Five Important Details on Robert Smith’s Historic Morehouse Gift

Philanthropist and tech billionaire Robert F. Smith promised yesterday to pay off the student loans of Morehouse College’s 2019 graduating class. Here are five elements of this historic story which may have been missed in the money and the moment.

5. Largest Donation in HBCU History – Paying off the loan debt of more than 400 black male college graduates runs a price tag of about $40 million according to some estimates. If Smith gives that gift to the college to satisfy the payments on behalf of the graduates, it will be the largest gift ever donated to an HBCU, and will exceed the previous records of Rhonda Stryker’s December 2018 gift of $30 million and Bill and Camille Cosby’s 1988 gift of $20 million — both to Spelman College.

4. The Billion-Dollar Morehouse Commercial – Morehouse just got mentions in virtually all of the nation’s major publications and was among the world’s most searched topics for a brief period yesterday afternoon according to Google search statistics. In theory, not alone did Smith give Morehouse graduates millions of dollars, he gave the college at large billions in free advertising.

3. It Was All Bad Just Two Years Ago… – It seems ages ago that Morehouse College was in executive upheaval, but it was only April 2017 that former president John Silvanus Wilson and members of the school’s executive board resigned after years of controversy over leadership, politics, and finances.

2. …And It Didn’t Take Long to Turn Good – It was just over a year ago that former Georgetown University McDonough School of Business Dean David Thomas was installed as Morehouse President. It’s been less than a year since he publicly shared his vision for building the school’s endowment and strategy for sharing the essential nature of the Morehouse legacy in the fabric of American life.

1. All HBCUs Win as a Result of Morehouse’s Historic Moment – There are conversations we can have about an elite institution receiving a transformative gift while smaller schools continue to struggle, or about how not enough ultra-rich black folks have pulled the trigger on similar public gifts. But the foundation for all of those conversations is that a gift like this promotes the idea that HBCUs are valuable for the rich and not-so-rich to support in powerful ways, and that a sea change in philosophy about HBCUs can be shared among the highest levels of affluence in the nation. In less than a year, Morehouse and Spelman College have received more than $70 million in gifts from two donors. Are more on the way beyond the orbit of elite historically black private institutions? We can only hope.

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