In February 2005, the Tavis Smiley School of Communication officially opened at Texas Southern University in Houston, garnering national fanfare, especially because the ceremony and naming of the school came with a $1 million pledge from its namesake.
Four years later, there is talk of removing Tavis Smiley’s name from the institution. According to Wendy Adair, vice president of university development, such a drastic move is not likely, as negotiations are under way to re-establish a relationship with him.
Many press reports gave the impression that Smiley’s $1 million had already been donated. In actuality, the school has received only $50,000 from the television and radio personality, say school officials.
Sheryl Flowers, a spokeswoman for Smiley, said he met with the school’s new president, Dr. John Rudley. “As a result of the face-to-face meeting, Tavis agreed to resume the installments on his gift,” said Flowers, who added that Smiley requested the meeting.
Flowers said Smiley is optimistic about the future and was glad to have met with Dr. Rudley. She declined, however, to discuss the exact terms of the current agreement.
Smiley, who has a Los Angeles-based foundation, originally committed $200,000 annually for five years. “In addition, he was going to help us raise funds through his corporate connections,” said Adair. To date, Smiley has donated only $50,000, while corporate donations totaling $200,000 have come from the Enterprise-Rent-a-Car Foundation, the DaimlerChrysler Corporation Fund, and Walmart.
So far, not much has filtered down to the students. The combined $250,000 went into an endowment, of which 4 percent annually is used for scholarships and internships for students enrolled in the school of communication.
The splashy 2005 opening of the Tavis Smiley School of Communication and its Tavis Smiley Center for Professional Media Studies was followed by years of turbulence at the university, including a two-year investigation involving former president Priscilla Slade.
In 2006 Slade was fired after an audit found she had used more than $600,000 in university funds to cover personal expenses. She was indicted and tried on four felony charges. She later pleaded “no contest” and agreed to repay some of the money after the trial ended in a hung jury. The school’s chief financial officer was convicted and sentenced to a prison term. Another official also was indicted.
“There were a number of donors who pulled back at that time,” Adair said. “Individuals and foundations held us on reserve until we had fiscal management back in place, and many of them are pleased with the direction the university is taking now.”
Smiley also found himself in the midst of controversy. After publicly criticizing then-presidential candidate Barack Obama last year, listeners of the Tom Joyner Morning Show skewered Smiley, as did students who encountered him during his Black College Tour, where he often had harsh words for Obama’s presidential campaign.
Adair says university officials met with Smiley in late 2008 to discuss renewing his pledge. “He said he would try to begin the fundraising again and get back to us in the spring,” said Adair. “In my view we will be back on track when we receive the next portion of his $1 million commitment. We’re on the road to being on track.”
The prospect of more funding came as welcome news to journalism department chair Dr. Vera Hawkins. “At a time when students are being asked to know more and more regarding technology and various modes of communication, we are in a situation where we have fewer dollars to assist them in the learning process, Hawkins said. “We certainly need not only the money but the internships and professional experiences that his association with the school could offer.”
Hawkins said some students had internships with Smiley and his foundation offices in Los Angeles in past years and she would like to see that connection renewed. “The students who have worked with him and his staff had wonderful experiences and their lives were enriched by those experiences,” Hawkins said. “We’re looking forward to seeing more of him.”
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