Back in June, after Reed Hastings and his wife Patty Quillin announced a $120 million commitment to be distributed equally between Spelman and Morehouse Colleges and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), the Netflix founder told the New York Times he hoped that the donation would lead other wealthy individuals to give to HBCUs.
A little over a month later, Forbes reported that MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Jeff Bezos, has given $100 million to six HBCUs over the past several months. The news coincides with Scott’s announcement that she’s donated over $1.7 billion to 116 organizations after asking a team of nonprofit advisors to help her “find and assess organizations having major impact on a variety of causes.”
The recipients include Morehouse College (an undisclosed eight-figure gift), Howard University ($40 million), Hampton University ($30 million); Tuskegee University ($20 million), and Spelman College and Xavier University of Louisiana (unspecified sums). Scott’s gifts to Hampton, Howard and Tuskegee were the largest single gifts in each university’s history. Scott also made donations to the UNCF and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
Scott’s announcement, coupled with the Hastings/Quillin gift, suggests that the idea of HBCUs as engines of economic mobility may finally be reaching critical mass. Better yet, Scott, who is estimated to have a net worth of $57 billion, is only in the opening stages of her plan to give “until the safe is empty.” There’s a good chance that HBCUs will be a major part of her racial justice grantmaking strategy in the years ahead.
A big question will be how Scott and other donors will distribute future HBCU funding. In early July, the Atlanta Voice’s Alton Pitre reported that the Hastings/Quillin gift “sparked much criticism from HBCU students who feel their institutions are excluded from such large gifts often made to the brother and sister institutions.”
“Revaluing the Black Community”
In 2018, when Ronda Stryker and William Johnston made a $30 million donation to Spelman, advocates hoped the commitment would mark an inflection point in which HBCUs would finally begin to reap some of the benefits of the higher ed fundraising boom. Strange as it may sound, it did.
Slowly but surely, HBCUs amassed huge gifts of the type historically relegated to predominantly white institutions. Earlier this year, an optimistic Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at UNCF, said, “You’re starting to see just the precipice of the… renaissance that these institutions can undergo so that students who need this type of investment are receiving it and getting the proper outcomes they deserve.”
Then COVID-19 hit. The crisis disproportionately affected HBCUs, which, given their relatively smaller endowments, have to rely on tuition revenue to cover costs.
The death of George Floyd soon followed. The tragedy and subsequent protests forced the donor community to revalue philanthropy to the black community “because it is revaluing the black community, revaluing the people and the lives,” said UNCF President Michael L. Lomax.
Hastings told the New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin that Floyd’s death was “the straw that broke the camel’s back, I think, for the size of the donation.” Scott, meanwhile, said she “watched the first half of 2020 with a mixture of heartbreak and horror. Life will never stop finding fresh ways to expose inequities in our systems; or waking us up to the fact that a civilization this imbalanced is not only unjust, but also unstable.”
HBCU advocates may feel somewhat disoriented, given these recent developments. For years, they stood despondently by as billions of donor dollars flowed to affluent universities that, in some ways, exacerbated economic inequalities. Now, after a global pandemic and historic social unrest, they find a Giving Pledge signatory making the largest single donations ever to three HBCUs while students argue over which schools should receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tech riches.
Affluence is Relative
On the heels of the Hastings/Quillin gift, Candice Marie Benbow, a Tennessee State University alumna, tweeted, “What would be right is if the presidents of Morehouse and Spelman ask that this gift be split among all HBCUs. In a moment when we’re asking for equity and justice, that would seem the righteous way to go.”
The criticism put Morehouse College President David A. Thomas in the unfamiliar position of arguing that his institution isn’t particularly affluent. “Think of Morehouse as an elite institution when we only compare it to Black institutions,” he said. “But if we compare ourselves with any liberal arts institution that has much impact on this country than Morehouse has, our endowment should be 10 times what it is today.”
Thomas has a point. Swarthmore College, an archetypical liberal arts school that’s about the same size as Morehouse, has a $2.1 billion endowment. Morehouse’s is $150 million.
Here’s how the six recipients of Scott’s funding and Benbow’s alma mater rank by endowment size:
Howard University: $693 million
Spelman College: $391 million
Hampton University: $263 million
Morehouse College: $150 million
Xavier University of Louisiana: $171 million
Tuskegee University: $127 million
Tennessee State University: $51 million
To be clear, “affluent” is a relative term. While these endowments are quite small compared to those of large primarily white institutions, they dwarf the median endowments of HBCUs ($15.7 million) and non-HBCUs ($36.8 million). According to the American Council on Education, approximately 1.6% of the 4,000 public and private nonprofit colleges and universities have endowments exceeding $1 billion.
Morehouse’ Thomas said he understood why students at other HBCUs were concerned about growing financial disparities across the sector, “but I think that’s a question they have to ask the leaders of their institutions.” These leaders, Thomson argued, should use recent high-profile HBCU gifts as an opportunity to approach philanthropists and “make the case for their value proposition and to make it more powerfully—and ask for the level of gifts that those at their institutions need.”