Lomax, Michael L.
Michael L. Lomax
Association executive, college president
Aversatile man who appears to have been groomed early on for the life he led in later years, Michael L. Lomax has been a leader in politics, arts, and education. As a political leader, Lomax was the first African American to lead a major county government in Georgia, having become chair of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners. As a patron of the arts and arts administrator, he founded the world-class National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta. As a teacher, he enhanced the education of hundreds of students in colleges and universities in Atlanta and Athens, Georgia. As an educational leader, he headed and strengthened historically black Dillard University. Through his position as president and chief executive office of the United Negro College Fund, Lomax continues his support of historically black colleges and universities and their students, faculties, and leaders.
Born in Los Angeles on October 2, 1947, Michael Lucius Lomax and his family relocated from Los Angeles to Atlanta in 1964. When he was only sixteen years old, Lomax enrolled in Morehouse College, a historically black college for men in Atlanta, Georgia. He excelled there, graduating in 1968 magna cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in English and membership in Phi Beta Kappa. He continued his studies at Columbia University where he was awarded a master of arts degree in English literature. Later, he enrolled in Emory University and in 1984 received a Ph.D. in American and Afro-American literature.
By the 1970s Lomax had become interested in public service and began his work in that area in Atlanta. The posts that he held early on included director of research and special assistant to Mayor Maynard Jackson. He became speechwriter for Jackson in 1973, during Jackson's first campaign for mayor of Atlanta. From 1975 to 1978, Lomax was director of parks, libraries, and cultural and international affairs for Atlanta. He was successful in his bid for a seat on Fulton County's Board of Commissioners in 1978. His interest in the arts led to his success in sponsoring legislation in 1979 to create the Fulton County Arts Council. Continuing service on the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, from 1981 to 1993 he served as its chair. In that post, he was responsible for a healthy operating budget of $500 million. He also oversaw some five thousand employees. Lomax worked with others to bring the 1988 Democratic National Convention to Atlanta, and he also spoke at the convention. Then he played a role in the success of the 1996 Olympics, which were held in Atlanta. To meet the needs of a growing community, he spearheaded several major construction projects, such as building Georgia's Interstate 400, a major highway on the outskirts of Atlanta; expanding and renovating the historic Grady Hospital; and building the new Fulton County government center.
Although he was too young to participate in a meaningful way in the sit-ins and marches that occurred during the civil rights movement, Lomax was a college student in Atlanta as the movement subsided and racial segregation began to give way. The experiences left their mark on him; thus, by the time he decided to run for public office, he looked back at the civil rights movement and recognized that he had a legacy to fill. "I was old enough to be a part of the revolution which really realized the goals of the civil rights movement," he told John D. Thomas for Emory Magazine. "There was never any question in my mind that I would do that. It was an extraordinary period when the first black mayor got elected in a major Southern city," he said in reference to Maynard H. Jackson who, on January 7, 1974, became Atlanta's mayor. "And I was the first African American to lead a major county government in Georgia. So there was the sense of the compulsion of history," he said.
John D. Thomas for Emory Magazine wrote that Lomax "led a grueling double life," referring to his exhaustive schedule as the top elected official in the state's largest and most populated area—Fulton County—as he taught literature at Morehouse College, Spelman College, Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Georgia. Sometimes he carried a full teaching load. Lomax told Thomas: "It was an eighteen-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week effort, and it was very difficult to keep in balance." From a classroom with thirty people, he would "jump in a car, and go preside over a public hearing that might have three hundred people screaming and yelling about taxes or some zoning issue," he said. After teaching for twenty years, he left the classroom in 1989 for a new position at Dillard and a quieter life.
Lomax made an outstanding contribution to the arts as well as to politics, becoming a staunch supporter of the National Black Arts Festival (NBAF), which he founded in 1988, becoming its founding chair. In Emory Magazine, Dwight D. Andrews, a professor of music at Emory and artistic director of the festival, is quoted as saying: "His understanding of the power and potential of art as a vehicle for building a strong community has been a benefit to us all." Lomax had great vision, foresight, and commitment to black arts; therefore, he easily nurtured the NBAF as it became the world's largest and most comprehensive showcase of African Diaspora arts. In addition, Lomax's involvement of local government helped to strengthen the city's cultural and educational environment overall.
Lomax was twice an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Atlanta, first in 1989 against Maynard Jackson and again in 1993 against Bill Campbell. Lomax left the political arena for good in 1993 and turned his energies back to education. From 1994 to 1997, Lomax was president of the Atlanta-based National Faculty. The National Faculty links scholars in the arts and sciences who are on college and university faculties to teachers from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. By his involvement with the issues then-current in higher education, he was in position to meet leaders of foundations and philanthropies, a relationship that would serve him well later on.
- Born in Los Angeles, California on October 2
- Graduates magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from Morehouse College; later earns M.A. from Columbia University
- Marries Pearl Cleage
- Becomes speech writer for Maynard Jackson's first mayoral campaign
- Directs parks, libraries, and cultural and international affairs for city of Atlanta
- Serves as member at large of the Fulton County Arts Council
- Sponsors legislation to create the Fulton County Arts Council
- Chairs the Fulton County Board of Commissioners
- Receives Ph.D. in African and African American literature from Emory University
- Marries Cheryl Ferguson
- Founds and serves as first chairman, National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta
- Runs unsuccessfully for mayor of Atlanta against Maynard Jackson
- Runs unsuccessfully for mayor of Atlanta against Bill Campbell
- Becomes president of the National Faculty headquartered in Atlanta
- Serves as president of Dillard University in New Orleans
- Becomes president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund
On leaving Atlanta, however, he left an impressive legacy. His name is on sixteen public libraries, and he was the force behind countless Fulton County projects. When asked to comment on his legacy as an Atlanta politician, Lomax told Gary M. Pomerantz for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "Believed in the arts, supported them. Believed in libraries, supported them. Believed in the important role of government and stuck by it. And lived to talk about them all."
Black College Leader
Lomax had long been attracted to leadership positions in historically black colleges. He was an unsuccessful finalist for the presidency of his alma mater, Morehouse College. After that, he was presented with an offer that took him from Atlanta. In search of the best possible presidential candidate to lead the institution, Dillard University in New Orleans named Michael L. Lomax its president; on July 1, 1997, he succeeded Samuel Du Bois Cook in that post. Many Atlantans were unhappy to see one of its most distinguished citizens go. "What a pity it is for Atlanta to lose him," wrote Colin Campbell for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Lomax sought the college presidency of a historically black institution, located in a city, and possessing a solid financial base. Dillard, one of the premier small, black, liberal arts colleges in the South, met these criteria. The school enjoyed a rich history. It was founded in 1935 when the financially strapped Straight University merged with New Orleans University to create an academically and fiscally healthier academic institution. Strait had been one of seven institutions founded shortly after the Civil War by the American Missionary Association for the express purpose of educating African American students; their charters prescribed a racial mix of students. These schools and other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) became the first producers of this country's black educated, professional, and leadership class. In his "Testimony Before the House Subcommittee on Twenty-first Century Competitiveness and Select Education," Lomax mentioned such black luminaries as Ruth Simmons, a Dillard alumna and now president of Brown University, and Martin Luther King Jr., a Morehouse graduate. He challenged others to invest in education, saying that education is the most important single investment one can make, telling Colin Campbell for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that people who talk about apologizing for slavery could do something better—offer better schooling for blacks. "The 40 acres and a mule should be traded in for a four-year college scholarship," he said.
His interest in HBCUs may have grown out of a familial relationship with these institutions. The Lomax family had been educated at HBCUs over a period of one hundred and thirty years. Michael Lomax saw the HBCUs in a positive light and believed in their importance in society. They played an important role in the future of black Americans and the shaping of the United States. The private ones in particular "are experiencing a renaissance," he told John D. Thomas for Emory Magazine. He saw a resurging interest among students in the HBCUs. He believed that educators finally realized that there is "no cookie-cutter education in America" and that people require different approaches to education. "An experience which celebrates their racial heritage at the same time that it introduces students to a rigorous academic environment" worked well at Dillard and other places as well.
On assuming the presidency, Lomax took with him what he called a small "Atlanta mafia," including people who had worked with him in Fulton County and on the Atlanta Olympics. Lomax undertook an ambitious repositioning at Dillard as he challenged his new academic and development teams to assist him in re-imagining and reinventing Dillard's role as an HBCU. He wanted the team to continue to honor and respect the tradition and excellence that the school had known in the past, and his approach to leadership was student-focused. Lomax's first initiative was an aggressive multi-million-dollar renovation program. This initiative resulted in the building of the first new academic facility the college had seen since 1993—the Dillard University International Center for Economic Freedom. Seeing that the living and learning environment needed to change, he was determined to find ways to do this, such as to build more residence halls and classrooms. His primary goal, however, was to build a more qualitative than quantitative Dillard. He sought to increase the school's endowment from about $45 million to over $100 million, by the time of his then-undetermined departure. He successfully tripled giving from alumni, individuals, corporations, and foundations.
Lomax wanted no excuses of racial heritage as a reason for underdevelopment. He wanted Dillard's students to be competitive; they should come well prepared but leave exceptionally trained. Lomax recruited a strong faculty to enhance an academic program already regarded as excellent. His leadership brought nearly a 44 percent increase in enrollment, reaching 2,225 students from across the nation, the Caribbean, and Africa. Increasingly, Dillard's students were academically competitive as they came with strong high school grade point averages and high scores on standardized tests. From Dillard they went on to earn advanced degrees at some of the country's best universities. By 2002, the U.S. News & World Report rated Dillard twentieth in the top tier of comprehensive colleges of the South.
Heads Historic United Negro College Fund
Michael Lomax has a compassion for the HBCUs, as expressed in his writings and demonstrated in his service to black higher education as teacher and college president. He showcased his interest in a policy paper on "African Americans, Education, and Opportunities." He cited black abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass who said, "education is the pathway from slavery to freedom" and concluded that black people must find a way to the pathway or make one themselves. Part of "making our own way," Lomax wrote, is to continue to support the HBCUs' important role of producing leaders. "Here, the record is clear, that HBCUs have been the most effective institutions in the academy in producing black college graduates." To him, diversity in U.S. institutions of higher education means also "making sure that these institutions do not merely survive but prosper." This way "they will continue to be a part of the American higher educational landscape that serves an array of different needs differently."
It was perhaps Lomax's views on the HBCUs as much as his stellar record in Atlanta and at Dillard that caught the eye of officials at the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). After seven years as president of Dillard University, Lomax became the ninth president of the United Negro College Fund, immediately succeeding William H. Gray III, who headed the organization for almost thirteen years. He was appointed in February 2004 and took office in June of that year as president and as chief executive officer of UNCF, whose headquarters are located in Fairfax, Virginia.
Lomax, who according to the biography on his website at Dillard University is "as comfortable in the classroom as the board room," and the UNCF were an easy fit. UNCF is the nation's oldest and most successful organization that assists African American higher education. Established in 1944 by presidents of private HBCUs, it aids in educating more than 65,000 students each year. There are thirty-eight member schools in the organization; the schools receive funds for advanced training for their administrators and faculties. To some, Lomax was groomed for his new post from his career as a college student. His foundation was set at an HBCU, and he built on that foundation both by advancing his education and by going back to the HBCUs to teach and to serve as chief officer. He also had a well-founded career as educator, politician, and fundraiser/volunteer.
Lomax took the helm of the UNCF as it celebrated its sixtieth anniversary amid major challenges to higher education for black Americans. For Ebony magazine, Lomax identified them as "the triple threat of an Affirmative Action backlash in higher education, an economic downturn poised to dwindle major corporate contributions, and the continuing debate over the role and the significance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in an 'integrated educational' era." Notwithstanding his concerns, Lomax was firm about what he saw as the continued role of the black colleges. They had educated the "Martin Luther Kings, Thurgood Marshalls, and Toni Morrisons" when other colleges refused them. He still saw them as having an indispensable role of preparing thousands of young people for a place in the world of work who would not receive a college degree were it not for the HBCUs.
Lomax came to UNCF with admitted apprehension. At first a little overwhelmed by the underlying significance of his new position, he told Ebony magazine, "It's a deep honor on the one hand and a little scary on the other because this is a tremendous responsibility." But clearly Lomax was equal to the task and soon set ambitious goals in the area of fundraising for UNCF. He wasted no time in declaring that, over the next ten years, he wanted the UNCF endowment to reach $1 billion. No other institution in the country that concentrates its energies on the African American community has such an ambitious goal. He wants the African American community to demonstrate to the world and to the UNCF that they can build and manage a billion-dollar operation.
Lomax has an additional role at UNCF. He chairs the Board of the United Negro College Fund Special Programs Corporation (UNCFS)—an organization that supports colleges and universities and helps them to build relationships and establish partnerships with the federal government and other organizations as well. By the time Lomax began his tenure at the organization, UNCF was administering some 450 programs that included the "Gates Millennium Scholars Program" under a $1 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With the Gates grant, Lomax and the UNCF intended to address the digital divide that Lomax referred to in his testimony to the House Subcommittee on twenty-first century competitiveness. He wrote that the term "represents something distinct to us as an HBCU." For example, the technology gap seen on HBCU campuses "is a visible reminder of the unresolved legacy of separate but equal systems of education." At Dillard, he knew the importance of incorporating advanced technology in the classroom and noted Dillard's collaboration with the University of Colorado at Boulder to share course materials and classroom activities through distance learning technology. He noted the financial problems of black schools as they "are challenged to keep up with the steady torrent of upgrades that give students the competitive edge in the career world." In coming to UNCF, Lomax remained committed to increasing access to technology for the students and faculty of HBCUs.
As head of UNCF, Lomax chairs the UNCF Advisory Board for the Frederick D. Patterson Institute. An email from his office to the author described the Patterson Institute as "the first African American-led research institute in the country to design, conduct, analyze, interpret and disseminate research to the public, policymakers, and educators."
Because of his role in the arts, Lomax became a board member of the Studio Museum of Harlem and a member of the Council of National Museum of African American History and Culture. His board memberships include Emory University, the Carter Center of Emory University, the United Way, Teach America, Foxfire in Atlanta, and the Amistad Research Center. President George W. Bush appointed him to the President's Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
In 1969 Lomax married Pearl Cleage, later well-known as a poet and playwright; five years later their daughter Deignan Njeri was born. Divorced in 1979, Lomax married Cheryl Ferguson, a financial manager with Coca-Cola, in 1986. In addition to his daughter Deignan, who graduated from Dillard, Michael and Cheryl Lomax have two daughters—Michele and Rachel. A grandfather as well, Lomax has two grandchildren. Atlanta is still home for Michael Lomax, as he commutes there each weekend; his wife, three daughters, and grandchildren are there as well.
His private life also includes tennis, to which he admits an addiction. He told Ebony magazine that he is "a Venus and Serena groupie." His exercise routine includes a workout four or five days a week. His spare time, which is rare, is spent reading fiction and history. An avid book collector as well, Lomax has over five hundred first-editions of African American works, the oldest of which is a book of slave narratives published in 1850.
While he balances his personal life with the enormous task he has set before him as head of UNCF, Michael Lomax has already demonstrated that he has the tools for success. As he leads UNCF in its continuing mission of enhancing the quality of education for black people, he continuous to demonstrate that he is articulate, a strategic thinker, a strong manager, and a successful fundraiser. Although UNCF keeps him busy, rather than complain, Lomax told the New York Times, "As long as I have breath, a beating heart and working mind I'll be doing it, because after all a mind is a terrible thing to waste."
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