MacKenzie Scott, author and ex-wife of Amazon honcho Jeff Bezos, has elevated her profile in a humongous way.
You can bet historically black colleges and universities are grateful for her attention. As well as the stroke of Scott’s pen on checks worth at least tens of millions of dollars.
Scott announced last week online she was donating to 116 entities, including HBCUs and organizations working for public health, climate change and racial and LGBTQ equity.
“Like many, I watched the first half of 2020 with a mixture of heartbreak and horror,” she wrote. “What fills me with hope is the thought of what will come if each of us reflects on what we can offer. Opportunities that flowed from the mere chance of skin color, sexual orientation, gender, or ZIP code may have yielded resources that can be powerful levers for change.”
Her gifts to black colleges are especially noteworthy because Scott has no direct linkage to HBCUs – at least from what I could tell. Most people usually give to institutions if they feel some connection to them.
Scott graduated from Princeton. While there, she studied creative writing under Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, herself an HBCU grad. However, an expert on HBCUs told me she was unaware of any ties Scott had to the colleges. I couldn’t reach Scott through social media Monday.
I can’t overstate what her beneficence will mean to places like Hampton University, which said its gift of $30 million was the largest single donation in its history. (The previous record was $10 million from the Scripps Howard Foundation in 2002.)
Longtime President William Harvey is considering how to use the money, but he said through a spokeswoman that he might give $10 million to the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute, $10 million for scholarships to students “who show character” and $10 million for upgrades like laboratories and other areas.
My alma mater, Howard University in D.C., announced a $40 million gift from Scott – or what a university spokeswoman told me was four times the previous largest gift from a single donor.
“We plan to immediately put this eight-figure gift to good use to support components of our five-year strategic plan to help students graduate on time, retain our talented faculty, enhance our campus infrastructure and support academic innovation and entrepreneurship,” said President Wayne Frederick.
Published reports indicate Scott got a $38 billion settlement after her 25-year marriage to Bezos ended in 2019. She pledged last year to donate the majority of her wealth back to society.
Other organizations have praised the gifts, as well. The Advancement Project, a national racial justice and civil rights nonprofit, declined to tell me how much it received. But a spokeswoman there said it was – here’s that superlative again – the largest individual gift in the group’s 20-year history.
All of this is great news, one worthy of unabashed praise. It comes at a time when COVID-19 has killed more than 152,000 in the United States, wrecked the economy and left millions unemployed.
Scott’s donations will also assist colleges trying to figure out the safest, best way to hold classes this fall – and beyond. The money will ease quite a few burdens around the country.
Still, you can’t help but wonder about the ongoing funding challenges that most of the nation’s 105 HBCUs continue to confront. Many don’t have an alumni base pulling down multimillion-dollar salaries. Many graduates are among the first in their families to attend college.
That’s not Scott’s problem, of course.
She donated to HBCUs that have the strongest reputations and are atop black college rankings in annual lists in U.S. News and World Report. Besides Hampton and Howard, recipients of her funding included Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Xavier University of Louisiana.
Other HBCUs in Virginia would’ve coveted Scott’s largesse, but they weren’t included. Norfolk State University, a public school, had an endowment of around $35 million in 2019 – less than the gift Scott gave Howard.
Virginia Union University, in Richmond, was founded in 1865 for newly freed slaves. The private institution has just under 1,200 undergraduate students and had an endowment of $34 million in 2018, according to U.S. News and World Report.
One expert on HBCUs told me Monday the good news goes beyond just the colleges that got the major gifts.
Marybeth Gasman is a professor at Rutgers University and executive director of its Center for Minority Serving Institutions. She said the news of Scott’s donations will educate more Americans about HBCUs.
“Money begets money,” Gasman said. “Wealthy people like to give to more-affluent, recognizable institutions.”
She also pointed that Scott donated to the UNCF and Thurgood Marshall College Fund. Both organizations support HBCUs and their students, including through scholarships. If that, in turn, spurs more alumni to donate, so much the better.
The publicity can build on itself, too. Noted Gasman: “It raises the profile of HBCUs.”
They deserve the boost.