Education

UNCF Chief Touts HBCUs in Landmark Speech

The leader of one of the nation’s premier organizations designed to support and advocate on behalf of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) said that those institutions are thriving despite dealing with daunting challenges and Congress should aid them in their mission.

Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), delivered the first annual State of the HBCU address on Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill hotel. During his 30-minute address with an audience that included HBCUs presidents, Lomax said the institutions he serves are known to bounce back from adversity.

“HBCUs are resilient,” Lomax said to an audience of 150. “In spite of the obstacles and barriers, the under-investment and devaluation, we continue our mission of educating African American students and we produce against the odds. Despite the challenges, we persist for our students, communities and for our nation.”

The UNCF, founded in 1944, turns 75 this year. It has 37 member institutions ranging from Spelman College — the highest-ranking predominantly Black school, according to U.S. News & World Report — to Bennett College, which presently has financial and accreditation issues. The UNCF also gives scholarships to students who attend HBCUs and for those that don’t.

Lomax noted this year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia and pointed out that Harvard University, long a model of higher education throughout the world, began operations in 1636. He said Cheney University of Pennsylvania, the first Black college, got started in 1837 and that institutions such as Harvard have almost insurmountable advantages over HBCUs.

“Harvard and other institutions like it thrived off of enslaved labor for their benefit,” he said. “It would be 201 years before Blacks could receive a higher education and Harvard and those like it have a strong head start and that means something.”

In a larger sense, Lomax said the challenges of HBCUs are a reflection of American society.

“Thirty-three percent of the college resources are possessed by 10 of the wealthiest universities,” he said. “Not one is an HBCU. It is a mirror image of the country’s wealth gap.”

Lomax has served as the president of Dillard University in New Orleans and has taught at Spelman and Morehouse Colleges. Residents of the Atlanta area elected him as chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioner, becoming the first Black to serve in that position.

In his remarks, Lomax complimented the past 115th Congress for increasing funding for Black colleges by $109 million but said he expects more from the new group of lawmakers who took office in January.

“We cannot be complacent, we still have to catch up with those institutions that had the head start,” he said. “Our expectations are to lead, not follow.”

Lomax wants Congress to put $100 million in Title 3, Part B programs, address deferred maintenance and infrastructure concerns at HBCUs, set up a $1 billion infrastructure investment fund and double the money for Pell Grants for working-class students. In addition, he would like the Congress to look into the practices of the higher education accrediting agency in the South that tends to deal with HBCUs harsher than other schools, saying that it focused too much on enrollment size and finances instead of the quality of education despite the lack of resources.

He ended his speech with the UNCF’s famous slogan: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) delivered remarks basically supporting the mission of the UNCF and HBCUs. Both senators are on the bipartisan list of the HBCU Congressional Score Card that consists of 10 percent of their chamber and 40 members of the House of Representatives, mainly members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), the co-founder of the Congressional HBCU Caucus, said that Black colleges “are here to stay.”

“We will make sure that Black colleges will get the resources that they need,” Adams said. “With Rep. Bobby Scott [D-Va.] as chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, we will investigate the practices of the accrediting agencies and see that money gets to these institutions.”

Lomax said he looks forward to working with the new Democratic-led House as well as the Republican Senate and White House.

“Divided government is good,” he said. “The fact that the CBC has moved into leadership positions in the House is also good. We have worked with every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt and will continue to do so. We follow the motto of ‘no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.'”

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