UNCF Gray's Way: With Billion-Dollar Bill Gates Coup, `Bottom-Line' Bill Gray Affirms His Stature and His Leadership Style

By Roach, Ronald | Black Issues in Higher Education, September 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

UNCF Gray's Way: With Billion-Dollar Bill Gates Coup, `Bottom-Line' Bill Gray Affirms His Stature and His Leadership Style


Roach, Ronald, Black Issues in Higher Education


UNCF Gray's Way: With Billion-Dollar Bill Gates Coup, `Bottom-Line' Bill Gray Affirms His Stature and His Leadership Style

FAIRFAX, Va. -- When software tycoon William H. Gates III made a $1 billion pledge earlier this month to fund scholarships for minority college and graduate students in science, engineering, math and education, he turned to the United Negro College Fund to administer the massive gift.

In doing so, Gates delivered a gilded endorsement that instantly quells any doubts that this organization that began in relative obscurity more than five decades ago today has become a behemoth to be reckoned with in the evolving American higher education landscape.

The software mogul's announcement also may prove to be the crowning achievement in the career of William H. Gray III, the former Baptist minister turned rainmaker, given Gates' deliberate, contemplative approach to giving away a chunk of his massive fortune. He is not one to just toss money at any old group.

Gray, president and chief executive officer of The College Fund/UNCF, singlehandedly orchestrated the donation -- which is the single largest philanthropic gift to date in the history of American higher education.

It is testimony to Gray's salesmanship skills and ability to open doors that he arranged an audience with Gates and his wife, Melinda, while traveling with them in Alabama.

"Between Montgomery and Demopolis, we discussed their concern with the challenges of access to higher education for minorities," Gray says, recounting his discussions with America's wealthiest couple.

The coup offers further proof Gray has a Midas touch for fund raising, soliciting unheard of sums of money that have propelled the UNCF from a modest charity into the nation's wealthiest Black nonprofit -- one that outstrips even such well-known groups as the NAACP and the Urban League.

"This gift represents a substantial change from where we, as a nation, began this century -- when minorities were denied access to higher education and opportunities to participate in American life," Gray said during a news conference to announce the Gates Millennium Scholarships Program.

"It's an extraordinarily big responsibility to administer all that money. It's a sign that UNCF will be here for quite a long time," says Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a Washington, D.C.-based biweekly trade newspaper that tracks nonprofit organizations.

A Tough Task Master

Nearly everyone agrees the credit goes to Gray. But the charismatic former Philadelphia congressman's success at turning the UNCF, founded 55 years ago to raise funds for private Black colleges, into the darling charity for everyone from Manhattan's elite to Microsoft's co-founder to middle-class White Americans, has not come without a price.

Gray has numerous critics. Former employees cast him as a man who rules with an iron fist, one whose brash, aggressive and occasionally tyrannical management style make him an insufferable boss who runs roughshod over those who work for him and the organization.

Others complain that the UNCF operates under a cloak of secrecy, releasing only that information that paints the group in a favorable light, and that Gray keeps its 39 member institutions on a tight leash, tolerating no criticism. Because it is private, the UNCF does not have to disclose certain financial information.

Indeed, one is hard pressed to find anyone within the UNCF inner circle willing to publicly voice their criticisms of Gray, who has been known to reward UNCF boosters who were loyal supporters with lucrative, UNCF-secured contracts. Preferring not to take chances, observers note that he leaves little to chance and that he tends to surround himself with those whose strengths he knows he can count on.

Some fellow higher education advocates contend Gray and the UNCF have grabbed more than their fair share of the spotlight -- and donations -- given UNCF's constituency.

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