Unlikely Partners in Philanthropy Traditionally White colleges and universities increasingly look to minority communities for institutional support.
By Ronald Roach
George Mason University, located just outside of Washington, D.C., is known as the academic home of some of the most influential conservative scholars in the nation, most notably in economics and in law. Among its board of visitors, the school’s chief governing body, a host of former Reagan and Bush presidential appointees, including Edwin Meese, an attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, occupy a bulk of the board seats. And the conservatism of its public profile is also reflected in the school’s strict adherence to race-neutral admissions and university policies.
Yet what may catch observers of George Mason by surprise is that prominent local minority businesspeople belonging to a unique university advisory board recruit minority students for internships and mentorships, and raise and award funds for scholarships largely targeting students of color.
The group is known as the George Mason University Minority Advisory Board, and it’s establishing a fund-raising and organizational model seldom seen in higher education. The board idea advances the notion that local Black, Hispanic and Asian citizens represent as much a resource for school advancement for majority White higher education institutions as they do for minority-serving institutions. This idea has reached fruition in a few places where it’s taking flight in schools, such as GMU.
At the University of Louisville in Kentucky, the university recently announced a partnership with the Black community in Louisville that is seeking to establish eight endowed chairs in academic areas around which public policy solutions and health innovations could benefit the local Black community. The initial stage of the partnership is being funded at $9 million, $4 million of which is coming from private donations (see Black Issues, July 5).
The partnership is being spearheaded by Nat Green, an African American businessman and a member of the university trustee board. One chair, endowed by a $1 million gift, was established by Charlie Johnson, a Black businessman who owns one of the largest minority-owned trucking companies in the United States.
For both majority and minority-serving institutions, nurturing deep support from their local minority communities represents a philanthropic challenge that is seen as promising but rarely attempted. Nevertheless, what a few majority White schools are finding are local minority communities in which business-
people and others are eager to assist in the advancement of institutions that demonstrate commitment to inclusion and diversity.
Nestled in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, George Mason University occupies a strategic position within that area’s high-tech economy. Because the region has long been home to information technology companies that provide services to the federal government, much of GMU’s science and engineering programs are geared towards supporting the computer and Internet industry base and conducting research in the information sciences.
As the Northern Virginia population and the regional economy have swelled over the past two decades, GMU has seen its enrollment grow and its intellectual stature rise with public affairs and information technology academic programs. Not until the mid-1990s did GMU officials begin to recognize that a highly successful group of Black, Hispanic and Asian entrepreneurs had established a base in Northern Virginia.
Since the 1970s and 1980s, with federal affirmative action programs giving them a boost, a number of Black and other minority entrepreneurs have built what are now some of the largest minority-owned companies in the nation. One successful Black high-tech entrepreneur, David Boyer, CEO and president of TROY Systems Inc. in Fairfax, Va., recalls having discussions with George Mason officials about the growing presence of minority entrepreneurs with whom the university had virtually no ties.
“There was a very real need by George Mason to reach out to all parts of the community,” says Boyer, one of the Minority Advisory Board’s founding members and the outgoing chairman of the GMU Foundation trustee board.
In late 1994, the Minority Advisory Board was created with the intent of helping GMU grapple with issues of diversity and inclusion. After getting established, the group developed programs that would encourage minority students and help them see GMU as an attractive institution. Minority Advisory Board members have established internships at their companies, which are open to all students but targeted at minorities.
Group members say they have not regarded GMU’s reputation for conservative academics as a hindrance to their goal of promoting and supporting the school as a place for diversity. Even a recent federal executive review curtailing the designation of private funds for race-conscious scholarships at public institutions did not deter the group from setting up an endowed scholarship fund. Though the awards are known as “Minority Advisory Board” scholarships, “socially disadvantaged” students belonging to any racial or ethnic group can apply for the funding.
“Two years ago when the board of visitors came back to us, they asked what kind of criteria we were using for the scholarship. They reviewed (the scholarship program) and came back and said we were doing the right thing,” says Taris Mullins, director of GMU partnership development.
So far, $500,000 has been pledged to the scholarship fund, including $285,000 already collected, according to Mullins. Last year, five students, including one White woman, were awarded $2,500 renewable scholarship awards. This past spring, an award went to a sixth student in addition to the five who received second-year grants. The sixth student won a scholarship that’s designated only for participants in GMU’s Early Identification program. For several years, GMU has brought in disadvantaged high school students from local counties during summers and provided them with academic enrichment classes and experiences.
“There’s a greater need for assistance by the students who come through the Early Identification program,” says William Soza, CEO of Soza & Company and a member of the GMU Minority Advisory Board.
Soza, who is Mexican-American, has pledged $100,000 to fund the scholarships for Early Identification program participants who eventually attend GMU for college.
The Minority Advisory Board, which has 61 members, sponsors an annual golf tournament that raises money for the endowed scholarship fund.
GOOD WILL AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Development experts say schools that pay special attention to minorities in their local communities can uncover considerable generosity and a willingness to mobilize support for an institution. Billie Sue Schulze, a program director at the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta, says the examples of major gifts from working-class African Americans, such as Oseola McCarty in Mississippi, should not be seen as isolated incidents, but rather as harbingers of untapped good will within non-White communities. In 1995, McCarty, a retired laundrywoman, donated $150,000, most of her life savings, to the University of Southern Mississippi.
Schulze says highly respected individuals, such as businesspersons and community activists, often represent the catalyst that enables an institution to draw support from a particular community. At the University of Missouri in St. Louis, Marian Oldham, the first Black woman to serve on the board of the University of Missouri system, established a scholarship fund for Black students at the St. Louis campus a few years before her death in 1994. She established the fund with the help of her personal friends. Ironically, Oldham, a longtime educator in St. Louis, had been denied admission to graduate school at the university because it prohibited Blacks from attending during the segregation era.
Schulze says the Marian Oldham Fund is supported by an annual gala benefit in St. Louis. The fund is valued at roughly $330,000 and yields five scholarship awards annually, according to a University of Missouri official.
Trisa Long Paschal, vice-president for institutional advancement at Spelman College, says it’s a positive development for all institutions when predominantly White schools are able to draw support from non-White communities. She says it’s particularly important for Blacks to develop a tradition of philanthropy that extends to higher education, an arena she believes is not supported enough by the Black community. Officials at historically Black schools should not feel a sense of competition with majority White schools because every institution is needed to develop higher education philanthropy in the Black community, according to Paschal.
“I think it’s good to have everyone working to gain Black support,” Paschal says.
Virgil E. Ecton, a former longtime senior executive with the United Negro College Fund, cautions local minority businesspersons and active citizens to hold majority White institutions accountable for their commitment to diversity, especially with regard to minority student retention, rather than getting caught up in the prestige and networking value of being affiliated with a particular institution.
“There has to be an assessment of what a group (such as GMU’s Minority Advisory Board) is attempting to achieve. Unless, there are outcomes and signs that progress are being made, (minority support efforts at predominantly White institutions) won’t work,” says Ecton, who is joining Howard University this fall as its vice president for university advancement.
Officials at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who are eager to gain recognition for their collaboration with Atlanta’s historically Black schools for producing high numbers of Blacks with masters’ degree in engineering fields, say the idea of tapping local minority businesspersons for minority student support might add to the progress they have achieved in graduating minority engineers. The school annually obtains support from major corporations, such as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors, for its dual degree programs with Black schools in Atlanta, such as Spelman College.
“We have corporations that have shown interest in endowing professorships that would attract minorities to the faculty, but haven’t seen interested individuals,” says Birgit Burton, director of foundation relations at Georgia Tech.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com