Carter Commentary on UNCF Causes More Harm Than Help for the HBCU Sector

Jarrett Carter, like me, is a zealot for all things HBCU.  I consider him a friend and support his work, with my personal resources also as an institution.  Alas, his latest analysis of the United Negro College Fund is one he got wrong.  Context is critically important.  My proximity to UNCF as a student and scholarship recipient (Edward Waters College), a practitioner at UNCF-member Livingstone College,  and leader of two member institutions (Wilberforce and Wiley) as a member president- which requires my attendance at several UNCF board and multiple committee meetings, subsequently exposing me to good information. 

My affiliation spans over two decades and guides my perspective; not peripheral public information that lacks depth.

It is virtually impossible for “keepers of the sacred trust” to respond to the litany of inaccurate reports about HBCUs and UNCF, this particular article struck a nerve given the gaps in knowledge that I know would have essentially made this report a non-starter.  UNCF, HBCUs, and even the HBCU Digest are not free from critical analysis.  I am especially fond of said analysis especially when it emanates from within the space. But when done without context and good data, it is an injurious exercise.     

The conception and deliverance of the ECONOMIC IMPACT REPORT was a way for people who are not members of the HBCU community to better understand the breadth and depth of HBCUs’ national impact, in each state where colleges and universities are located. UNCF could have easily done an economic impact report of just its members. Our experiences dictate doing that would have been left a gaping hole in terms of showing the impact of the whole HBCU community while also educating those outside of it. 

And so it was decided, on purpose, to benefit the whole community by doing the economic impact of all institutions—medical schools, dental schools, pharmacy schools, undergrad schools – everyone together because they’re all HBCUs and they all greatly impact the communities in which they are located. From the students who enroll and graduate from our institutions, the community citizens our institutions employ, to the individuals who visit our institutions and contribute to the local economy during their visits--HBCUs collectively make a difference in our communities and it should not go unnoticed. 

The Economic Impact report also served a dual purpose. There are many legislators on the Hill of a particular political party that did not understand HBCUs in the traditional anecdotal way we think about them. However, they would understand an institution in their district and their state in terms of how many people they hire and fire every year; in terms of how much of one class of a student body will earn over their lifetime because institutions draw people in and often those graduates choose to live where they went to college. Consider the economic impact report as a hook to encourage a whole new group of legislators on the Hill—those who are needed to push an HBCU political agenda that can benefit our community. 

The economic impact report resulted in UNCF being able to meet with more legislators,  to garner much wider bipartisan support for our initiatives. What was the result of those meetings and relationship development? The product is HBCU-related spending by Congress has soared since the UNCF Economic Impact report was released. Legislators reviewed the report in November 2017. In March of 2018, when Congress passed the first appropriations bill after their review of the economic impact report, Congress related spending for HBCUs increased by $78 million. The FY 19 bill which passed in September of 2018, HBCU related spending was up by $25 million. In the FY 2020 appropriations bill which passed in December 2019, HBCU related spending increased by $95 million. 

Those increases are all year-over-year, and they were each because UNCF was able to meet with and encourage a group of bipartisan legislators to make those asks for our schools and our students. 

Additionally,, UNCF has been able to ask for and receive increases in the Pell grant all because of bipartisan support. (Note:  75% of all students at UNCF member institutions and in HBCU Land are Pell Grant eligible.)  These wins for HBCUs stemmed from UNCF’s release of and intentional use of the Economic Report. The report opened the doors to greater bipartisanship.

The UNCF STATE OF HBCU EVENT was really groundbreaking.  Before March 2019, none of the HBCU Advocacy Agencies including UNCF, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education or the Thurgood Marshall College Fund had laid out their priorities at one time, during a single event, in front of policymakers in Washington. Chief among the pressing issues was a call for an intentional focus on the need for changes in the way accreditors view HBCUs. While certain accreditors may have taken it as adversarial initially, it put a magnifying glass on the arguably inconsistent assessment of HBCU accreditation, particularly as it relates to the peer-reviewing process., 

This caused federal decision-makers, who accredit accreditors, to closely examine some of their practices. The jury is still out on all the effects – but there have been some positive outcomes of HBCUs being reviewed by their peers.

I’m the president of a college that has to be accredited. And I along with my colleagues depend on the advocacy arm of UNCF to speak on behalf the 37 member institutions.  The gravitas harnessed by this iconic brand provides advocacy in ways that my peers and I cannot command – in an effort to better benefit the HBCU community.

FUTURE ACT

UNCF rallied its 37 member schools, along with the rest of HBCU Land and other minority-serving institutions to get a big win.  The White House didn’t demand this --we had to fight for what we knew we needed.  UNCF led by providing a pathway and encouraged presidents of institutions, faculty, staff, students, and graduates to engage federal legislators for their unconditional support, and we did.  

Understanding the path forward required students and alumni to be invested in the process, UNCF actually took the lead for the collective regarding the FUTURE Act. Over the years, UNCF has developed muscle and expertise in the public policy space that has benefited all HBCUs—especially in the past few years. The mandatory Title III funding represents a huge impact on HBCU campuses: $85 Million a year shared between 97 campuses.  In the passage of the FUTURE Act, we not only secured this funding, but it has been made permanent.  That is a humongous win, especially in this politically charged environment.  

UNCF, not the White House, called for the passage of this act. The House of Representatives is controlled by a democratic speaker of the House. And guess what—she’s not taking a mandate from the White House—but she does take meetings with UNCF. Additionally, just as she takes meetings with UNCF, so does the Republican Senate Education Chairman, Lamar Alexander. And when you put together the bipartisan support UNCF was able to garner for the Future Act, you get an improvement. 

UNCF started out asking for a two-year extension of funds but ended up with a permanent extension. That speaks volumes. That takes leadership. That takes coordination. That involves strategy. That involves the coming-together of HBCU stakeholders. But UNCF took a leadership role in championing this.  UNCF joined other groups in this effort, but it was UNCF’s leadership that led to the development of a digital platform (first of its kind) that resulted in 65,000 original correspondences to Congress in two months. 

No other education organization has been able to accomplish that. No other African American legacy organization has ever done anything like that. UNCF isn’t in this for messaging, or media hits. That would be a stunt. Getting a bill signed into law—in eight months from introduction to enrolling--with bipartisan support during a time of EXTREME bipartisanship, that’s not a stunt—that’s leadership.

FINANCIAL

Let’s spend a brief moment on the Digest's bold assertions made regarding UNCF’s finances. It has been asserted that UNCF’s tax documents from 2016 and 2017 show that total expenses outpaced revenues by more than $186 million over that period. Without taking into consideration the amounts released from restrictions for multiyear scholarship grant expenses funded with previously recognized revenues pursuant to accounting rules regarding the timing of revenue recognition with multi-year grants or contributions—these accusations are completely incorrect. 

From my perspective and even their auditing firm’s perspective, UNCF has remained within the accounting rules and guidelines and is in coordination with how they are required to account for multi-year grants. 

WHY IS UNCF STILL AROUND

In UNCF’s 75 years, fundraising has eclipsed $5 billion dollars.  I repeat:  $5 billion.  That doesn’t include when large gifts are stewarded directly to an institution simply because of a leader like UNCF CEO Dr. Michael Lomax making connections between philanthropists and our campuses. 500,000 young minds are scholarship recipients and I am one of them.  Federal policy initiatives (this is significant given private schools are excluded from state appropriations) and advocacy of the 37 HBCUs that all 100+ benefit from are simple indicators of the staying power.  

What’s not present to the average person are the countless conversations facilitated by UNCF with the US Department of Education, Congresspeople, White House aides (of both political parties over the years), and the agility to understand K-12 policy and its financial impact on HBCU campuses.

I’ve served as president of two HBCUs--both of which are UNCF member institutions. Because of UNCF’s support, I’ve seen the benefit of membership of this historic organization. Because of UNCF's strategic direction, institutions who are fighting for survival without fanfare benefit from its leadership and its ability to bring stakeholders who can change the fate of an institution with one decision. My institution’s involvement in UNCF’s Career Pathways Initiative (CPI) has significantly helped graduates transition into their chosen careers. 

The CPI has equipped my faculty and staff with the professional development needed for our students to excel in the 21st-century workforce. The recently announced partnership between the nonprofit, Higher Education Leadership Foundation (HELF), will strengthen the pipeline of professionals on track to become leaders of HBCUs-- the successors who will follow me and my peers. That’s important to me, that’s important to the HBCU community, and that’s important to UNCF -- to ensure the continuation of HBCU leadership is well-equipped to lead and continue to have positive outcomes for the students who enroll and graduate from our beloved institutions.

Policy influencer. Strategic director. Social Conscience. Alliance builder. Fundraiser. Data miner. Research institution. Intern and extern producer. Maven of partnership.  The aforementioned are a few descriptors, and reasons, why the light for UNCF is brighter now than it has ever been,  and shows great potential to burner even brighter for the next 75 years. 

Herman Felton is the president of Wiley College in Marshall, Texas.