Out of nearly 700 active contracts awarded by a big college purchasing co-op in Massachusetts, only 14 — or 2 percent — went to minority-owned businesses certified by the state, a GBH News analysis has found.
About 120 colleges belong to the Massachusetts Higher Education Consortium, which was founded in 1975 to leverage bulk purchases of commonly used items to negotiate better prices. Member institutions issue other contracts outside the consortium, for example, for construction, technology, and accounting and legal services.
GBH News was unable to determine the total dollar amount of the co-op's 698 active contracts or whether some were awarded to minority-owned businesses certified in other states. But the apparently paltry level of business it does with such companies generally reflects the purchasing practices of individual colleges in Massachusetts, despite their longstanding embrace of diversity and inclusion as part of their missions, based on interviews with colleges leaders and advocates of minority contracting.
“We really should be staggered by the paucity in the numbers that we're seeing from universities,” said Alex Greenaway, managing director of the Greater New England Minority Supplier Diversity Council, which is based in New Haven, Connecticut.
Ever since Lee Pelton took over as Emerson College’s president nine years ago, he’s been trying to increase the diversity of companies the private school in Boston does business with.
“There's a racial wealth gap in this country, and we believe that minority development can reduce this gap and its negative effects,” he said.
Pelton acknowledged he has not been able to make much progress so far. Emerson has added a couple of businesses — cleaning and security companies — but currently just 3 percent of the school's contract dollars go to Black- or Hispanic-owned businesses. That’s not nearly enough to make a difference in racial-ethnic disparities in wealth, he said.
“We know that the Federal Bank in Boston said that the median net worth of a white family is about $247,000 and $8 for an American-born Black family,” Pelton said. “And we know that minority-owned businesses generate economic output not only directly, but also by buying goods and services from other businesses.”
Greenaway said only seven colleges, including Bentley and Harvard, participate in the council’s program that matches minority companies with vendors. He is looking to add more because in New England universities are trendsetters.
“It starts with the admissions, but it doesn't end there,” he said. “It also should be translated in the contracts and the way that they do business.”
Why is it so hard for colleges to expand their contracting with minority-owned businesses?
“When we think about the history of business in this country, systems were set up from the inception to be able to service one group at the expense of another,” Greenaway said.
To break that cycle, he said colleges need to make minority contracting a priority. “These things don't happen unless someone is truly committed to it, and it has to be from the top,” he explained.
The council isn’t alone in urging colleges to make diversifying their vendors a priority. The City of Boston is also working to match local minority-owned businesses with colleges, building relationships between buyers and vendors.
“It's not just building the relationship, but preparing vendors to compete for opportunities,” said Celina Barrios-Millner, the city’s director of equity and inclusion.
Barrios-Millner says the city government and Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce have been holding contracting clinics for minority-owned businesses.
“[We’re] walking them through, ‘Here's what we look for. Here's common pitfalls. Here's a response time we need,’” she said.
So far, the city has had limited results. Barrios-Millner is actively looking to partner with private colleges because they have more money and more freedom since they’re not bound by government contracting rules. “The private ones can really choose to invest and have a lot more say in who they select,” she said.
That’s, in part, why Pelton wants other private colleges in Massachusetts to reach out to businesses owned by people of color and to support their local supply chain, a proposition he first mentioned on GBH’s Basic Black. He’s planning to send a letter to college presidents by the end of the year.
“The presidents and chancellors of the small- and medium-sized colleges and universities never wake up in the morning thinking, ‘Ah, let me give some thought to my procurement office and activities.’ It's probably the last thing on their mind,” he said.
While some colleges, including Bentley and Northeastern, have recently committed to a roadmap, Pelton admits it has been hard to gain traction during the pandemic and economic downturn when budgets are so tight.
Besides colleges, other nonprofits belong to the Massachusetts Higher Education Consortium. There are a total of about 2,000 members, including GBH.
In a statement to GBH News, Erin Callanan, GBH’s director of media relations, said the educational foundation can’t speak for the consortium, adding, “GBH makes purchases through a number of different sources.”
“As part of our ongoing efforts with diversity, equity and inclusion we are refocusing on how our workplace and business practices can be more inclusive, including our relationship with outside vendors,” Callanan said.
A spokeswoman for the purchasing consortium did not offer an explanation for its low level of contracting with minority-owned businesses.
"I don't know why I can't answer the question. Why so few? I don't know," said Nicole Miller, the consortium's director of marketing and communications.
GBH News' Paul Singer and Diane Adame contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the number of years Lee Pelton has been president of Emerson. Pelton has been president since July 2011.