HBCU Moves: Seven Questions for Mildred Whittier, Spelman College Alumna and Fundraiser

Mildred Whittier, Spelman Alumna and WFGF co-founder

In recent weeks, in response to the Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative action, we’ve been looking at how funders might respond, where they fell short in the first place and how philanthropy can keep up the fight for racial equity in higher education. For my part, I’ve looked at some of the top Black donors to HBCUs today and how they might continue supporting these institutions going forward. For more insight, I spoke with Mildred Whittier, one of the Spelman College alumnae behind Women for Golden Futures (WFGF), a $1 million-plus fundraising effort launched by the class of 1974 to mark their upcoming 50th anniversary.

Spelman, a private, historically Black women’s college in Atlanta, was founded in 1881 as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary. Spelman received its collegiate charter in 1924. Its alumnae include Stacey Abrams, Alice Walker, Marian Wright Edelman and Keshia Knight Pulliam, aka Rudy Huxtable from “The Cosby Show.”

I thought this would be a good time to catch up with Whittier, find out more about WFGF and the overall state of fundraising at HBCUs, and whether she sees more HBCU alums rallying to support their alma maters.

Here are some excerpts from that discussion, which have been edited for clarity.

Tell me a bit about yourself and your professional background.

OK, so I’m a native of San Antonio. Grew up and went to the public schools. Finished there and went to Spelman, where I majored in math. Left Spelman and became part of a program with Price Waterhouse where they were attempting to make public accountants out of liberal arts majors. So I spent a summer at Cornell University taking nothing but accounting courses for 11 weeks and then started working with Price Waterhouse’s Boston office. But as number oriented as I am coming out of a math major, public accounting just was not for me. So I decided to go to grad school (at Northwestern) where I got my MBA in finance. Spent a number of years at what was then Continental Bank, soon acquired by Sanwa Bank. Worked in the finance area of Allstate Life Insurance Company. Went to Dallas, where my family was at the time, and worked for what was known as Electronic Data Systems, soon acquired by Hewlett Packard. Left EDS and got hired by Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Then I retired.

And were you involved with Spelman all the way through? When did you first start getting involved with your college?

Actually recently. Well, I’ve been donating over the years. But to tell you the truth, there was this idea that turned into a team of two, a team of four, and is now a team of six. Women for Golden Futures (WFGF) attracted me because of the uniqueness of the fundraising opportunity. Interestingly enough, when I was at Spelman, I started out in math, went to German, and then came back to math. So I ended up actually graduating in ‘75. But I had affinity for my original class of ‘74. I rejoined them in 2019, which has been truly inspiring and wonderful, getting back in contact with my classmates. So here I am today, working on this initiative. And it has been a joy to work with the team that we’re on and get it moving forward.

Walk me through some of the backgrounds of some of the other women you’re working with for this fund. And why were you all inspired to come together like this now?

We've got an educator. We've got another individual who is in finance, and she's been in that arena for a while. We also have a woman who is a therapist. And there's McGhee Osse, who is head of Burrell Communications, and serves as co-chair of the fund. So it's a variety of women that bring different skills to this project, which really makes it work.

Now is the time. The 50th year is the most, I guess, magical of all the reunion years. We are older now. There's a reason to celebrate and talk about what we experienced and what Spelman brought to the table for us all. The 50th is biggest and that's where you want to make the biggest impact. There is tremendous energy. It all started with us. So we’re trying to get to the launch, which should occur within a few days, if not weeks. And we’re working with all of the contacts that we know to garner the support that we need to make this successful. It’s our goal to hit a million dollars. And we have quite a few resources that we’ll tap to try to make that happen.

What are some of the projects you hope to engage in through the funds raised with WFGF?

We have a dual focus: The Women for Golden Futures Scholarship and the Student Support Fund. What we’ve seen is there is a large percentage of young ladies that suffer financially, and that’s driven by their need for food, transportation, housing, and even some are suffering from mental issues as a result of having lost their job or losing a loved one to the pandemic. So there are a lot of needs for things other than just tuition which our scholarship fund could potentially cover. What we’re finding is that, without financial resources, students are either taking on loads of debt or leaving school before they graduate. So what we’re trying to do is make sure they make it through that four-year period with ease.

We talk about the fundraising gap between HBCUs and other institutions. What do you think HBCUs can do overall to better raise funds and engage these kinds of projects?

Spelman has been involved in helping us get the infrastructure in place that would capture these funds and that’s been really important. We are part of the donation page on their website. They’ve worked with us to make sure things operate properly.

What we’ve seen over the years in the shortcomings of the funds is that HBCUs, at least in my view, lack funding for some of the administrative costs. When you look around the country at the various HBCUS, of which me, my family and my ancestors are products of, there’s always been a gap. And it’s usually been the gap on the administrative side. Because you see millions of dollars coming into the colleges, but they’re earmarked for certain programs. So that limits the college’s ability to do some of the administrative work they need.

I just did a piece on the different Black donors supporting HBCUs. Do you think the recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action could maybe influence more of these efforts and more alumni to start really giving back to HBCUs?

That's what I would anticipate. What I've seen in some articles I've read is that [there are signs] that attendance at HBCUs will increase as a result of that ruling. And when we’re looking at more applications coming in to HBCUs, this gives rise to the need for more funding. So I think that at this point, funding and fundraising will be very critical for the HBCU going forward.

Tell me a bit about your own experience at Spelman. What was it like being in that space for your undergraduate years?

I was in college during the ‘70s. There was a lot with Black power and enabling Black people to move beyond some of the limitations [imposed]. It was a beautiful experience for me. I went to high school in Texas with cowboys and what they called surfers. So I started my fight early on for equality. I went to Spelman because of our family legacy. A lot of relatives, a lot of our cousins had gone through Spelman and [we] had a couple of them as well at Morehouse. But I got to the campus and I was just overwhelmed with the brilliance that existed in that environment. There were just so many brilliant Black people that I was exposed to, including my professors. And so it was just a beautiful experience from that perspective.