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Robert Smith Forgives the Student Loan Debt for 400 Morehouse Graduates

May 20, 2019, 7:00 PM UTC

Today’s raceAhead holds space for all the extraordinary college commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients who spoke from the heart this past weekend, nailed it, and then checked the news.

We know you did your very best.

But this this speech, delivered yesterday at Morehouse College by Robert Smith, the billionaire founder of Vista Equity Partners, is simply one for the ages:

“Men of Morehouse, you are surrounded by people who have helped you arrive at this sacred place on this sacred day,” he said to the crowd. And then he paused. “On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus. I’ve got the alumni over there,” he said with a nod, “and this is a challenge to you alumni. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

It took a minute to sink in. Then, the class of nearly 400 graduates of the all-male HBCU began to chant, “MVP! MVP!”

While it’s a gift worth about $40 million for the men of Morehouse, the move raises critical awareness for issues facing all students of color.

There are 44 million student borrowers who collectively owe $1.5 trillion in loan debt in the United States, the second highest consumer debt category in the country. But in general, black and Hispanic students rely more heavily on education financing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), an estimated 86.8% of black students borrow federal student loans to attend a four-year public college, as opposed to 59.9% of white students. They leave school owing more, earning less, and at greater risk of defaulting. And low-income and first-generation graduates are the most likely to default and are increasingly unable to find relief in an unforgiving and archaic system.

He ended his remarks by challenging the grads and alums to find a way to pay the gift forward, a dynamic that Smith knows well.

The private equity titan, who makes his money buying, developing, and selling software and data companies — and irreverently billed by Forbes (in a story he declined to be interviewed for) as “richer than Oprah” — has been a quiet philanthropic force for years.

Smith often gives through his Fund II Foundation, which has donated more than $40 million, anonymously, until recently, to preserve African American culture through the National Park System. Among other things, the fund has been instrumental in buying and saving the homes of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Wow. What a love-power move by Robert Smith,” Bernice A. King CEO of @TheKingCenter, tweeted after his speech. “I believe it’s the start of something major. I’m grateful for what Mr. Smith, who purchased my father’s birth home for the National Park Service, is doing for @Morehouse, which happens to be Daddy’s alma mater.”

But he opens his own checkbook, too. Smith was also the second biggest private donor to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, giving $20 million, just behind Oprah’s $21 million.

But like so many people, he was motivated to take more public stands after the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

He talked to The Washington Post as the NMAAHC prepared to open in 2016, and said he’d begun to fear that the country’s increasing racial divide was poised to derail the kinds of progress that meant once meant opportunity for people like him.

“The vision I was sold as a kid is unraveling. I see the little tears in the fabric of society every day. This cannot be,” he said. He talked about how has come to expect being harassed by the police while driving himself to the airport – to board his private jet. “You shouldn’t have to be fearful of your life,” he said. “You should be able to drive to the airport and not be stopped three to seven times a year.”

Since Mr. Smith has now become a household name, it may encourage other ultra-wealthy and self-made black entrepreneurs of his generation to assert their power more publicly. I suspect there are more than we might think, since they’re rarely included on the lists and related conferences that currently define public power.

While we wait, I’ll keep asking the bigger questions about why love-power moves like this are even necessary. We all should.

On Point

Nike adds language protecting pregnant athletes under contractAfter Alysia Montaño, an Olympian and U.S. national champion, wrote a devastating op-ed claiming that Nike would pause the contracts of athletes if they got pregnant, the athletic apparel maker has wised up. Nike is adding specific language to their contracts to protect the pay of athletes when they become pregnant. Previously, Nike held the right to reduce pay if runners failed to meet performance benchmarks for any reason, including pregnancy or childbirth. For her part, Montaño switched sponsors when Nike told her that they would stop paying her if she started a family. “The sports industry allows for men to have a full career and when a woman decides to have a baby it pushes women out at their prime,” she said in a video.Wall Street Journal

Today in mixed blessing news: GM has more women on their board than men
And, according to this must-read piece from Fortune’s Emma Hinchliffe, GM is not alone. Five others—Bed, Bath & Beyond, Casey’s General StoresViacom, CBS, and Omnicom Group—have boards of directors with more women than men. Another five—Ascena Retail Group, Best Buy, Navient, Williams-Sonoma, and Ulta Beauty—are at equal representation and some two-dozen others are above the 40% mark. And yet, women still held only 22.5% of Fortune 500 board seats in 2018, and many of them are the same white women, holding multiple seats.

A list of countries where same-sex marriage is legal
The Pew Research Center has done the talent and human resources divisions of global companies a service by providing this updated list of countries (or in some cases, certain jurisdictions) which have legalized same-sex marriage. It’s searchable alphabetically or chronologically. Either way, it’s a chronicle of progress. Give it up to The Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain and South Africa for being the first five on the board.
Pew Research Center

Racist “promposal” shows the increase of casual bigotry among students
An image of two Palos Verdes High School students went viral on social media as they were documenting a “promposal.” The problem was not adorability, it contained a racial slur. Experts say it’s a sign of the increasingly casual use of hate-speech in both in California and across the country. Brian Levin, director of Cal State San Bernardino's Center on Hate and Extremism says that segregated communities like those found in California breed ignorance and bigotry. “Many of these people who are engaging in hate speech are not hardcore hatemongers,” he says. “We have this middle group of people who think bigotry is funny.” In California, there was a 65% increase in hate crimes on elementary and secondary school campuses from 2012 to 2017 which Levin also attributes to the increased use of social media. “In today’s social media world, all kinds of bigotry — whether it’s committed purposefully or recklessly — oftentimes is going to be aired in a way that’s hurtful and divisive in a community, irrespective of intent.”
Los Angeles Times


On Background

Ghana stuns at the Venice Biennale
It’s the art world’s biggest international event, and Ghana’s long-awaited debut did not disappoint. The country’s first-ever pavilion, titled “Ghana Freedom” was designed by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, with exhibits curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim. It’s a multi-generational, multi-platform examination of Ghana’s post-colonial history and how independence has affected artists in Ghana and around the world. "I chose to show half male, half female, half rooted in Ghana and half in the diaspora, which is a small selection of our country's artists but presents as pluralistic an idea as possible," Ayim told CNN. Enjoy.

Online diversity training offers mixed results at best
A group of seven researchers created the best of all possible diversity trainings with an eye to testing the obvious: Do these things actually work? Click through for a detailed look at how they designed and distributed their training, which focused on gender diversity primarily and racial diversity secondarily. (I know, I know.) The tale of the tape? “Our diversity training had a significant positive effect on employees’ attitudes toward women across all measures collected,” they report. Sadly, it didn’t last long. Weeks later, researchers measured inclusion behaviors - like referrals of women candidates to mentorship programs, or the willingness of leaders to reach out to new, female hires and found no real impact. On race, “We found a significant main effect of diversity training on employees’ willingness to acknowledge the extent to which their own personal racial biases matched the racial biases of the general population (b = 0.193, P < 0.001), which was our sole attitudinal measure addressing racial bias,” they find.
PNAS Journal

Saying “in this #MeToo era” needs to stop
This is the pointed opinion of writer Leah Fessler, who is not here for it anymore. After a rollicking intro in which she documents the efforts of the “good guys” to separate themselves from the now-tainted rapists and abusers, she calls out how the phrase is deployed in corporate settings as some sort of gender cover. “There’s the hiring manager: ‘In this Me Too Era, we really need to be making sure we’re interviewing at least half women,’” she cites. Or the start-up bro. “All my VC intros have been to straight white dudes, but in this Me Too Era I should probably look for female partners, too.” The problem is, it’s a tell. “[T]he phrase ‘in this Me Too Era’ implicitly suggests that if it weren’t for the bounty of famous men exposed for being sexual predators, you wouldn’t be thinking this way,” she observes.

Aidan Taylor assisted in the preparation of today's summaries.


Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education… If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, 'brethren!' Be careful, teachers!
—Martin Luther King, Jr, writing in Morehouse College student newspaper, The Maroon Tiger, 1947