Tapping the Federal Pipeline: UNCFSP Interim CEO Michael Hester Works to Ensure That Minority-Serving Institutions Stay Competitive When Pursuing Federal Contracts
Hawkins, B. Denise, Diverse Issues in Higher Education
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.
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.
DI: What are some of the greatest challenges HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions face in entering that marketplace and capturing federal contracts?
MH: Using Claflin as an example, Henry Tisdale, the president, brings a distinguishable vision to the school. As a result, Claflin has been on the rise, going after federal contracts and winning them. But for many other institutions, this (contracts) is still new territory. That's not just an issue of the HBCUs; it's an issue of smaller schools that have not traditionally been in the business of going after federal contracts. That becomes a challenge for us also, that includes getting the schools to clearly identify their technical capabilities and to market those capabilities to federal government purchasers as well as to would-be private partners.
DI: UNCFSP was established 11 years ago. Describe some of your milestones and how you plan to respond to shifts in federal dollars and trends among the MSIs.
MH: We're not saying that we're reinventing ourselves, but rather refocusing our efforts to become more astute about the federal marketplace and how we get our schools connected. We're looking at how we connect with not only the larger private industry partners but with small disadvantaged businesses. That's very important. There is an absolute connection between the small disadvantaged businesses and our schools. There's a lot of economic power that can be generated in creating those kinds of partnerships.
We're seeing a reduction in federal dollars going to our schools. There was already a disparity, and we want to change that. We are laser-focused on integrating the connection between private industry, particularly small businesses, and the federal government.
The Secrets to Claflin's Success
To hear Veronica Goodman tell it, entering higher education's sponsored research arena is no place for "the faint hearted."
The days (and nights) are often 24/7, and you must be willing to work extremely hard. You must be like a sentry, keeping a watchful eye on "the targeted and timed announcements that are coming" and be poised to seize, respond and disseminate opportunities across the campus as soon as they land on your desk (or computer inbox).
Since 2004, Goodman has directed the Office of Sponsored Research at the historically Black Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C. With a higher education career in grants and contracts that has spanned nearly three decades, Goodman knows what it takes to get top researchers, faculty and young scholars in shape to compete and land in the winner's circle for federal academic research. In just seven years, Claflin's research dollars have grown "from a little over $3 million, and, in some years, our peak number actually got to $20 million."
"Today we are at slightly more than $17 million. We've done extremely well, but, with federal dollars drying up, we know that we have to be more aggressive and competitive in going after additional research dollars."
To do that, Goodman says Claflin has made the United Negro College Fund Special Projects Corp., or UNCFSP, "a part of its support system." UNCFSP, which operates independently from the United Negro College Fund, provides minority institutions, not just HBCUs, with technical support and training needed to identify, qualify and capture government and private business opportunities.
Claflin is the recipient of two UNCFSP-administered grants, and its sponsored research team stays current through ongoing national workshops the corporation offers on such topics as proposal writing.
"You can't write good proposals without faculty members who have innovative and great ideas. So we serve them in formulating their ideas, then putting pen to paper to write good proposals," Goodman says.
"In addition, we need the administration to support that work, and we have that in our president who understands the importance of research and scholarly activity and the need to support faculty members as they pursue external funding."
B. Denise Hawkins…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Tapping the Federal Pipeline: UNCFSP Interim CEO Michael Hester Works to Ensure That Minority-Serving Institutions Stay Competitive When Pursuing Federal Contracts. Contributors: Hawkins, B. Denise - Author. Magazine title: Diverse Issues in Higher Education. Volume: 28. Issue: 23 Publication date: December 22, 2011. Page number: 14+. © 2008 Cox, Matthews & Associates. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.