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Spelman College gets $100 million donation, a record for HBCUs

The gift came just days after a $100 million gift to the United Negro College Fund

A woman walks outside the Spelman College campus in Atlanta in February 2022. A billionaire couple announced on Jan. 18, 2024, that it’s giving $100 million to the women’s college, which Spelman said is the largest-ever single donation to a historically Black college or university. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
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When Helene Gayle, the president of Spelman College, was told at a recent board meeting that a trustee and her husband were going to give the school $100 million, she was incredulous. Then she started to cry.

“To have this kind of historic gift that really signifies her belief in Spelman and the power that it has to change lives … was just overwhelming,” Gayle said. “I was overwhelmed with joy, with excitement and just deeply grateful.”

It was the largest gift in the school’s history, and what Spelman called the largest to an historically Black college or university. And it came just days after a $100 million gift to the United Negro College Fund, the largest unrestricted private gift the nonprofit has ever received.

Over the past several years, after the pandemic and the racial reckoning after the 2020 killing by police of George Floyd, there have been numerous multimillion-dollar donations to HBCUs and organizations that support them. Some advocates were hopeful that might signal an inflection point after many years of financial struggles.

“I think there’s just kind of an awareness that important investments in education must include investments in historically Black colleges and universities,” said Michael L. Lomax, the president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund.

Some prominent examples: In 2020, Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings and his wife, Patty Quillin, announced $120 million in gifts divided among Spelman, Morehouse College and UNCF.

Later that year, author MacKenzie Scott gave more than $800 million to HBCUs and colleges and universities serving Latino and Native American students. (Scott’s ex-husband Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

Tyrone McKinley Freeman, an associate professor of philanthropic studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, said the recent gifts are a good indication that calls for more investment in HBCUs are being considered, and taken seriously.

“We’re in a period now where all of higher education is under a spotlight, and everybody’s asking these questions of whether or not a degree is worth it,” Freeman said. “While this is new for some institutions, HBCUs have always had those kinds of questions asked of them — they always operated under that kind of hostile or difficult funding environment.”

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The support for HBCUs still lags the most eye-popping donations in the hundreds of millions that Ivy League and other well-known schools sometimes notch — or even higher, such as the $1.1 billion gift from John and Ann Doerr to Stanford University in 2022, and $1.8 billion from Mike Bloomberg to Johns Hopkins University in 2018.

When Lomax got an email from the head of a foundation asking for 15 minutes of his time, his first thought was, “Oh, no — what is this meeting?”

He was about to board a flight at the time of the virtual meeting. After searching for a quiet place, he propped his iPad on a ledge, and nervously dialed in.

He saw N. Clay Robbins, the Lilly Endowment’s chairman and chief executive officer — several of their other leaders on the Zoom as well. And they were smiling. Robbins told him that the board had voted to give a $100 million unrestricted gift to UNCF’s $1 billion capital campaign.

“I couldn’t scream and yell,” Lomax said. “ … I didn’t scream out, ‘Glory, Hallelujah!’

“I just felt it.”

The gift will be used to help its 37 member HBCUs, and the first investment in a planned $370 million pooled fund to raise each institution’s endowment by $10 million.

The immediate impact of the gift will be to raise each school’s endowment by $2.7 million — doubling the endowments of several. The median endowment of UNCF member schools currently is about $16 million, according to UNCF.

Meanwhile, the median endowment in 2022 at private nonprofit colleges and universities was about $215 million, according to the National Association of College University Business Officers.

“There are 102 historically Black colleges in the country, public and private,” Lomax said. “If you added their all of their endowments up, it’s just over $4 billion. Harvard has a $50 billion endowment.”

At Spelman, students cheered and balloons bounced down when the surprise gift was announced Thursday at a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Spelman name. (The school was renamed after a $250 gift from John D. Rockefeller in the late 1800s. His wife’s parents, whose last name was Spelman, had been prominent abolitionists.)

The bulk of the donation from Ronda Stryker, a business executive, philanthropist and longtime Spelman trustee; and her husband, William Johnston, who is the chairman of Greenleaf Trust, will be used for endowed scholarships. Seventy-five million dollars will go to scholarships for future students, and the remainder will be used for other goals including a focus in public policy and democracy and improving housing for students.

Gayle said Stryker preferred not to talk about the gift at this time, wanting to keep the focus of attention on Spelman.

Forty percent of their students have exceptional financial need, and 80 percent receive some kind of financial aid, Gayle said. “We hope this will help bridge the gap.”

Breah Banks, a senior and president of the student government at Spelman, said she knew firsthand the impact endowed scholarships can have on students. She said she had initially been awarded a scholarship covering tuition, but after the gift from Hastings and Quillin, she was given an even more generous scholarship with housing and other educational costs covered as well. Thinking of future students getting similar opportunities and relief from financial burdens, she said, “I am truly grateful.”

Banks, who went to a predominantly White high school in Minnesota, said she had many reasons for choosing Spelman. One moment that stood out was when she was visiting campus and listened to students in an honors English class talking about what Blackness meant to them — and not having that conversation just because it was Black history month. “I knew that I really wanted to be seen, felt and heard at the institution that I would attend for the next four years in college,” she said, “and Spelman College was that place.”