity, it was Spelman’s responsibility to remain there. A rising tide can lift all boats. And so whatever Spelman was able to accomplish it is because we were associated with UNCF.”
Evoking ConfidenceDriving up to UNCF’s national headquarters in a shimmering high rise here in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Fairfax, Va., — one of the richest counties in America — it is immediately apparent that this is no ordinary charity.It boasts a tony address, next door to Mobil Oil Corp.’s world headquarters. Ceiling-to-floor glass doors greet visitors as they approach a reception area, seemingly designed to eliminate the belief that this is anything but a top-shelf operation.Inside this rent-free office space provided by a major Washington, D.C., federal contractor, Gray oversees a staff of 211 employees. Compare that with another Black higher education organization, the National Association for Equal Opportunity, in Higher Education, know as NAFEO, which has only 28 staff members and until recently was housed in an aging, unrenovated school building.No question about it, Gray runs a tight ship inside these well-appointed quarters that could hold their own with any corporate setting across America. The staff is hard at work, never quite knowing when their no-nonsense boss might pop in on their work space to check up on them.That the UNCF now is charged with managing a $1 billion scholarship initiative over a designated period of 20 years is seen as a validation of its record in handling fund-raising campaigns, and scholarship and research programs, observers say.In its 1998 fiscal year, the UNCF administered more than $9.2 million in scholarship funds. In addition to scholarships, the UNCF doled out another $60 million to its member schools for capital and operating expenses.Under terms of the Gates Millennium Scholarships Program, the UNCF will manage $50 million annually. The program will fund scholarships for 1,000 new students each year, starting next fall, eventually helping 20,000 economically disadvantaged students who can choose any college, not just UNCF member schools.The program will offer support for four years of undergraduate work and for graduate students. Support will be provided to students in math, science, engineering, education and library science. The Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the American Indian Scholarship Fund will assist UNCF in promotion and candidate recruitment.“The impact is going to be tremendous. I can see [the program] doubling the numbers of minorities getting Ph.Ds and master’s in certain fields,” says Dr. Isaac M. Colbert, graduate student dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.Colbert believes the program will help stimulate efforts by college outreach programs and K-12 school systems to ensure there will be sufficient numbers of minorities ready to take advantage of the scholarships.“The responsibility will be on us to have the kids ready,” Colbert says.Not everyone is as thrilled. Rodney Jackson, founder and director of the National Conference on Black Philanthropy, says that it is “a generous gift, and it’ll probably have an impact on increasing minority representation in math and science fields.But he adds that “the emphasis is on the wrong end of the educational spectrum. I would rather see the support go to the improvement of primary and secondary math and science education of minority students. Too many African American and Hispanic students are not getting the preparation they need to pursue math and science education at the college level.”
Impressive GrowthThough the Gates pledge brought a fresh round of media glare to the UNCF, with front-page stories in national newspapers and spots on all three major network news shows, the organization has sought high visibility since it was founded in 1944 by then-Tuskegee Institute President Dr. Frederick D. Patterson.Yet the 1990s have represented a decade of phenomenal growth for The College Fund. Perhaps most significant has been the organization’s expanded fund raising and program administration activities. The College Fund’s most recent capital campaign drive, Campaign 2000, yielded $280 million over nearly five years — the largest amount ever raised by a consortium of historically Black institutions. In addition, the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment last year gave the UNCF a $42 million grant to help member colleges with capital needs, student scholarship money, faculty training and curriculum development. The award stunned the American higher education community because, at the time, it represented the largest single grant the foundation had awarded to any educational group. “Forty million dollars is an attention getter,” says Dr. Humphrey Doermann, former president of the Minnesota-based Bush Foundation, a leading provider of funds for higher education initiatives. Doermann is co-author of a forthcoming book on Black private colleges. “UNCF has been at the center of the strongest network of any group of private colleges in the country,” Doermann says, adding the cooperation within that network even surpasses that of Ivy League schools and the Midwestern private college networks.Levine notes that a little less than two decades ago, many higher education experts feared that private Black colleges might become extinct, much like private women’s colleges and universities.“Bill Gray and the UNCF have managed to improve the climate dramatically and make Black colleges much more visible and more attractive to students because of the money he has been able to raise.“There is a lot of money out there today. In fact, this country is awash in money right now because of the emerging economy and Wall Street,” he says. “Bill Gray makes an attractive target for some of that giving because of his background. Here’s a guy who headed the House budget committee.“So he comes through not just as another academic asking for money — but as someone who has experience in the world of finance, government and business,” Levine says.In addition to funds raised in support of its members’ basic needs, the UNCF under Gray’s leadership has raised impressive sums to fund designated programs — known in the philanthropic community as “restricted gifts” or “restricted funds.”Usually designated for scholarships in specific fields, for curriculum improvements or for faculty training programs, restricted gifts have rolled into the UNCF in part because philanthropists and foundations have become more selective about the use of their donations.“Bill Gray has taken fund raising to a new level,” says Dorothy Yancy, president of Johnson C. Smith University. “There is an energy and aggressiveness about him when he talks about Black colleges. He’s been able to go into board rooms and convince people to contribute who hadn’t contributed before.”Yancy cites the $1 million her university received through the UNCF from the Lilly Foundation as an example. The grant has allowed Johnson C. Smith to jump-start renovation of its administration offices in an historic building where plumbing and wiring sorely needed updating.But Yancy says it was difficult to raise money for the project until the university got the Lilly grant. “Once we got the Lilly money, we got more encouraging calls to help us renovate the building,” she recalls.Another bonus, she says, was the technical advice from the UNCF that the college received in preparing the proposal. “We’ve never gotten technical assistance like that before,” she says.“Gray has diversified the sources of support” for UNCF colleges, says Dr. Shirley A.R. Lewis, president of Paine College. Grants from foundations like Lilly and the Mellon Foundation have been a “Godsend for a small, private, tuition-driven college like Paine,” she says.Nevertheless, some college presidents are concerned about the growing trend toward restricted giving.“I know donors are more inclined to give restricted gifts,” says Lewis. “But we must articulate the need for unrestricted funds. UNCF is our most valuable source for unrestricted funds.”The trend toward restricted funds coupled with The College Fund’s behemoth-sized presence in the marketplace pose a bitter situation for others who are attempting to raise money for Black college students.“When we go out and meet with potential donors, the first thing they say is, ‘We gave to UNCF,'” Ashley says. Still, he adds, Gray and The College Fund have paved the way.Gray has “already made a case for Black colleges,” he says. “So, we just educate them about the  public Black colleges.”
Programming for SuccessUNCF expansion in program administration also is impressive. In 1990, the fund had roughly 100 educational programs under its purview. Today, it administers about 450, which include student scholarships, faculty fellowships and research and technical assistance agreements. As a result, it has begun organizing and leading consortiums with public HBCUs and White-majority institutions as partners.Last year, UNCF outbid the University of Maryland system and other consortiums to establish a $41 million U.S. State Department program to assist historically disadvantaged institutions in South Africa.Leveraging the resources of its member schools and partnering with public HBCUs, the organization also has established research and technical assistance programs for federal agencies. Among the examples:n An energy conservation program for the U.S. Department of Energy.n A gerontology curricula program for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.n Archival work for and the National Endowment for the Humanities.n Programs for the U.S. Departments Labor and Defense and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “This has been the biggest change for UNCF,” Doermann says.Two other significant alterations wrought under Gray’s leadership are the launching of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute and The College Fund’s move from New York City to northern Virginia.The Patterson Institute, established in 1996 with a $5 million endowment, conducts and distributes research to policy makers, educators and the public in hopes of enhancing educational opportunities and improving outcomes for African Americans at all levels of education.Under the helm of Dr. Michael T. Nettles, its first director, the institute attracted positive reviews for its first major publication, the three-volume “African American Education Data Book.” “It takes a long time to get people paying attention to what the research is showing,” says Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, chair of the Black Leadership Forum. The Institute “has got a real opportunity and challenge to get that done.”
Enhanced Policy RoleEven though most UNCF schools sit in the South, the UNCF’s original New York City headquarters placed it in close proximity to the image-making Madison Avenue advertising firms and many Fortune 500 companies it hoped to woo.Yet even as early as the late 1970s, UNCF member presidents pushed for a stronger presence in Washington, D.C. Technically, UNCF schools already were represented in the nation’s capital by NAFEO.But some presidents believed they needed their own voice on Capitol Hill. Dr. Henry Ponder, NAFEO’s current president and a former president of Fisk University, a UNCF member school, says the push by UNCF member presidents in the 1980s represented what all Black college presidents were seeking at the time — government-sponsored research opportunities and federal contracts. “Black colleges were not getting their fair share,” Ponder says.By the mid-1980s, under the leadership of Dr. Norman Francis of Xavier University, Dr. Johnetta Cole of Spelman College, Dr. Adib Shakir of Tougaloo College and Dr. Robert Albright of Johnson C. Smith College, the UNCF began dabbling in higher education policy — such as student financial aid, Pell grants and other access-related issues.“What happened was that UNCF leadership went from being reactive to proactive on higher education policy,” says William “Buddy” Blakey, Washington, D.C., counsel for UNCF.Blakey recalls that the 1986 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act marked a watershed moment among the advocacy organizations for Black institutions. Cooperation among UNCF, NAFEO and the Office for the Advancement of Public Black Colleges at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges hit a high point as they worked together for the inclusion of Title III, Part B in the reauthorization, he says. That section authorized special funding exclusively for Black institutions.“That’s when the community worked well together,” Blakey says.By the early 1990s, UNCF had grown even stronger as a force in Washington. Naming an influential former U.S. congressman to the helm in 1991 only strengthened this new emphasis on policy.Prior to being named president of the UNCF, Gray held the position of House Majority Whip, the third-ranking leadership spot in the U.S. House of Representatives. It often was suggested that he would have a shot one day at becoming Speaker of the House. Then, unexpectedly in June 1991, Gray announced he was leaving Congress to take over the UNCF. The news media speculated he was resigning from Congress to avoid a messy investigation by the U.S. Justice Department over alleged improprieties in his congressional office. Gray denied such speculations. He responded that instead of devoting the years necessary to become House Speaker, he’d rather have a direct impact on higher education as the UNCF president. Running UNCF would be a logical place for his talents and experience, he reasoned.In 1994, almost three years after Gray’s arrival, The College Fund moved its headquarters here to northern Virginia. Not only did the move offer a cheaper alternative to high-rent, high-salary Manhattan and convenient access to major airports, it offered closer proximity to D.C. policy makers. In the Higher Education Act reauthorization of 1992, UNCF had proposals included throughout the legislation. Under Gray, UNCF set out to create higher education programs, such as the Institute for International Public Policy that would widen the UNCF’s influence throughout higher education. In addition to lobbying Congress, Gray placed a high priority on securing federal contracts for the UNCF and its member schools, says Christa Beverly, director of the UNCF government affairs from 1992 to 1996. The working relationship among the Black college groups hasn’t been ideal. Beverly says the relationships between the UNCF and the other Black advocacy groups were “tense” when she started her tenure at the UNCF because it “had more resources than the other groups.”Xavier’s Francis says he and other presidents pushed for UNCF to assume a greater role. “We got together and said, ‘Let’s quit reacting and start acting.’ We needed to have a voice in saying how policies would affect us. We are defending things that are extremely important to UNCF schools. Our feeling was if we don’t do it who is going to do it for us?”Some groups were critical of the UNCF’s actions, particularly during last year’s reauthorization negotiations for Title III of the Higher Education Act.“We had our issues on the table to be debated,” Francis says. “But NAFEO presidents misread our responsibilities to our 39 institutions. They said we should wait for NAFEO to get a position. Well, NAFEO hadn’t developed a position.”Indeed, the disparity in resources between NAFEO and the UNCF has been stark. In 1998, NAFEO had a $4 million operating budget, which is dwarfed by the UNCF’s fiscal 1998 expenditures, excluding distributions, of $34.6 million.Comparing the two organizations, however, obscures the fact that they have very different origins, missions and objectives. Ponder says that NAFEO’s policy-oriented accomplishments are less quantifiable than UNCF’s fund-raising activities and programs.“What we do mostly is advocate for the HBCUs,” Ponder says. The College Fund UNCF “raises money.”Another big disagreement between Black education officials broke out over negotiations on Section 326 in Title III B, which is designated for funding graduate and professional schools.A faction led by Dr. Louis Sullivan, dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine, representing five private graduate and medical schools, became pitted against a faction led by Florida A&M University President Dr. Frederick Humphries. Teamed with NAFEO, Humphries advocated a plan to increase funding for a second group comprised of nine public and two private graduate schools. Ponder, who characterizes the working relationship among the Black college groups as “very good,” says that “they’re always going to be disagreements” within any community. But some Black college advocates question whether UNCF, and Gray in particular, are committed to working with the Black college community as a team player. Gray “is just difficult to work with,” says one higher education professional who asked not to be identified. “He’s not effective at developing coalitions that allow everybody to get a bigger piece of the pie.”Complicating the government affairs operation for UNCF has been the succession of directors that have come and gone since late 1996. Beverly, who remained in the position for four years, says the high turnover rate for senior-level posts at UNCF, such as government affairs director, is not surprising given the organization’s high pressure environment.
Shades of GrayComplaints that Gray frequently alienates those attempting to work with him are not uncommon. Several current and former employees who spoke to Black Issues In Higher Education describe him as a man with an explosive temper and a foul mouth.“He’s a screamer and a yeller,” says one former executive. “He’s successful in spite of himself.” Another former employee describe Gray’s management style as ultimately “counterproductive” for the organization.Government affairs is not the only department that has had a high turnover rate. The UNCF’s communications division has had nine directors in the past three years, according to a former staffer. “Bill Gray is a brilliant person,” Beverly says. “He pushes staff very hard, and that has been a factor in a high burnout rate [of UNCF employees].” Ashley adds that sometimes people don’t share the same commitment to Gray’s vision. “We have all different kinds of leaders and they have to be supported,” Ashley says. “Does [Gray] have weaknesses? Do the positives far exceed the weaknesses? I think the presidents decided to invest in this leadership with this vision and support him with staff that matches his style.” In the past year, UNCF has undergone a reorganization of its senior management and a search is currently underway for a new director of the government affairs.Steven L. Pruitt, executive vice president for operations at The College Fund first met and worked with Gray when the former congressman chaired the House Budget Committee. Pruitt recently joined his former boss to help reinvigorate UNCF. Pruitt contends it is Gray’s compassion for the people around him and the UNCF constituency that is at the root of the work he performs. That compassion, he says, the key Gray’s success as a leader. Still, he says he believes Gray doesn’t get credit for that quality.Several UNCF member institution presidents contacted by Black Issues expressed satisfaction with the organization and Gray’s performance overall.Gray is “in that tradition of great Black leadership that dates back to the 19th century,” says Dr. Michael Lomax, president of Dillard University. “I refuse to be critical of what he has done.”“He’s very collegial. He’s a tremendous guy,” says Shakir, the former president of Tougaloo College who currently spearheads a UNCF initiative called FASTAP, which stands for “the Fiscal and Strategic Technical Assistance Program.”That initiative, headquartered at a private consulting firm in Washington, D.C., provides UNCF member schools with fiscal management and planning assistance and helps them retain their accreditation. Cole says Gray’s imperfections should be evaluated in the same context as those of any leader. “I am here to testify that Bill Gray is not a perfect person,” she says. “I’m still looking for a perfect person. And when I find that person I’m gonna clone that person. I think any assessment of any leader must begin there. And secondly, whatever are the weakness — and surely there are those who can tell you of Johnnetta Cole’s weaknesses — it must be balanced with the strengths.”Others, like Yancy, worry about the day when Gray won’t be at the helm of UNCF. “Where do you go after Bill Gray? When you have a leader as charismatic as Gray, to succeed him? There is no grooming of leadership development. The bench isn’t that deep.” — Staff writers Michele N-K Collison and Scott W. Wright contributed to this report
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