Sixty-five years after a group of historically black colleges came together to form the United Negro College Fund, a mind is still a terrible thing to waste. The UNCF is continuing its mission of raising money to support its 39 member HBCUs as they fight to stay afloat amid the economic downturn. However, flush with a $1.6 billion philanthropic gift from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, today the organization’s mission has evolved to include helping a wide range of people of color get access to higher education. UNCF President and CEO Michael Lomax sat down with The Root to discuss the evolution of the organization.
The Root: How do you see UNCF evolving now?
Michael Lomax: We’ve raised almost $3.8 billion over 65 years to, first of all, support our colleges, and also to support scholarships. We are still in the fundraising business—that’s a core strength of the organization. But the world has changed, and our work has changed.
We don’t just support students at HBCUs. We support students all over. We don’t just support African-American students. We support Hispanic, Asian and Native American students.
We’ve received the largest single gift ever made in higher education: $1.6 billion from Bill and Melinda Gates. They really felt we’d be great stewards, and we’d produce strong results. And they asked us to do something that is deeply rooted in our heritage. And they asked us to stretch a little bit. That’s where UNCF is today. We continue to do our heritage work. But we’re stretching. We are being muscular and agile. And I think we are finding a balance between the important work that we’ve always done, and the new work that we have to do. I view UNCF as an organization that began to address the needs of one community and now is called to help the nation address its needs. And I find them interrelated and complementary. And I feel very good about it.
TR: So how much of the money is now going to non-African-American students?
ML: We’ll have 5,000 Gates scholars at any given day of the week. Sixty-five percent of those are not African-American. But we have about 400 separate scholarship programs. Some of them explicitly say ‘for African-American kids.’ We don’t always know the race of the person who receives the scholarship. Frankly a lot of kids who are not African-American go to the UNCF Web site looking for scholarships. And I think you see that just because of the economy.
TR: And the member HBCUs are increasingly diverse, as Hampton University recently learned.
ML: There is this notion that our schools are homogenous, and that because they are historically black they are exclusively black. And that just means people don’t know. These schools have a rich tradition of diversity. That doesn’t mean that it has always been without controversy…. Let’s get this straight: Even if they became 50 percent non-African-American, they would still be historically black. That speaks of their heritage. And I’m certainly not going to predict whether these institutions will always be so disproportionately African-American, or even of color. But they will always be historically black.
TR: What was your feeling about the controversy around the non-black woman being crowned Miss Hampton?
ML: The young woman at Hampton obviously made a decision to go to Hampton because she thought it was going to be the right education for her. Obviously, there was something quite compelling about Hampton. I think she’s discovered something that we think more and more young people are discovering and that is these schools are places they can get a great education and the only barrier is their own perception.
We had our board meeting in New Orleans at Xavier [University] a year ago. And we were taking people on tour, and there are all these Asian kids in the library. Xavier has a big and popular pharmacy program. And yes, there is a very large Vietnamese population in New Orleans. Are they being changed by going to Xavier? I guess so. Is Xavier getting changed by them coming? I guess so. But you know, everyone seems kind of happy.
TR: There is an ongoing debate about integration and the role of African-American institutions today. It is certainly a debate we know about at The Root. Does the goal become for organizations like UNCF to put itself out of business?
ML: No. Why put ourselves out of business? The goal of UNCF is, first of all, to ensure that, to the extent that we can, that the 39 institutions that founded us, that they have the resources to flourish in the 20th century. That is still a struggle because we have some small rural and isolated institutions that are having a hard time.
We had our October board meeting at Tuskegee two weeks ago. It was a powerful experience to be on that campus, where the buildings were built with bricks made by students. And some of the older buildings built by the students. This is where the legacy of Booker T. Washington remains. Here was a man who started the first classes in an old chicken coop in 1881, and you are passing now some very contemporary engineering programs in a state-of-the-art building.
That’s a rich part of America, a rich part of the African-American community. It helped to build Alabama and the South and the nation. Of course, we want these schools to flourish. We don’t want to lose that.
ML: Becoming president of Dillard University in New Orleans was a big wake-up call for me. We would get students who graduated at the top of their class and then would have to do remedial classes. My question was what was happening in New Orleans that produced this outrage of having a diploma but not having the skills to perform from Day 1 for academic courses.
For the past decade, I have been learning about what happens to students in America through my service on the Teach for America board. Almost three years ago, through my work on TFA. I got involved in KIPP and started seeing what’s happening in their schools. I was seeing it wasn’t the kids. It was the experience they were having. I’m very passionate and focused on the fact that we have to do differently for kids in these schools. The kids we have are the kids we have. We owe them a better education. And what I’ve seen with Teach for America Corps member in public schools, charter and otherwise, is that we can set a standard for kids.
We can’t reach our goal to have a nation where all students have access, if we can’t intervene earlier. We have to be involved much earlier in the pipeline.
TR: How have the perceptions of HBCUs changed?
ML: I was speaking to a woman whom I had taught 25 years ago at Spelman about what it is like to be a Spelman graduate today. I’ll bet people used to say, ‘you went where?’ And now they say, ‘oh, you when there.’ And that’s the difference. I know that when I went to Morehouse in 1964, from Los Angeles, California, people thought I was crazy. “Why wouldn’t you go to UCLA? Berkeley? Why don’t you go to USC? Where you going? What’s that?
I grew up in UNCF. I went to a UNCF institution; I taught at a UNCF institution; I was president of a UNCF institution, now I’m head of UNCF. This has been my home for 40-plus years. During that period I’ve watched the educational experience that our schools provide and the students who go there being viewed as marginal, to being viewed at the center.
TR: How does the slogan “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” speak to the history and future of UNCF?
ML: When we started UNCF 65 years ago, many people thought black people should not get an education, let alone a college education. We helped make America believe that even a black person’s mind should be developed fully. I say ‘even’ because a lot of people did not believe that slogan. Today we have an African-American president, and the whole nation really seems to be embracing the idea that all brains have value, that we have a capacity to learn. So we feel pretty good. Economic downturn not withstanding, we believe that the nation has finally embraced our values.
Natalie Hopkinson is the associate editor of The Root and graduate of Howard University. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.