After receiving an honorary doctorate during Morehouse College’s commencement exercises, on Sunday morning, the billionaire philanthropist Robert F. Smith made a stunning pledge.
“This is my class, 2019,” he said, according to a video of the ceremony that was posted online. “And my family is making a grant to pay off their student loans.”
The announcement at the historically black college’s graduation ceremony was followed by lengthy cheering.
“I know my class will pay this forward,” said Smith, who is the founder, chairman, and chief executive of Vista Equity Partners, a private-equity firm. “Let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward.”
The donation to the 400-member class has an estimated value of $40 million, according to Morehouse’s president, David A. Thomas.
Smith earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University and an M.B.A. from Columbia University. Forbes estimated his net worth this year at $5 billion.
The gift is said to be the largest ever made to an HBCU. Last year Ronda Stryker and her husband, William Johnston, gave $30 million to Spelman College, which it described as its largest single gift from a living donor. In 1992, Spelman received a $37-million gift from the estate of DeWitt Wallace, the founder of Reader’s Digest.
The announcement of Smith’s pledge drew praise. Ibram X. Kendi, a professor of history at American University, said on Twitter that he had gotten to know Smith in recent years and that the gift had come from his “huge heart and his huge belief in the potential of black people when we have the resources and opportunities.”
Kendi, who is also director of the antiracist research and policy center at American, noted the impact the gift would have, given the racial dynamics of student-loan debt. “With student debt disproportionately strangling black people,” he wrote, “this is major.”
While it’s not uncommon for a commencement speaker to donate to an institution following the ceremony, said Jason McNeal, a partner in Gonser Gerber, a fund-raising consulting firm, Smith’s announcement was distinctive in several ways.
The conviction with which Smith described the Class of 2019 as his class is important, McNeal wrote in an email, because it signaled a sense of personal commitment. “It should be a clear reminder that all gifts — and especially major gifts like this one — are motivated by a heartfelt cause (in this case, student-loan debt) and a healthy sense of ownership,” he wrote. “Higher-education leaders should pay close attention to his emotion and ownership language and remember that donors should be treated as more than just financial-asset resources.”
Smith’s challenge to alumni also sent an important message, McNeal wrote, because alumni-giving participation rates are declining nationally.
“Let’s hope,” he wrote, “that there are many ripple effects from this act of generosity.”
This article was originally published online, May 19, 2019, Chronicle of Higher Education.