Tapping the Federal Pipeline: UNCFSP Interim CEO Michael Hester Works to Ensure That Minority-Serving Institutions Stay Competitive When Pursuing Federal Contracts

Article excerpt

In late November, one of the most memorable calls Michael Hester, interim CEO of the United Negro College Fund Special Projects Corp., or UNCFSP, answered came from a large, top-tier defense contractor looking to partner with his constituents, HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions, on a federal contract worth $10 billion. But on most days, Hester, a former NASA contractor, is concerned with eliminating the glaring racial and economic disparities that exist in contract awards and federal research and development, or R&D, expenditures for higher education. Only about 1.4 percent of the more than $32 billion in federal funds expended for R&D in higher education went to Black colleges, says Hester, citing a 2008-2009 National Science Foundation report.

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The 11-year-old non-profit corporation known as UNCFSP, a separate entity from the United Negro College Fund, is working to change that, Hester says, even as federal dollars shrink and trends for doing business with the government are pointing away from grants and to contract awards, an arena where many minority institutions are not used to competing successfully.

That means, says Hester, UNCFSP must ramp up its more than 35-member team of proposal writers, researchers, federal government liaisons and procurement experts, trainers and workshop leaders who also track the dollars and opportunities, while assisting HBCUs, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and underrepresented students with building capacity to compete for higher education research dollars and contracts.

"We recognize that to identify, go after and capture those new and emerging opportunities, you've got to have the hunters and people with the skill sets to go out and do it," adds Hester, who served as COO of UNCFSP until April. Following is a Q&A with Hester.

DI: When you follow the contract where are they concentrated?

MH: Today, the dollars are being spent in areas like cyber security, infrastructure protection, biotechnology, veteran's affairs for warrior support and also for wounded warriors who are transitioning back to the larger society.

DI: How is UNCFSP helping minority-serving institutions respond to these new and emerging business areas of national focus?

MH: We are spending time gathering information about the technical capacity of our minority institutions to ensure that they can make those connections on the federal side. Our schools have tremendous talent who can play a part in solving national issues, and it makes technical and economic sense to involve that talent. But, unfortunately, we know from statistics that the talent that exists within the minority education community is untapped.

We also try to package the collective value of our schools--what they offer that can solve those national issues. We have put together a consortium of 44 schools that have signed on as members.

DI: What kinds of partners and contracts has the consortium been able to attract?

MH: We are a formidable team that attracts strategic partners like private industry. On the defense side, for example, we attract some of the top 20 defense contractors; many have contracts that have requirements for using minority institutions. To help facilitate connections to the talent at these institutions, we use the consortium as a mechanism to make that happen. UNCFSP also facilitates the bid process. But being a part of the consortium doesn't preclude the institutions from going out and doing great things on their own. That does happen. You have schools like Claflin, Hampton University, Morgan State University and others that are doing wonderful things. Those schools, on their own, are able to identify and capture opportunities through their own teams. But that's not the case for all of our schools. Many of them are still struggling to get into the federal marketplace, not so much with the grants but the contracts, which are a different animal. …