Myers to End 18 Years as NAFEO Top Executive: Perceptions of Personal, Organizational Legacy to Influence the Future

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Myers to End 18 Years as NAFEO Top Executive: Perceptions of Personal,. Organizational Legacy to Influence the Future

In 1977, when Dr. Samuel L. Myers was named president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), he inherited one of the nation's thorniest political and social debates -- whether to sustain historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or allow them to be absorbed by white institutions.

Today, many of those same legal and federal funding challenges continue to chip away at the existence of HBCUs as they did nearly two decades ago, says Myers. But as he prepares to retire after 18 years at the helm of NAFEO, Myers who is 76, says triumphantly that Black colleges are now richer, more legally grounded and strategically placed, thanks to NAFEO and his leadership.

Black-college advocates and his opponents, however, paint a more sobering picture. Some say that it is because of Myers' leadership over nearly two decades that HBCUs have been allowed to lapse into a political quagmire and NAFEO, the organization charged with lobbying for them, has been gobbled up by a lack of identity and fraught with internal conflict.

Among the organization's supporters and Black-college presidents, the selection of Myers' successor is as weighty a concern as forging a new NAFEO during what many nationally are calling a tortuous time in the life of HBCUs.

Dr. Cordell Wynn, president of Stillman College, like many of his colleagues, has his laundry list of qualities the new [NAFEO] president "must have," but for now, he says, it would be enough to have someone who can help NAFEO "...get out from under being bogged down with triviality."

To hear Myers tell it, he was that man for 18 years.

"At the time that I came on board, there was a climate of ignorance and apathy that existed in the nation. Many people did not know about Black colleges and felt that if progress was going to be made in the nation that the concentration should be placed on white, Ivy League and research institutions," Myers recalls.

In the late 1960s, the nation smoldered with anger and resentment as the push for racial integration struggled to be realized. And as the doors to American higher education were being pried open for Black students, there were many who "felt that there was no longer a need for Black colleges," he adds.

According to Myers, those who held the purse strings and the power in the federal government -- "largely white males -- had strong ties then with research institutions and decided to do what was easy and convenient for them by maintaining their ties with the old boys' network. Back then there were few [people] you could find who were committed [financially] to Black colleges."

During its 25-year history, NAFEO, the umbrella group for both public and private historically and predominantly Black colleges and universities, has had considerable practice fending off threats to abolish federal funding to its institutions.

The usually unflappable Myers grows animated when he talks about one of the milestones of his legacy at NAFEO -- "successfully pouring about a billion dollars into our [historically Black] colleges."

By enlisting the aid of key higher education associations and hiring two leading Black, Washington lawyers and scholars -- Kenneth S. Tollett Sr. and William "Bud" Blakey -- Myers says NAFEO was able to press federal officials to create a "designated set aside for Black colleges and universities."

The Program for Developing Institutions that NAFEO and its attorneys lifted out of its near demise in the 1970s is known now as the Higher Education Act Title III.

As Myers' tenure comes to a close, he may have to watch from the sidelines as three of his "greatest accomplishments" struggle to survive Congressional funding cuts or play a waiting game with justice.

Last minute maneuvering late last month on Capitol Hill and visits by a contingent of Black-college presidents to the Republican-led Congress narrowly restored about $13 million in Title III funds slated for cuts in 1996. …