William H. Gray III announced Thursday that he will retire as president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund in March. He has headed the UNCF since 1991.
To say that Gray's leadership will be missed is to understate his success.
When Gray, now 62, took over the UNCF, the major fundraising arm of the nation's private Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the organization was ineffective. Already spending most of their time fundraising, HBCU presidents needed more money to serve the growing number of African-American students - 95 percent of them from needy families - flocking to their campuses.
Gray's predecessor, Christopher Edley, had initiated a $250-million fundraising drive in 1990 that had become stuck in neutral, and most of the presidents were complaining.
Gray's leadership style was felt immediately. His main goal was to streamline operations and make more dollars directly available to students. In 1991, about 80 percent of all black students attending HBCUs were on some kind of federal aid.
One of his first moves was eliminating 40 positions by laying off 25 staffers, many in the New York headquarters, and letting 15 openings go unfilled. Six area offices - Aurora, Colo., Baltimore, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Orlando and Pittsburgh - were shut down.
Other cost-cutting measures were instituted. One of the most controversial was Gray's demand that the schools themselves find ways to reduce their overhead, thus making room for more student aid.
As he cut costs, Gray also sought creative ways to raise new funds, including tapping foundations, private citizens and businesses the organization had not approached before. He secured millions of dollars in in-kind contributions, such as free corporate office space and vehicles.
Some college presidents, accustomed to the old ways of operating, accused Gray of moving too fast. Others, however, argued that Gray was hired precisely because he is a "take charge" kind of guy and because of the vast clout he had established in Washington and in many of the nation's boardrooms.
When selected to head the UNCF, Gray was the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served a Pennsylvania district for 13 years. An influential member of the Congressional Black Caucus, he was viewed as a candidate to become the first black speaker of the House.
Although the UNCF had courted him for several years, Gray had decided, as he said, that his "real currency and clout was in politics."
In many ways, he was right. During his tenure in Washington, he championed higher education for blacks, and his colleagues listened to him. He helped get congressional approval of a special appropriation for HBCUs, an amendment to Title III of the Higher Education Act.
The measure established a special allocation for black colleges that guaranteed a larger chunk of the education budget. The legislation provided direct financing to all historically black schools for the first time in history. As further evidence of Gray's success, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports: "About 70 percent of the $2.2-billion that the UNCF has raised in its 60-year history has been collected during Mr. Gray's tenure.
"One of Mr. Gray's most notable fundraising coups came in 1999, when the fund secured the contract to administer the $1-billion Gates Millennium Scholarship Program. The program was established by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to provide minority students with access to a college education."
Why is Gray leaving the post? "It is now time to retire, spend more time with my family, and conclude my parish ministry," he said. In addition to running the UNCF, Gray has been the pastor of a Philadelphia Baptist church for many years.
Ironically, Gray, the UNCF's best leader ever, is leaving the organization when many of the institutions it funds are facing their toughest economic crises in history. Some notable examples:
* In August, faculty at Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, voted to reject the administration's "best and final" contract offer and authorized their representatives to call a strike.
* To erase a $7.5-million budget deficit, Clark Atlanta University told its 157 nontenured faculty to expect 75 positions to be cut for the 2004-2005 school year. In June, the university fired 53 nonacademic employees.
* Mary Holmes College, in West Point, Miss., which lost its accreditation in April, has temporarily closed for the fall semester. Administrators hope to resume classes next term.
"We need several Bill Grays to replace the one Bill Gray," a Bethune-Cookman College professor said. "He is a politician. He is a fundraiser. He is an administrator. He is a natural-born leader. He is a gifted preacher. He is our number one supporter. Where do we start looking?"