A Potent Voice for Black Colleges Ex-Congressman William Gray Switches Smoothly from Power Broker to Fund-Raiser

By Jim Bencivenga, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 3, 1991 | Go to article overview

A Potent Voice for Black Colleges Ex-Congressman William Gray Switches Smoothly from Power Broker to Fund-Raiser


Jim Bencivenga, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


JUST five days after he left the third-ranking post in the United States House of Representatives as Democratic Whip, William H. Gray III sits in the president's office of the United Negro College Fund on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

His transition from Capitol Hill power broker to chief fund-raiser and spokesman for historically black colleges and universities seems as natural as the confidence and enthusiasm he exudes, as straightforward as mustering members for a roll-call vote.

The son of educators, a former college professor and current pastor of Bright Hope Baptist church in Philadelphia, this energetic man made a spectacular rise during a relatively brief 13-year career as a Pennsylvania Congressman. But he makes it clear that leaving Congress has added to, not subtracted from, his love of his family, his devotion to education, and his ambition to make an impact on society.

In a Monitor interview, Mr. Gray discussed the special role black colleges play in American society, as well as some of his plans as head of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).

Judge him on whether "I accomplish two goals," says Mr. Gray, goals that cut through all types of complex assessments of why he left Congress.

"What I am looking at right now is not any political role. ... I want to double the amount of funds available to these historically black colleges and universities, from $55 million to $60 million a year to $100 million a year," he says. That's his first goal.

There are 630,000 African-American males between the ages of 18 and 24 in prison, on probation, or on parole. There are 436,000 of comparable age in college. "If I, working with this fund, can reverse these figures, I can have more impact on America, as well as on the African-American community, than if I had stayed in the leadership of Congress," he says.

Gray sees American higher education challenged in three critical ways:by soaring costs, by the need to maintain technological leadership, and by competition between institutions for the best students.

The United Statespreeminence as the world's economic power is already being challenged and will continue to be challenged by new economic Goliaths, whether in the Pacific or in Europe," he says. The nation needs graduates who will be competent, skilled leaders in a work force that "has to be more competent, more skilled than ever in our history, simply because other nations are doing just the same at a very high level."

He pauses, then warms to his key point: the potential of the UNCF to solve these problems for individual students as well as for American society.

"Historically black colleges face all of these challenges, and then some others, due to their unique mission," Gray says. "Many were formed out of the crucible of discrimination. Our mission was to educate African-Americans who were barred from higher education."

Black colleges understand and can lead in ways other colleges institutions may not. "We know that if children get a chance, they will rise. They will be more than their background says he or she might be," he says.

What undergirds these institutions has always been their desire and ability to reach out to all black students, rich and poor, academically superior and those who need some remediation, he says. This is the ethos needed to educate the 80 percent of new workers in the 20th century who will come from minorities, immigrants, and women. "We must educate as many of these individuals as possible," he says.

"When integration took hold in the late '60s, the black college's mission became one of an alternative option for African-American kids," he says. …

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