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A higher calling.

Former congressman William H. Gray confronts the politics of educating America's black youth.

Higher education for America's black youth is in crisis. From 1976 to 1988, the college enrollment of blacks, age 18 to 24, declined from 22.6% to 21.1%. This downward trend is expected to accelerate as college tuition costs continue to skyrocket. And recent battles over minority scholarships and public funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) further cloud the future of black higher education.

Last September, former House Majority Whip William H. Gray, 50, left a 13-year career in Congress to steward the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). As president and CEO of UNCF, Gray's challenge is Campaign 2000, UNCF's three-year, $250 million capital campaign to meet the fiscal needs of its 41-member private institutions. These expenses could total $540 million by the end of the decade.

Although all private and public HBCUs make up only 3% of the nation's institutions of higher learning, they enroll about 35% of all black college students attending four-year institutions and graduate about 40% of all blacks with bachelor's degrees. Gray, a Baptist preacher, offers insight into the battles he faces in keeping HBCUs healthy and educational opportunities available for the future leaders of black America. BLACK ENTERPRISE: Why did you leave Congress to take the position of UNCF president? WILLIAM H. GRAY: I left for a very important reason: The opportunity to [make] a more focused contribution to public policy by helping the education of African-American people at 41 Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Applications at HBCUs are seven times the average for their white counterparts. What appealed to me was the possibility that maybe in this decade, we could move from 50,000 kids at these 41 colleges to 100,000. To me, that is just as important as being a member of the leadership of Congress. BE: What is your vision for UNCF? GRAY: First, I'd like to see us double our annual contributions to these 41 colleges. Then, I want us to complete the capital-fund drive, Campaign 2000, which is the most ambitious program the UNCF has ever been involved with. We have a $50 million challenge gift from Walter Annenberg, and to meet the challenge, we have to raise $200 million more. That's going to be the endowment base for these schools. Secondly, we want to work with these institutions to develop special projects that will enrich their curriculum, improve their academic standing and their ability to attract the best students. Thirdly, we want to be an advocacy group for higher education, but also look at all the educational questions that African-Americans face. BE: What do you think about President Bush's "America 2000" education program? GRAY: There are some parts of his program that are good. I agree that we need to do better on basic fundamentals, math, computation, reading and writing skills. However, I don't think we need one model school in each of the 435 congressional districts. Heck, most school systems have that already, and they're called magnet schools. What we need is for every school to be a good school.

I believe there ought to be school choice, so that parents can choose within the public school system. Increase the competition within the public school arena by letting [parents] choose between public school "A" and public school "B." I'm not a supporter of choice between public and private schools, where you're taking taxpayers' dollars to subsidize private education. BE: How much has President Bush done to strengthen HBCUs? GRAY: The President has shown a strong history of personal commitment. He's our honorary chairman for Campaign 2000. BE: What should the Bush administration do to help HBCUs? GRAY: First, support the Pell Grant program as an entitlement--not a grant. That would create more opportunities for more poor and underprivileged people. Second, support the [Rep. William L.] Clay, [D-Mo.] bill for bonding, which would provide for bonds to do capital improvements for the HBCUs, both public and private. Thirdly, move the White House Initiative on HBCUs out of the Department of Education into the executive branch. BE: How are HBCUs affected by issues of diversity? GRAY: I think diversity is positive. However, we do have to compete a little bit more for the very top [black students]. Morehouse College got the black cream of the crop 30 years ago. Now, has to compete with the University of Georgia and Harvard for the top black students. I don't find that negative, because we can compete. Diversity also means that some of our black faculty will be attracted to Columbia, NYU, Princeton, Harvard and Penn. BE: Can you assess the current condition of HBCUs? GRAY: The condition of these schools varies from school to school and the kind of support base that each school has. Many of these schools have deferred maintenance, so there's a need for capital improvement programs on all of the campuses to upgrade classrooms, laboratories and other infrastructural areas.

There's also a need to attract and compete for better faculty members with schools that are diversifying. The HBCUs don't have large endowments because they've kept costs down, so that the poor and underprivileged can go. It's going to take us a couple more generations before we produce enough wealth among the black middle and upper class, so that we begin to see huge bequests like the Carnegies and the Mellons. BE: How do you respond to criticism that HBCUs have high delinquency rates in terms of the percentage of students who repay their student loans? GRAY: If you use percentages, yes, we are higher. But if you use dollars, we are lower. At an HBCU, because of their low incomes, the number of students that attend on a combination of grants and loans can be as high as 80% to 90%. When you look at the percentages, it would appear that HBCUs are in default. But when you look at the dollar amounts, who owes the most?

The University of Pennsylvania costs $25,000 to attend. Morehouse costs maybe $6,000. So, a kid may borrow $2,000 to go to Morehouse, while a kid borrows $10,000 to go to Penn. If you keep that statistic based on just the percentage of default, you're comparing apples to oranges. You say, "Gee, Morehouse has a higher default rate than the University of Pennsylvania." But, when you compare dollars, the default amount for Penn could be $50 million compared to Morehouse's $50,000. BE: How do you respond to attempts to abolish minority scholarships? GRAY: There is an attempt in this society, which comes from far right-wing ideologues, who say that we ought to have a colorblind society. They say the way to do that is get rid of the minority scholarships, affirmative action, some even say HBCUs. Their argument basically assumes that we live in a colorblind society. I always ask those who say we should do away with minority scholarships: "Do you believe we live in a colorblind society today?" And these people usually answer, "No, we don't, but the only way we're going to get there is by getting rid of remedial structures to address past inequities."

I say, until we get there, why should we eliminate attempts to bring about some redress of the past, so that we can get to the point where we are colorblind? You have schools that were formed around minorities, such as Notre Dame, Jewish Yeshivas, Brandeis. You can buy books with literally thousands of scholarships created for certain people, certain categories, occupations and religions. But the federal government isn't making a stink about that at all. The argument that somehow we've got to get rid of minority scholarships so that we can have a free and fair America implies that we have a colorblind society where minorities are equal in their pursuit of funds to go to school. And they're not. BE: How do we defend ourselves and the HBCUs from these attacks? GRAY: By disseminating information as to what is the real underlying motive. Often the underlying motive is political, to cover up a misguided economic policy. They say, "The reason why you don't have a good job is affirmative action--minorities are taking the jobs away from you. The reason why you don't have more slots in college is because of all those special programs for minorities and women--and they're undeserving and unqualified." It becomes a scapegoat answer for failed policies. What we have to do is articulate real solutions to real problems in this society. BE: What is the role black professionals should play in educating young black men and women? GRAY: I would say to the young black professionals who attended majority institutions, who are the beneficiaries of the push for freedom and equality, that they more than anyone else have an obligation to help develop a new generation of leaders out of the underprivileged and the underclass. If the "talented tenth" is not willing to get involved in the empowerment and liberation of the rest of their people we will never be free. I say, give to the United Negro College Fund, because an education at one of our 41 schools will provide the best equalizer in society today.
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Title Annotation:William H. Gray
Author:Scott, Matthew S.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Interview
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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