A Potent Voice for Black Colleges
Ex-Congressman William Gray switches smoothly from power broker to fund-raiser
NEW YORK — 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. In the past, racial segregation and discrimination meant these colleges were guaranteed a clientele from the black community. "You had a closed market that was all your own," he says. Now, larger universities have opened up. They are attracting the top black students, they are actively recruiting the top students "and there's nothing wrong with that, that's go od for America." For Gray, this means a change in the relationship to students, based on their social class and on the way families tackle the complex financial aspect of college. Today, black colleges have as their mission the education of the underclass and black students who don't have the money to attend a four-year institution of higher learning. Many of these students don't have the social background that leads to a four-year degree. They don't do well on standardized tests. They come from communities where weaker schools result in students with poorer grades. With student bodies that range in size from 700 to 2,000, black colleges offer "hands-on education and hand-holding education as part of our mission," says Gray. What other changes does he see in the role of the black college? "There are an increasing number of black children who want an African-American experience. They are the children of the first generation of those who walked through the door of civil rights." Students "want to go to schools where their parents went. Mom went to Spellman when she couldn't go to Vassar. They want that experience." Gray still has a bit of the political booster in him, the ability to sell a program or philosophy. He ticks off UNCF's goals: Double - from 50,000 to 100,000 - the number of students attending historically black colleges; reach out to students who have the latent ability; make an impact on individuals. "Our costs are one-third less than their white counterpart in total cost: $5,000-$6,000 for total cost - tuition, room and board - with money left over to go home as well as have a social life," he says. In the African-American community, these institutions are needed more than ever, he says: "We are living in a more integrated society, but not a completely integrated society. Not a color-blind society, but a society that is less mindful of color than it was 25 years ago. We need to get down to the underprivileged, the underclass," black or white. "I've seen too many kids get into the larger university - 30,000-plus students, miles from home. [They] came from rural areas or urban inner cities, and suddenly they are out in the Midwest and having experiences with white students for the first time. They have little experience in their background to deal with this. ... They end up dropping out, and not going to school." Remember, the US is only 25 years removed from legislated segregation in higher education, Gray reminds. "People forget that miscegenation laws were not repealed in Mississippi until the '70s," he adds. As the interview draws to a close, there is time for a personal political question. Were there a Democrat in the White House, wouldn't Gray be a top candidate for Secretary of Education? "I'm still enough of a politician, after being out of Congress for five days, never to say 'never, he says. But he has set two goals. Until they are accomplished, "I doubt very seriously if I am willing to make any changes of direction."