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Howard University's Largest Donation Ever Raises Questions About Who Gets Donor Coins

Howard University students walk near the university's main gate.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Howard University students walk near the university's main gate.

Updated at 8:10 p.m. ET

Students in Howard University's Karsh STEM Scholars Program say they tend to feel the lack of diversity in their fields most when they go on their summer internships.

"A lot of times ... we're one of something," says Adjoa Osei-Ntsansah, a junior from Laurel, Md., studying biology, chemistry and community health. One of the only women. Or one of the only black students. "Now we get to see that there's a real need for us ... so that just fuels us to want to do more and be more."

Now, after a $10 million gift from the Karsh Family Foundation last month, the STEM scholars at Howard will be able to support more students. (The program was previously called the Bison STEM Scholars Program; It has since been renamed.) According to David Bennett, Howard University's vice president of development, it is the largest gift given by a living individual in the institution's history.

It came about a month after the university announced what was previously tied for the largest individual gift: $4 million from the Hopper-Dean Foundation, also given to the STEM program.

Courting gifts like this represents a change in strategy, Bennett said. And the university is launching "big and bold programs," believing that they'll attract "big and bold investments."

The gifts are also opening up larger conversations about which institutions tend to get private donor money, and why.

"If you go back, say, five or six years ago, Howard was raising $10 million a year, from all sources for all programs," Bennett said. "So the idea that our work and our students are now attracting individual gifts of $10 million is a profound change in philanthropy for the university."

But individual gifts of $4 million and $10 million are small when you compare Howard to non-HBCU.s nearby. The University of Maryland at College Park received a private gift of $219 million in 2017; In 2013, Georgetown University received a gift of $100 million.

"They have great programs," said Bennett. "The idea that we should just replicate what they're doing and have the same results ... would be nice, but it doesn't understand the HBCU context."

About half of Howard University's students receive federal grants to help pay for college — and the university is doing better than many others at graduating those students on time. Bennett is confident that a segment of the donor market wants to support that work.

"I think we have opportunities that Georgetown and Maryland and [the University of Virginia] don't have, because of the impact we're making in the world, because of our connection to key social issues of the day," Bennett said. "We look at that as a positive, not a negative."

While Howard University has had some high-profile fundraising wins, Krystal Williams, a professor at the University of Alabama whose research focuses on the experiences of minority students in education, says that HBCUs as a sector are "not given equal consideration for funding by foundations and corporations."

Williams wants to reframe the narrative around HBCUs, which she says are "often defined by their challenges" without a proper accounting of their context.

It is true that a number of HBCUs have had to close in recent years — and even Howard, perhaps the most prominent among them, has had its share of financial trouble.

"The HBCU cultural mission — enrolling and attempting to uplift students of color, including those of limited resources — is a noble but difficult business model," Delece Smith-Barrow, senior editor at The Hechinger Report, wrote in a New York Times op-ed in October.

The endowments of historically black colleges and universities tend to be smaller not only because of a lack of foundation funding, but also because a lack of generational wealth shrinks the pool for alumni donations. Just a few HBCUs such as Spelman College in Atlanta and Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., have been notably successful in attracting alumni support.

Black college graduates owe about twice as much as white college graduates four years after graduation, according to a 2016 study from the Brookings Institution. And as NPR's Chris Arnold recently reported, financial firms may be charging higher interest rates on loans for students at HBCUs.

But HBCUs also succeed where other institutions do not. They make up just 3% of colleges and universities, but producenearly 30% of African-American students with bachelor's degrees in STEM fields. Not to mention about80% of the country's black judges, and half of the country's black lawyers.

Williams, at the University of Alabama, argues that HBCUs need to be repositioned as sources of information about best practices in areas such as STEM. "That would ... help foundations to really see how their money could be a good investment in these institutions," Williams said.

Ron Smith, the director of the STEM scholars program at Howard, says his program is successful because he provides his students not only with strong academic programming, but also with mentorship and peer support.

"We talk very early about interdependence, and how important it is for them to be able to depend on each other," Smith said.

And Smith wants his students to maintain that connection, even as some of them leave Howard's campus and go on to graduate programs on other campuses.

"That kind of nurturing ... is as important as the academic pieces," said Smith.

He knows that some of his students may face discimination and have their abilities questioned. "We probably have more confidence about their ability to tackle [academics] than we do in their ability to overcome those objections and challenges ... having nothing to do with their intellectual capacity," he said.

Osei-Ntsansah and her classmates are already thinking about how they can support the next cohort of students, and start to create a legacy.

"We have a heightened sense that there are problems that specifically affect our community," Osei-Ntsansah said. And as she and her classmates move forward in their careers in the sciences, their goal will be to reach their hands back — and "help people who look like us be able to occupy the same positions that we do."

Osei-Ntansah wants to get a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences, and she wants to help make sure black communities aren't overlooked when new drugs and therapies are developed.

Copyright 2020 WAMU 88.5

Corrected: February 10, 2020 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous version of this story said Claflin University was in Atlanta. In fact it is in Orangeburg, S.C.