Last week, Neflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife, Patty Quillin, announced a series of gifts totaling $120 million, intended to support historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The funds will be split among Morehouse College, Spelman College, and the United Negro College Fund.
The gift comes at a time when America is reeling from the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, which have sparked a national dialogue about systemic racism. While the gifts to HBCUs had been planned for quite some time, Mr. Hastings noted that now felt like the right time to move forward. Because of “this crisis in America,” Mr. Hastings stated, “It made us realize that our part of this, to have America be the country we all want it to be, was to focus on education.”
Well said, Mr. Hastings. Education plays a vital a role as an engine of social mobility in our nation and can help alleviate so many of our societal ills. Moreover, higher education provides a forum for debate, deliberation, and discovery that is so desperately needed to help America move forward. And higher education has a uniquely democratic mission of helping students cultivate the deep historical and civic knowledge needed to be informed citizens and the leaders of tomorrow.
The gift provides important lessons for the philanthropic community, as well. HBCUs are seriously committed to liberal arts education, which is too often overlooked. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s (ACTA) annual core curriculum survey, What Will They Learn?, which assesses colleges and universities on their general education programs, routinely finds that HBCUs score far higher than other schools. They often have rigorous requirements to ensure that graduates obtain core competencies in mathematics, literature, the natural sciences, and U.S. history, often through black history courses that cut to the very core of our nation’s past.
The theory behind the modern HBCU curriculum is deeply inspired by the work of W.E.B. Du Bois. When the vast majority of HBCUs were founded during the reconstruction era following the Civil War, there was an ongoing debate about what type of curriculum should be created for newly freed slaves. Many influential groups, especially industrial philanthropists, favored a vocation-based education that could teach various trades, offering a pipeline into the middle class. The Du Boisian vision differed, however, and ultimately became the predominant model for HBCU education. Rather than teaching trades, colleges needed to teach freedom. And true freedom, according to Du Bois, meant freeing the mind with a liberal arts education that cultivates a deep appreciation for knowledge and culture.
While many of our institutions of higher learning have abandoned their commitment to the tenets of liberal education, HBCUs have remained true to the mission for the most part. In addition to strong liberal arts requirements, many are dedicated to protecting freedom of expression on campus. Look at Dillard University, where President Walter Kimbrough allowed David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, to speak at a historically black college. Rather than cancelling the speech, President Kimbrough allowed his students to confront and challenge the repugnant views of David Duke. President Kimbrough said, “I just believe that our brand and what we do on a day-to-day basis is bigger than that.” Speaking to ACTA, President Kimbrough recalled his time at Philander Smith College, another HBCU: “At least once a year, I sought to invite someone who might make our campus uneasy, to make me uneasy. I feel that for leaders to grow, they need to seek out opinions that they fundamentally disagree with.”
If donors are serious about supporting liberal arts education and providing disadvantaged students with a pathway to success, they should follow Mr. Hastings’s lead and give to HBCUs. Aside from mission, philanthropy can have an outsized impact in this sector. Most HBCUs are not wealthy institutions; in fact, many have stood on the brink of bankruptcy for years, with their financial outlooks only getting worse amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Too many donors choose to simply give year-after-year to their well-endowed alma mater, regardless of the institution’s curriculum. But if donors want to take the path less traveled, and put their resources where they’re most needed, they should look to HBCUs.
Emily Koons Jae is the Director of the Fund for Academic Renewal at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni
Erik N. Gross is the Communications Officer at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni