Princeton University. SoisudaS/shutterstock
Princeton University. SoisudaS/shutterstock

Princeton University recently announced that it received a $20 million donation from alumni couple Kwanza Jones and José E. Feliciano, earmarked for the construction of two dormitories. The gift will support the school’s plan to expand the undergraduate student body by about 10%—or 125 students per class—and allow it to admit more economically disadvantaged and racially diverse applicants.

Jones is an artist, investor, lawyer and entrepreneur; Feliciano, her husband, is the founder and a managing partner of Clearlake Capital Group, a private investment firm based in Santa Monica. The university will rename the two new dorms after the pair, who signed the gift agreement during the THRIVE conference, an event in 2019 celebrating Princeton’s Black alumni. The commitment is the largest gift to Princeton to date by Black and Latino donors.

It also comes at a time when campuses are battlegrounds, as they often are, on issues of racism and opportunity—facing both demands for greater inclusiveness and attacks from conservatives over race-based admissions policies. Princeton announced the gift not long after President Christopher Eisgruber issued a statement of contrition and plans to combat the legacy of systemic racism at the school, which triggered an odd investigation from the Trump administration.

We’ve devoted extensive coverage to the idea that funders are unwittingly exacerbating inequality by supporting affluent institutions with poor track records of boosting economic mobility. The pandemic, which has pushed less affluent community colleges and historically Black colleges and universities to the brink, has added greater urgency to this argument. Meanwhile, it also seemed as though the pandemic could force funders to question the wisdom of expensive construction projects, and even the residential model itself.

The gift from Jones and Feliciano threads this needle, suggesting that alumni will still cut a check for hefty construction projects to elite schools—if it boosts the institution’s ranks of diverse and low-income students.

“We see this gift as the color of commitment,” Jones said. “It demonstrates that people of color belong in the room and sit at the same table as patrons and co-creators to help the university to continue to do the work of service to humanity. Most importantly, during this time of national reckoning on race and racial injustice, it highlights the benefits that diversity, inclusion and belonging can bring.”

An “Open Love Letter”

Jones was raised in the Washington, D.C., area and started her singing career after performing and winning amateur night at the Apollo Theater while attending Princeton. After graduating in 1993, she went on to found SUPERCHARGED, a media company that specializes in self-development, and was a mediator for the New York City Civil Court. She serves on the board of directors for the Susan G. Komen organization and the board of trustees of Bennett College, a historically black liberal arts college for women.

In mid-June, Jones penned an “open love letter” to Eisgruber and Vice President for Advancement Kevin Heaney, calling on Princeton to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, the residential college, and other campus buildings. (In 2016, administrators rejected demands from students, alumni and faculty to remove Wilson’s name, and instead created an installation to explore the former president’s “complex legacy.”)

“Princeton University is not diminished by removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from its buildings,” Jones’ letter read. “Instead, Princeton is strengthened because of it.”

On June 27, Princeton announced the Woodrow Wilson School will be renamed the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. In addition, Wilson College, which had been scheduled for retirement after the completion of the two new residential colleges, will be known as First College for the remaining duration of its time as a residential facility.

Envisioning a More Inclusive Princeton

Feliciano left Puerto Rico at 17 and was a member of Princeton’s class of 1994 before going on to work at Goldman Sachs, where he was mentored by Robert F. Smith, and subsequently worked at Tennenbaum Capital Group.

He founded Clearlake Capital Group in 2006. The firm currently has approximately $25 billion in assets under management. He serves on numerous corporate boards, including as chairman of the board for Janus International, as well as nonprofit boards such as the Robert Toigo Foundation and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization. Forbes pegs his net worth at $2.1 billion.

In 2014, Jones and Feliciano co-founded the Kwanza Jones & José E. Feliciano SUPERCHARGED Initiative, a philanthropic grantmaking and investment organization focusing on education, entrepreneurship, equity  and empowerment. In 2019, the couple made a $1 million gift to Bennett College, from which Jones’ mother, aunt and other family members graduated. That gift, wrote Forbes’ Antoine Gara, was “a crucial part of a funding drive that helped keep the school open.”

Commenting on the $20 million gift to Princeton, Feliciano said he and Jones were “especially encouraged by the recent announcement by President Eisgruber and the university to continue making Princeton a more inclusive destination to all deserving students, including the commitment to collect data and report on the university’s progress in an annual diversity, equity and inclusion report.”

Feliciano alluded to action items cited from Eisgruber’s September 2 open letter on the university’s efforts to “develop plans to combat systemic racism at Princeton and beyond.” Racism and oppression, Eisgruber wrote, persist at Princeton, “sometimes by conscious intention.”

Eisgruber’s acknowledgement caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Education. In mid-September, it informed the school it was under investigation for violating the Civil Rights Act, arguably a move by the Trump administration to needle the school over its recognition of the legacy of racism in academia. The investigation follows a series of efforts by the administration to end race-based admission policies at Ivy League schools.

“Our People Belong”

Elite schools have long refused to expand their undergraduate student bodies out of fear that it would erode their exclusive brands. Princeton’s board, however, called for the expansion of the undergraduate student body by 125 students per class—or 500 in total—back in 2016. Eisgruber said he hoped the plan would allow Princeton to “admit more talented students from every sector of society.”

Two years later, billionaire businessman Ron Perelman and his daughter Debra, chief executive officer and president of Revlon Inc., gave the school $65 million to support the expansion plan and “create a more diverse and inclusive campus,” Perelman said.

The two new residential colleges are scheduled to open in time for the 2022–23 academic year. One of the colleges will be named Perelman College, in recognition of the Perelman gift and the first college at Princeton named after a Jewish person. The other college remains unnamed, according to the Daily Princetonian’s Marie-Rose Sheinerman.

If Princeton adds approximately 125 more students per year, and 24% of them hail from Pell Grant families, its expansion would admit an additional 30 low-income families per year. This may not sound like a lot of students, but it represents progress for a school where, as of 2017, the median family income of a student was $186,100, and 72% hailed from the top 20% income bracket.

Equity advocates would nonetheless argue that Jones and Felicianos’ $20 million—which, to be clear, is earmarked for the construction of dorms and not financial aid—could benefit more students if the money went to struggling HBCUs or community colleges that aren’t sitting on $26 billion endowments.

In addition, Princeton continues to grant legacy preference to applicants on the basis of their familial relationship to alumni and alumni donors. On July 4, over 350 Princeton faculty members urged the school’s leadership to take “anti-racist action,” including a “reconsideration of legacy admissions.”

Jones and Feliciano are no doubt familiar with these arguments and decided to support Princeton anyway. But it’s worth pointing out again that the couple did give Bennett College $1 million to keep it solvent while also working to ensure that Black and Latino students are more welcome at their alma mater.

“One of the reasons José and I committed more than $20 million to Princeton was in support of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Jones wrote in her letter calling for the removal of Wilson’s name. “Another reason we contributed more than $20 million was to demonstrate that underrepresented people of color, whether Black, brown, or otherwise, that these people, our people… belong.”

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