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Multimillion-dollar gift has HBCU leaders envisioning what's possible
Published Monday, February 22, 2021
by Pearl Stewart, Diverse Issues

The word “transformational” was used frequently by leaders of historically Black colleges and universities to describe multimillion-dollar grants they received from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. In most cases, Scott’s gifts to 22 HBCUs, ranging from $4 million for Voorhees College in South Carolina to $50 million for Prairie View A&M University in Texas, were the largest individual gifts those institutions had ever received.

Higher education leaders say the impact of these unrestricted gifts will be felt for generations and change the lives of students, faculty, staff and communities. “One of the issues our HBCUs have is that they often don’t have the endowments that some of the other institutions have, so that when they get into financial trouble they don’t have something on which to fall back,” says Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. The SACSOC is the regional accrediting organization serving many of the HBCU recipients of Scott’s gifts.

“Many of the HBCUs are also enrollment-driven so when enrollment decreases it puts them in a financial bind.” Wheelan explains that for accreditation purposes, “this is one of the challenges they have in meeting our financial stability standards, so [these gifts] should help keep them out of trouble.”

Bowie State President Aminta Breaux, right, which received $25 million, says the funds will have “a huge impact” on all the institutions involved. “This gift underscores the urgent need for support of higher education for marginalized communities, as well as BSU’s strong and distinctive position to make a dramatic difference.”

Breaux says the contribution will ensure the public institution’s long-term viability by “enabling investment in student financial support, advances in academic excellence and innovation, and substantial increases in the university endowment.”

In announcing the second round of contributions in December, Scott wrote that they included organizations and institutions that were addressing “long-term systemic inequities that have been deepened by the [COVID-19] crisis.” She noted those inequities include “education for historically marginalized and underserved people.” Most of the HBCUs were included in the second tranche of gifts, although several received contributions in both rounds.

Prairie View A&M University received the highest amount among the HBCUs, increasing the university’s endowment nearly 40% to $130 million. President Ruth Simmons said: “Endowments, the source of which are private funds, provide considerable flexibility for universities to innovate and to move expeditiously to implement change.”

The size of the donation floored Simmons to the point that, according to a university web statement, she famously said, “At first I thought I had misheard the amount and I asked them to repeat it. They clarified and said it would be $50 — five-zero — million.”

At Bowie State, one of the concerns “was making sure that we are, first and foremost, providing scholarship dollars for our students,” Breaux says, explaining that, at the end of June, Bowie State returned more than $3 million in fees to students because of the state’s stay-at-home orders. However, many students didn’t have Wi-Fi access or adequate computer equipment in their homes. Although the federal CARES Act for COVID-19 provided helpful funding, Breaux says Scott’s gift will allow the institution to provide support for students beyond the pandemic.

“We have to continue to adjust,” Breaux says. “Not everyone does well in a virtual learning environment, so how do we help those students? We need to position ourselves for success beyond COVID-19. That’s where I see the gift from MacKenzie Scott being a huge help to build and sustain the successes that we’ve had.”

Winston-Salem State Chancellor Elwood L. Robinson says its $30 million gift “will put our students at the forefront of academic success and leverage a whole new standard of philanthropic giving.”



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