What a $50 Million Gift Meant for a Single H.B.C.U.
At Prairie View A&M, one of MacKenzie Scott’s historically Black schools and universities, the atmosphere is cautious optimism.
At Prairie View A&M University, in-person study started in late August, and the campus quickly became humming with familiar noises and sights: freshmen laughing in the dining hall, students walking across the huge yard between courses.
Additionally, there were unavoidable tributes to our current period, such as posters on lamp posts with various reminders, such as “Today’s Task: Wear Your Mask.”
While colleges were among the most disrupted institutions during the pandemic, they also served as a source of hope and resilience. At Prairie View, a historically Black university, some of that hope has been bolstered by a $50 million gift from MacKenzie Scott, Jeff Bezos’ former wife, who has covertly donated billions of dollars to underfunded groups since 2020.
Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View, is using the funds to revitalize the campus, including the establishment of a writing program, the establishment of a center for race and justice, the increase of the university’s endowment, and the reserving of $10 million for a grant program from which some students have already benefited.
Joshua Gant, 21, recalls contacting his mother many months ago about his summer semester’s lingering balance and his worry about how it would be paid. He had applied for a Panther Success Grant — established in 2020 to assist students who are financially impacted by the pandemic — but had not yet received a response.
Mr. Gant moved to Prairie View from Shreveport, Louisiana, to study mass communication and play trombone in the marching band. He juggled his music, a part-time job, and his virtual classes throughout the pandemic’s peak, all while coping with the worry and melancholy that crept in during solitude.
Mr. Gant was informed by the financial aid office that if he did not pay his tuition debt in full by the deadline, he would be dismissed from his classes. Then, just before the deadline, he received $2,000 in his account, reducing his debt to zero.
“It indicated that a Panther Success Grant had been applied to your account,” Mr. Gant explained. “I’m like, ‘Don’t worry about it, Mom.’ And she’s as if to say, ‘Thank you, God.'”
The stipend enabled him to quit his employment and concentrate solely on graduating. He aspires to continue his education at Prairie View by attending graduate school for audio engineering or radio broadcasting.
‘Fundraising Is Our Future’
Students, staff, and alumni at historically black schools and universities have an uncommon sense of institutional pride.
This arises from my experience attending schools where Black people are not the minority, where Black culture is valued, and where Black kids’ academic needs are prioritized, despite historically discriminatory structures that have made these goals difficult to achieve.
However, how does it feel when decades of underfunding and lack of support make it difficult for an institution to satisfy all of its academic and operational responsibilities?
Prairie View is Texas’s first state-supported institution for African Americans and the state’s second oldest public university. It was founded in 1876 and has served as a breeding ground for Black talent. The university was founded on a former plantation where enslaved people worked the land, and it has educated tens of thousands of predominantly African American students for more than 140 years.
Prairie View enrolls nearly 9,000 students. They represent a range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds; many are first-generation college students and immigrants.