A generous donation of $120 million to historically Black institutions Morehouse College, Spelman College and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife Patty Quillin has sparked much criticism from HBCU students who feel their institutions are excluded from such large gifts often made to the brother and sister institutions.
Hastings’ gift, which is to be equally split among the three institutions, is reportedly the single largest donation made to any HBCU. It also comes amid the demand for racial justice after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man who was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck for nine minutes until he became unresponsive, which has caused global outrage and protests.
“There are many good places to donate, but the (HBCUs) are 150 years old, incredibly resilient, producing an amazing number of Black graduates,” Hastings told CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin. “The amount of tragedy really did get us to focus and say, ‘let’s do something now that will be supportive of these great institutions and give people some sense of hope.’”
Morehouse, the alma mater of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ’48 and many other great Black men, including Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee, Maynard Jackson, Edwin Moses and Shaun King has been one of the primary recipients of recent large donations from very notable humanitarians.
Vista Equity Partners CEO Robert F. Smith, an African American billionaire, paid off the entire student loan debt of the class of 2019, which costs totaled about $34 million.
Oprah Winfrey also gifted $13 million to the college in Oct. 2019, in commemoration of her endowed scholarship program’s 30th anniversary of helping men of Morehouse matriculate debt-free. Winfrey’s donations to the House totals $25 million since 1989.
Hence, Morehouse has been condemned by many HBCU students and others on social media for being the focal point of philanthropists’ donations.
“This is absolutely ridiculous!!” said Facebook user Charlie Monique. “Morehouse and Spelman are NOT the only HBCUs! It’s absolutely insulting how they continue to give to these only two colleges! But hey you can’t tell folks what to do with their money…I need to find a way to voice my concerns where it matters.”
Another Facebook user, Tonya Renee Williams, said, “Awesome. Not hating, but other HBCUs need more help than Morehouse and Spelman. People always give to southern schools. UNCF has no love for schools up north.”
Candice Marie Benbow, a Tennessee State University alumna, tweeted, “What would be right is if the presidents of Morehouse and Spelman ask that this gift be split among all HBCUs. In a moment when we’re asking for equity and justice, that would seem the righteous way to go.”
Despite the feedback from HBCU students and others, Morehouse President David A. Thomas said that he has only received congratulatory messages from tens of other HBCU presidents about the $40 million gift. However, he did address people’s criticisms of the donation.
“I understand it, but I think that’s a question they have to ask the leaders of their institutions,” Thomas said. “I can’t answer why did your institution not get this gift. I can’t answer it.”
“I hope that the leaders of those institutions see this as an opportunity for them to leverage to speak to philanthropists like Pat Quillin and Reed Hastings, to make the case for their value proposition and to make it more powerfully — and ask for the level of gifts that those at their institutions need,” he added.
Thomas said that Morehouse’s share of the donation, named in honor of alumnus and UNCF CEO Dr. Michael Lomax ’68, will provide scholarships for at least 20 students, in each mentoring class over the next 10 years that cover their full tuition, allowing them to graduate debt-free.
He further stated that the Silicone Valley executive and his wife became very aware of the fact that Black communities take on more student debt than any other race and rather than pursuing their passions they instead fill obligations to pursue a career that’s immediately lucrative economically to pay back those expenses.
In acknowledgment of that fact, Thomas shared that the scholarships will also go to students who are Pell-eligible based on their federal financial aid applications, which means their families makes $40,000 or less, which accounts for 60 percent of the college’s students.
He also noted that Morehouse’s endowment is only $150 million compared to private White institutions whose endowments scale between $1 billion and $3 billion.
“Think of Morehouse as an elite institution when we only compare it to Black institutions,” Thomas said. “But if we compare ourselves with any liberal arts institution that has much impact on this country than Morehouse has, our endowment should be 10 times what it is today.”
Thomas explained that although this specific gift from Hastings was a surprise, he had been developing a relationship with Hastings and his wife for the past year and a half.
He further disclosed that they first visited Morehouse in Spring 2019 and was extremely impressed, therefore decided to donate $1 million. After witnessing how beneficial their donation was, they donated another $1 million in February 2020.
“I think as what they (Hastings and Quillin) saw and I saw what the convergence of these two viruses that are evident in our country right now — both of which are a pandemic of proportions and epidemic in our country, that is the COVID-19 virus and the virus of racism,” Thomas said. “And they have each laid some of their structural and inequalities in our country, they asked the question what can they do to ignite long term change and get others to see the value of investing in institutions that are already providing the solutions needed to address these issues. And that’s how we came to the $40 million gift that was announced.”
Although Hastings’ donation wasn’t particularly made to any HBCU, $40 million of the gift does go to UNCF, an American philanthropic organization that funds scholarships for Black students and general scholarship funds for 37 private HBCUs, according to their website.
“The amount of tragedy really did get us to focus and say, ‘Let’s do something now that will be supportive of these great institutions and give people some sense of hope,’” Hastings said.