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Largest Gift In Howard University History Sparks Conversation About HBCU Donations

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Historically black colleges and universities are some of the country's strongest pipelines for black scientists and engineers. And late last month, some of that work got high-profile recognition. Howard University announced the largest gift in its history, a $10 million investment in its STEM program.

As Jenny Gathright from member station WAMU reports, that one gift opens up a larger conversation about which institutions get private donor money and why.

JENNY GATHRIGHT, BYLINE: Adjoa Osei-Ntansah wants to get a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences to make sure black communities aren't overlooked when new drugs and therapies are developed. She's a junior in Howard's STEM Scholars Program. She says she and her classmates feel the lack of diversity in their fields most when they go on their summer research internships.

ADJOA OSEI-NTANSAH: Because a lot of the times, we're one of something, either one of the only females, one of the only black students. There is a real need for us.

GATHRIGHT: Howard's STEM Scholars Program admits about 30 students a year. It's fully funded, which means tuition, room and board are covered. And foundations have taken notice. In December, the university announced a $4 million gift to the program. This month, the university announced a $10 million gift from the Karsh Family Foundation. That's the largest donation by a living individual in Howard's history.

DAVID BENNETT: Back, say, five or six years ago, Howard was raising $10 million a year from all sources for all programs.

GATHRIGHT: That's Howard's VP of development, David Bennett. He calls the gift from the Karsh family a profound change for the university. But $10 million is small when you compare Howard to some of the universities nearby. The University of Maryland at College Park received a gift of $219 million this decade. And Georgetown University received a gift of a hundred million.

Krystal Williams is a professor at the University of Alabama who researches higher education, and she says there's a pattern here.

KRYSTAL L WILLIAMS: The unfortunate reality is that these institutions are oftentimes not given equal consideration for funding by foundations and corporations.

GATHRIGHT: Some of this could have to do with the narrative that surrounds historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.

WILLIAMS: HBCUs are often defined by their challenges.

GATHRIGHT: A number of HBCs have had to close in recent years. Even Howard, perhaps the country's most prominent HBCU, has had financial trouble. But Williams says there's not enough focus on the areas where HBCUs succeed.

WILLIAMS: What can we learn about the environments of HBCUs that helps us to better understand how they're producing so many successful STEM graduates?

GATHRIGHT: HBCUs make up just 3% of colleges and universities but produce nearly 30% of African American students with bachelor's degrees in STEM fields, not to mention about 80% of the country's black judges and half the country's black lawyers. Back on Howard's campus, Adjoa Osei-Ntansah and her classmates are already thinking about how they can further that legacy because for her, the mission is clear.

OSEI-NTANSAH: To reach our hand back and help other people, help people that look like us be able to occupy the same positions that we do.

GATHRIGHT: The university might say one way to do that is donate. It's been working to boost alumni giving.

For NPR News, I'm Jenny Gathright in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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