Higher Education's Money Man: An Interview with United Negro College Fund President Bill Gray

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Higher Education's Money Man: An Interview With United Negro College Fund President Bill Gray

When William H. Gray, at the age of 50, announced in 1991 that he was leaving his Majority Whip post in the U.S. House of Representatives to head the United Negro College Fund, many believed his brightest days were behind him. Two weeks ago, he successfully negotiated a $1 billion deal with Microsoft that made headlines around the world and which philanthropy and higher education professionals will be analyzing for years.

Not only is Gray piloting the UNCF to unprecedented heights, he clearly is demonstrating that his days as a high-stakes power broker are far from over. Black Issues' Frank Matthews and Cheryl D. Fields spoke with him recently about the growing breadth and influence of The College Fund, his relationships with other higher education leaders and his reputation as somewhat of a despotic manager. The following is an excerpt of that conversation.

Q What have been some of the significant changes that have affected how the United Negro College Fund has evolved, especially under your tenure, as cempared to the pre-desegregation days?

A Prior to the 1960s, the Fund's focus was basically on raising revenues to support the [member] institutions. ...Historically Black private colleges didn't have sources of income prior to the 1960s. They had to raise it all themselves. They got it from churches. They got it from alumni. They got it from people of goodwill who took interest in a poor Black college and gave them a lot of money, like the Rockefellers at Spelman.

When the first major change occurred with desegregation in the '70s, African Americans, male and female, could be accepted, admitted to traditionally White institutions. ...The challenge became, how do you keep people focused on supporting these institutions when you have an integration of the society and Blacks who were excluded by law [from traditionally White institutions] can now go to any college they want to?...It affected students. It affected faculty. It affected Black administrators.

Q What was the message you used to counter this?

A That was the big challenge, the funding. ...The other factor that the fund faced as a result of the schools facing it was, what is going to be the meaning of historically Black colleges? If the old mission has been that you are the sole source of baccalaureate degrees for 95 percent of all African Americans prior to 1965, and this rapidly is changing...what now is your new mission?...

When I came in, UNCF had already decided what its mission was going to be. We had to not only raise money from traditional sources, but we also had to expand to nontraditional sources. That meant increasing the numbers of African Americans contributing to the fund individually. It also meant going more into corporate America. It meant facing the reality that donors were shifting away from supporting institutions to supporting individuals -- from what we call unrestricted gifts, to restricted gifts. And how do we position ourselves to take advantage of that sea change in philanthropy?

So UNCF, before I got here, had already positioned itself to continue its traditional mission, which is to raise unrestricted money to provide for these schools. Because that unrestricted money is like a scholarship. What that unrestricted money does is help a school keep its tuition, its fees, its board and housing costs low. And that's why UNCF schools today have basically the lowest tuition in private education in America. Our average tuition at UNCF schools is $6,000 per year, whereas at a traditionally White private institution, it's $13,000.

Q An interesting experiment just unfolded at one of your member institutions, Benedict College. What Dr. David Swinton, the president, discovered is that because his product was so good, he was able to turn that institution around by raising tuition. Not only did he raise tuition, but he Increased enrollment substantially. …