UNCF’s Strategy is Clear; If Policy and Philanthropy Won’t Save HBCUs, Try PR

United Negro College Fund President and CEO Michael Lomax has waged a war on HBCU accreditors; namely the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). Given the political and financial climate surrounding UNCF’s member schools, the strategy makes perfect sense and is one we’ve seen play out recently on a far bigger, related stage.

If you can’t win the game, say that its rules and construct are rigged.

Small private colleges and universities across the country are shutting down thanks to falling enrollment and endowment returns and the rising costs of capital loans, salary and benefits. Some estimates suggest that between 25-50 percent of all colleges in the country today will not exist in the next 10-20 years.

And if the number is that bleak for the industry at large, imagine how grim the prospects must be for historically black institutions?

So we can only imagine that UNCF is backed into a terrible position for which Dr. Lomax, a former HBCU president, will one day have to answer two tough questions in the face of massive accreditation sanctions, revocations, and institutional closures.

How did we let this happen, and more importantly, how did UNCF, the fundraising and advocacy arm of all private HBCUs, let this happen?

UNCF is very much feeling the same financial pressures that its member schools are facing. Tax documents from 2016 and 2017 show that total expenses outpaced revenues at the organization by more than $186 million over the two-year period.

UNCF 2016 990 FORM

UNCF 2017 990 FORM

While facing their own money woes, several UNCF member schools were in the midst of serious financial strain that would lead to accreditation inquiry. Bennett College, Saint Augustine’s University and Johnson C. Smith University all faced questions about financial stability, and three years later, only two of the institutions were reaffirmed.

Four UNCF schools are currently on probationary status with SACSCOC and the Higher Learning Commission; Bethune-Cookman University, Fisk University, Paine College and Wilberforce University. All face varying levels of debt and revenue solvency, with some positioned to be removed from sanction, and others bracing for the worst.

Those seven schools make up 18 percent of UNCF’s total membership. Collectively, they each have earned more coverage for their struggles than for their considerable gains in preparing students for extraordinary success in their careers and personal lives. Without accreditation, it is not clear if they can even remain as UNCF member schools, and eligible for fund sharing for scholarships and special programs.

And over these three years of financial turmoil for both the UNCF headquarters and its vulnerable member schools, the advocacy organization has made invaluable headway in partnership with the U.S. Congress and the Trump Administration.

Loan payments for three UNCF schools nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina were forgiven outright. Eight member schools received six-year loan payment deferments and had nearly $1 million in a previously paid installment returned. UNCF applauded the federal government for a number of initiatives to expand funding for capital preservation, and federal appropriations.

But it wasn’t enough to spare two member schools from losing accreditation in three years, or enough to help several other member schools avoid mounting debt and falling numbers of students.

So Dr. Lomax and UNCF tried the next best approach of reframing the narrative on HBCUs with the 2017 release of its national HBCU economic impact study. That project generated buzz, but its incomplete view of black colleges as true economic drivers created unintended consequences of revealing just how far behind our schools are in the higher education industry.

The view was so incomplete in fact, that other schools like Morgan State University and Central State University published their own economic impact studies, which showcased more detailed elements of HBCUs creating jobs, wealth and civic progress than UNCF’s report.

Two years later, UNCF unveiled its inaugural ‘State of the HBCU Address,’ which, as a list mostly comprised of demands and hopes for the private HBCU sub-sector rather than a report on its successes and value, included an attack on accreditors and their alleged inequitable treatment of HBCUs.

A day ago it was all a bit confusing. Why would one of the most powerful men in all of higher education, and a leading advocate for historically black colleges blame accreditation as a source of what ails HBCUs? But now it all makes sense; for all that Dr. Lomax and his team at UNCF have done in the form of legislative lobbying, fundraising, advocacy and promotion of HBCU value, they are still losing money. Their member schools are losing students and money. Investors and donors are losing patience, and lawmakers are losing confidence.

What else could he do, any of us do, other than accuse the system of being rigged against black colleges? What better way to arouse the racial and social sensibilities of active and latent HBCU stakeholders than to allege a wide-ranging conspiracy from accreditors to take out our schools?

Never mind that a majority of HBCUs are in good accreditation standing and have been for years, never mind that beauty schools across the country with far fewer students and far less complex missions are fully accredited by the same agencies. And never mind that if the U.S. Department of Education could have its way, there would be virtually no oversight to determine if HBCUs were operating with fiscal integrity or stability.

That could mean that a college could go out of business nearly instantly, leaving students and faculty helpless in their academic and professional next steps.

It makes sense that UNCF, after all of its hard work, would revert to a PR strategy to cultivate attention and support for black colleges. And while the strategy and execution could be a little stronger, there’s no shame in the organization doing all it can to keep itself and its member schools alive.

After all, if it worked to help elect a historically despised U.S. president, then surely it can help some small, black liberal arts colleges, right?