Philanthropy spotlight: How Ruth Simmons is driving a ‘renaissance’ at Texas HBCU

Even before the recent influx of philanthropic gifts to historically Black colleges and universities, Prairie View A&M President Ruth Simmons was raising unprecedented and much-needed funds for the Texas-based HBCU. Bloomberg recently took a closer look at Simmons’s “unlikely homecoming and valedictory act” and how she has translated her connections into “a renaissance at a school long neglected by its state.”

Bringing social capital to an underfunded college

Raised just hours away from Prairie View in a large family of sharecroppers, Simmons has become one of higher education’s most influential Black leaders. With the help of a scholarship, she attended the New Orleans-based HBCU Dillard University; she then went on to earn a doctorate at Harvard, serve as a dean at Princeton University, and lead Brown University as the Ivy League’s first Black university president.

Simmons has gained a reputation as a well-connected “star fundraiser”—and is now “bringing all the social capital she built at elite institutions back to her home state” as president of Prairie View A&M.

Prairie View A&M was founded in 1876 along with two other Texas public universities, Texas A&M and University of Texas, both historically white. The three institutions were supposed to share in land royalties, but Prairie View went a century without receiving any, and then received a disproportionately small amount until just two decades ago. Its endowment reflects that history: the $13.6 billion endowment at Texas A&M, for instance, is more than 100 times larger than Prairie View’s $130 million endowment, even though Texas A&M’s enrollment is just 17 times larger.

Philanthropy transforming student support

That $130 million, Bloomberg notes, includes a record $17 million that Simmons had raised across three years. It also includes part of a transformative $50 million given to the school in fall 2020 by author and billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Simmons and Scott had connected several years earlier over shared ties to Princeton and the late novelist Toni Morrison.

Around $40 million of Scott’s gift will grow Prairie View A&M’s endowment, supporting faculty and research investments. The remaining $10 million is helping to provide emergency grants of up to $2,000 to support students’ degree completion. Just one-third of Prairie View’s 8,100 undergraduates complete their degrees within six years, and Simmons hopes the “Panther Success Grants” will help ease the financial hardships that often force students to drop out.

“We don’t want our students to give up,” Simmons told Bloomberg. “We know what’s waiting for them at the other end when they do finish and have a brilliant career. They get to lift their families out of poverty and have incredible lives. We don’t want them to give up too soon.”

‘A cascading effect’

In addition to Prairie View, a number of long-underfunded historically Black institutions have seen increased recognition and philanthropic investment in the months since last summer’s racial reckoning—including record-breaking donations to Howard University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, Morgan State University, and numerous other HBCUs.

The gifts not only have increased the amount of financial aid HBCUs can provide their students but also have enabled infrastructure improvements, enrollment growth, and overall financial stability, Higher Ed Dive reports.

Related: Big philanthropic investments a bright spot for HBCUs amid financial uncertainty worsened by pandemic >

Moreover, “each large investment can have a cascading effect, inspiring other philanthropists to do the same,” notes Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund.

When it comes to closing equity gaps, “it’s hard to overstate how significant these philanthropic gifts and federal funding could be,” Higher Ed Dive writes.

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