Robert Smith's gift to Morehouse graduates and its meaning for education, especially black colleges
© Bloomberg

On May 19, 2019, private equity billionaire, Robert F. Smith, was the commencement speaker at Morehouse College, a small historically black all male institution in Atlanta, Ga. During his speech, he announced  that he would pay the student loan debt belonging to the entire Morehouse College graduating class of 2019. His decision was as unprecedented as it was generous: aiding nearly 400 young men at an estimated value up to $40 million.

Back in 1989, Oprah WinfreyOprah Gail Winfrey'White privilege' is the biggest white lie of all Oprah Magazine buys 26 billboards demanding Louisville police arrests for Breonna Taylor's death Ted Cruz bashes Oprah for 'lecture' on race: 'What utter, racist BS' MORE, another black billionaire also delivered the commencement speech there, where she announced she would make a $1 million contribution to the school's scholarship fund, according to the Morehouse College website. After her speech, the Oprah Winfrey Endowed Scholarship Fund was established, and the media mogul has donated $12 million and helped 415 men graduate – to which I am a recipient. "Her total contributions have set Ms. Winfrey apart as the College's top individual donor to date," the website reads. Perhaps now, Robert Smith’s donation is the largest single gift in the school’s 152-year history.

Oprah Winfrey is America’s richest black woman and Robert Smith is America’s richest black man. The two have invested in the lives of a nearly 800 black men, combined, at Morehouse. Smith said in his speech that he “revered” Morehouse men because they “understand the power of education and the responsibility that comes with it.” He framed his gift as exemplifying that tradition — the idea that black people are the products of black communities that invested in them and so are duty-bound to invest in others. Oprah Winfrey said, in 2004 at Morehouse’s annual fundraiser celebration, as she cried, “When you empower a black man, you light up the world.”


Their confluence is no accident especially at the only higher educational institution in the world dedicated to solely educating black males.

Yet the country does need an even broader conversation about student loan debt, especially for black students. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been especially impacted by the student debt crisis, as was detailed in this Wall Street Journal article from last month. Seventy-five percent of students at private HBCUs take out federal loans, compared to 51 percent at non-HBCU private institutions. Several factors play into this, including that HBCUs tend to have smaller endowments from which to offer grants and scholarships. 

The gift has become politicized, because there are presidential candidates, most notably, Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenNew poll shows Markey with wide lead over Kennedy in Massachusetts Trump and allies grapple with how to target Harris Chris Wallace: Kamala Harris 'not far to the left despite what Republicans are gonna try to say' MORE (D-Mass.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersOcasio-Cortez's 2nd grade teacher tells her 'you've got this' ahead of DNC speech Trump and allies grapple with how to target Harris Chris Wallace: Kamala Harris 'not far to the left despite what Republicans are gonna try to say' MORE (I-Vt.), and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisCandidates on Biden's VP list were asked what they thought Trump would nickname them as part of process: report Bass on filling Harris's Senate spot: 'I'll keep all my options open' Election security advocates see strong ally in Harris MORE (D-Calif.) and other politicians, who are considering student debt cancellation. Everyone can agree this act of generosity is amazing and I do not want to downplay that. Nevertheless, this does not change the system that allows a few people to hoard much of the available wealth and then be generous only if they feel like it. I am no socialist, but most of the wealthiest class, sadly, are not like Mr. Smith or Ms. Winfrey in perceiving social obligation as coupled to the blessings of their bounty. Billionaires can spend their money in ways they seek. It should be government policy to allow as many people as possible to pursue an affordable higher education, which in turn enriches a society if that society values thinking citizens -- another discussion entirely.

Moreover, we know it is better to live in a world in which needy people, including children, do not depend upon individual largesse for their basic welfare. In the case at hand, this would mean a world in which students do not incur large debt, and in which debt can be repaid at reasonable rates. Shouldn't these policies be embedded in our society even when they need government intervention?

I am more interested in the conversation around how do HBCUS empower and create more consolidated wealth, even more black billionaires in the future, and get more black people both existing wealth and moderate means to invest long-term in these institutions and not simply offer episodic one-off programs. Despondently, a significant segment of wealthy black communities do not support HBCUs. Those with means have not prioritized supporting these institutions because many of them should not be struggling the way that they are struggling and thus no support. As illustrated by Oprah and Smith, (and others not African American like Michael BloombergMichael BloombergEverytown on the NRA lawsuit: 'Come November, we're going to make sure they're out of power, too' Hillicon Valley: Trump raises idea of delaying election, faces swift bipartisan pushback | Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google release earnings reports | Senators ask Justice Department to investigate TikTok, Zoom Meme group joins with Lincoln Project in new campaign against Trump MORE) I hope this act is the catalyst by which people ask themselves what can I do to assist in the education of the underserved and help to solve the debt-crisis in our country.


Yet for the moment, minus the politics and recitation of the inadequacies in our society, we pause to celebrate fabulous gift given to these hard working young men.

As a Morehouse alumnus, I am fourteen years too late, but I am grateful nevertheless, and in paying it forward I seek to ensure there are other Smiths and Winfreys and graduation classes like the one of Morehouse 2019.

Will you join me?

Professor Quardricos Bernard Driskell, a graduate of Morehouse College, an Oprah Scholar and Harvard University, a federal lobbyist at professional medical association and an adjunct professor of legislative politics at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. Follow him on Twitter @q_driskell4