A Brief History of Robert F. Smith’s Work with Morehouse College

Morehouse Robert F. Smith Speech

Robert F. Smith’s 2019 announcement that he would pay off all student loans accrued by that year’s graduating class at Morehouse College made headlines nationwide. The donation was more than just a grand philanthropic gesture, though. Smith has been a friend of Morehouse College for years, and his work with the Atlanta HBCU is far from over. 

Recently, Morehouse College President David Thomas spoke to Alan Fleischmann for a special edition of SiriusXM Business Radio’s “Leadership Matters” about the Historically Black College, where he gave insight into Smith’s impact on the school. 

Smith’s Early Work with Morehouse

In his interview for SiriusXM’s “Leadership Matters” program, Morehouse President David Thomas talked to  Alan Fleischmann in an episode titled: “Robert Smith Didn’t Show Up Out Of The Blue & Do A Publicity Gathering Moment.” Thomas highlighted some of Smith’s earlier work with Morehouse, including the first time Smith visited the college. Smith spent the full day visiting with students, and by the end of that day he had committed $1 million to the school. Smith also promised Thomas that he would buy a building for the college that it wanted for expansions but had not been able to raise the funds for.

Thomas explained that Smith hadn’t paid off the Class of 2019’s student loans to create publicity for himself, but rather he had formed a connection with the school and wanted to do something truly transformative for its students.Fleischmann responded that he had met with Smith on Morehouse’s campus, as well, and that he remembered how many students Smith had spoken to on that day. Fleischmann, Thomas and Smith walked by the building that Morehouse had wanted to purchase, and Smith immediately increased his donation to the school to fund the purchase of the building.

How Donations to HBCUs Have Changed Because of Smith

David Thomas noted the impact that Smith’s 2019 donation had for Morehouse College, and the ripple effect it had for HBCUs across the nation, and for philanthropists worldwide. Since Smith’s pledge to pay off 2019 graduates’ student loans, more and more philanthropists have made large-scale donations to Historically Black colleges for the benefit of the education of BIPOC students. He told Fleischmann that Smith’s donation was the catalyst that made many re-evaluate how they had previously valued the importance of Historically Black colleges and universities, which in turn, empowered several other philanthropists to give to HBCUs.

“Since Robert’s gift, there have been more eight-figure gifts to Historically Black colleges than in the entire existence of Historically Black colleges, even when you control for inflation,” Thomas said. Following the announcement of  Smith’s Morehouse gift, he launched the Student Freedom Initiative, which is dedicated to funding higher education for minority students. The initiative’s goal is to “ensure freedom in professional and life choices for students attending Minority Serving Institutions,” such as HBCUs.

In January 2021, Forbes highlighted philanthropist MacKenzie Scott’s collective $800 million in donations to higher education institutions in 2020, much of which went to improve educational opportunities for minority students. “Unlike typical highly publicized donations, none of Scott’s university gifts went to institutions that could be considered wealthy or prestigious,” writes Akil Bello in Forbes. “Representing a scale of giving these institutions don’t normally receive, the donations will be a driver of economic growth and social mobility for students who will benefit the most from the infusion of funding.”

Along with Smith and Scott, Netflix founder Reed Hastings and his wife Patti Quillin also made a nine-figure donation to Historically Black colleges in 2020. They donated $120 million, which was equally split among the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), Spellman College and Morehouse College. The money went directly to funding scholarships for students so they could “graduate with less debt and more opportunity.”

For more information on alternatives to fund education for students at Minority Serving Institutions like Morehouse College, check out the Student Freedom Initiative.