What a $ 50 million donation did for an HBCU

PRAIRIE VIEW, Texas – In-person learning resumed at Prairie View A&M University at the end of August, and the campus was soon buzzin...


PRAIRIE VIEW, Texas – In-person learning resumed at Prairie View A&M University at the end of August, and the campus was soon buzzing with familiar sounds and sights: freshmen laughing in the classroom. eating, students crossing the sprawling courtyard between lessons.

There were also essential nods to our present day, such as signs on light poles with various reminders, including “Today’s task: wear your mask”.

While colleges have been among the most disrupted institutions during the pandemic, they have also been centers of hope and resilience. At Prairie View, a historically black university, some of that optimism was amplified by a $ 50 million donation from Mac Kenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, who calmly donated billions of dollars To underfunded organizations since 2020.

Prairie View President Ruth Simmons uses the money for initiatives to revive the campus, including starting a writing program, opening a center for race and justice, increasing the university’s endowment and by setting aside $ 10 million for a grant program that some students are already taking advantage of.

Joshua Gant, 21, remembers texting his mother several months ago about his summer semester pay and worries about how he was going to be paid. He had applied for a Panther Success grant – created in 2020 to provide support to students financially affected by the pandemic – but had not yet had a response.

Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Mr. Gant came to Prairie View to study mass communication and play the trombone in the marching band. At the height of the pandemic, he was juggling his music, part-time job and virtual lessons, while dealing with the anxiety and depression that set in during isolation.

When he finally reached the financial aid office, Mr. Gant was told that if he did not pay his tuition balance on time, he would be removed from his classes. Then, just before the deadline, $ 2,000 entered her account and reduced her debt to $ 0.

“It said: Panther Success Grant has been added to your account,” Mr. Gant said. “I’m like ‘Mom, you don’t have to worry about this.’ And she said, ‘Thank you, my God.’ “

The scholarship helped him quit his job so he could focus on getting his degree. He also hopes to stay in Prairie View for his graduate studies, for audio engineering or radio broadcasting.

Students, faculty, and graduates of historically black colleges and universities have a special type of academic pride.

This stems from the experience of attending schools where blacks are not a minority, where black culture is celebrated, and where the educational needs of black students are a priority, despite historically racist systems that have made these goals difficult.

But what does it feel like when decades of underfunding and lack of support prevent an institution from meeting all of its academic and operational demands?

Prairie View is the first state-supported college for African Americans in Texas and the second oldest public university in the state. Founded in 1876, it was an incubator for black talent. The school was built on a former plantation, where slaves worked the land, and, over 140 years later, the university has trained tens of thousands of mostly African-American students.

Almost 9,000 students attend Prairie View. They come from various socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities; many are first generation students and immigrants.

Prairie View, one of the state’s two public HBCUs, has historically received less money from state government and philanthropists than flagship state schools like Texas A&M University, which was founded the same year.

In April, The Chronicle of Houston reported that Prairie View spends a higher percentage of its overall budget on scholarships and student support services, but trains more of the more indebted students than those at Texas A&M.

“One of the most difficult things we do as a state institution is to try to persuade this government that we deserve to be supported at the highest level, and so they are not there yet. “said Dr. Simmons, president of Prairie View, said in an interview. “After 1876 and all the years we have worked to do what we do and provide a black professional class to the state and do so much for the state, the value of the institution is still not sufficiently recognized. . “

The state has worked to rectify these inequalities and has made “generous” contributions, Dr Simmons added, but she believes that strengthening the school’s fundraising initiatives is key to a prosperous future.

“I certainly believe our future lies in fundraising,” she said. “It’s not by being a supplicant to the state government.”

Philanthropists have been galvanized to help black communities after last year’s nationwide protests in response to the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis and the revelation of the huge disparities between minority and non-minority communities.

In 2015, a similar tragedy struck the university near her home when Sandra Bland, a 2009 Prairie View graduate, died in a Waller County jail cell three days after being arrested by a white soldier from the United States. State of Texas during a traffic stop.

His death sparked protests across the country as questions were raised about what happened in the prison. Prairie View City Council then voted to change the name of University Drive, the road that leads to Prairie View A&M where she was pulled over and arrested, to Sandra Bland Parkway.

Ms Scott first made an anonymous donation of $ 10 million to Prairie View in November to help during the pandemic. She donated the remaining $ 40 million in December and allowed the university to reveal her as the source.

The university used some of the money to establish the Ruth J. Simmons Center for Race and Justice and the Toni Morrison’s writing program; redeveloped the student center of its library; and invested in faculty development and career services.

At the end of May, the school’s endowment stood at over $ 142 million, up from $ 95 million the year before. Tulane University in New Orleans, which hosts about 5,000 more students than Prairie View, has a joint endowment of about $ 1.4 billion.

Amid the excitement and optimism over the recent improvements, there is also some suspicion about how Ms Scott’s additional funds will be used. This concern can be underscored by past experience.

Imani Taylor, 21, a senior, said she was excited about the recent donations but hadn’t seen much change.

“I know a lot of students wanted more parking, better housing,” said Ms. Taylor, who studies management information systems.

She described the Wi-Fi on campus as “terrible”. “And especially since we’re in the middle of nowhere, even our cellphones don’t always work,” she said. “So these are times when the Wi-Fi is going to go out in the living unit and there is nothing we can do. It will even be released in real university buildings.

She also benefited from the new grant and said it was good to have extra funds to support her with her scholarships, but as someone who will be graduating soon, she hopes to see the subclasses reap more. ‘benefits in the future.

“Even if I don’t experience it, there will be other generations who will go here,” Ms. Taylor said. “And like I said, just improving the quality on campus will make a drastic difference in the lives of students and teachers.”

Prairie View is a small, largely rural town in Waller County that is unique in having limited cell coverage, grocery stores, and restaurants. Many students recognized that not all of these problems were school-related, but that they would like more effort to be made to resolve them.

Mr. Gant said he notices the differences on campus between Prairie View and other predominantly white institutions nearby with more funding and larger endowments.

“Right now, we still don’t have working water in my major’s department,” he said. “How are we supposed to wash our hands?” “

Problems like these are not exclusive to Prairie View. Last month, Howard University students started protest what they described as poor living conditions inside dormitories, including mold growth and poor Wi-Fi connections.

Melanye Price, an endowed professor of political science and director of the new Prairie View Racial and Forensic Center, said that when it comes to HBCUs, there is a tendency to believe that “we are not taking care of it well.”

“That’s not the whole story,” Dr Price said.

She said she attended public schools from kindergarten to graduate school, including Prairie View as an undergraduate student in the 1990s. The only school that was not underfunded, was -she said, was a predominantly white institution, Ohio State University, where she earned her doctorate.

“Endowments allow you to do things the state won’t pay for,” said Dr Price. “Endowments allow you to bring back top professors and academics to teach here because we can reduce the number of courses they can teach. Endowments help us fund more students so they don’t drop out because they can’t find $ 600.

Having a deep endowment, she said, is the key to “doing all the things we dreamed of over time.” She also described it as a safety net. “There are schools for whom, if in Covid, they had to reimburse all the tuition fees – I think of Harvard, Princeton, University of Texas – they would still have enough money in their endowment to make it happen”, a- she declared. “We wouldn’t.”

Dr Price said Prairie View takes those who were “underserved” early in their education and turns them “into engineers.” For the most part, she said, the students there “aren’t trying to choose between Harvard and us. We take kids who choose between us and nothing, and we say, “I know nobody expected you to go to college. I know you weren’t well prepared in your high school.

Marquinn Booker, 22 from Houston and president of the Prairie View student body, delivered the welcoming remarks at the first virtual gathering of Toni Morrison’s writing program. The event featured its inaugural writer-in-residence, poet Nikki Giovanni.

As for the future of the university, Mr Booker said, he would like the state and others to help the university more to build a stronger infrastructure. But whatever happens, Prairie View is sure to continue to support its students.

“I’m going hard behind Prairie View because Prairie View has given me something that I haven’t received anywhere else,” he said. “Once you graduate, you support the fight behind your education. “

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