Recently, education website Inside Higher Ed, noted the record number of applicants to many HBCUs in 2020-2021.. But that applicant number may grow with the return of a HBCU to the higher education family — and its unique offer to educate students for free. Previously known as Lewis College of Business, an HBCU that closed in 2013 for financial reasons, the school will reopen in March 2022 as a free design school with a new name to teach Black students design skills. According to Fast Company, this is the “first time ever an HBCU has reopened after closing.”
Lewis College of Business was a historically Black college based in Detroit founded in 1928 as a secretarial school for Black women and designated as an HBCU in 1987. The new school will be called Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design in honor of its founder, D’Wayne Edwards, a former Nike design director who leads the nonprofit Pensole Design Academy. The Academy will focus on teaching marginalized students design and art skills to enter the shoe-design industry, and will bring in corporations including Nike, Adidas and Levi’s to offer internship opportunities for students.
Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design hopes to boost the number of Black students pursuing careers in design. HBCUs in America produce 27% of Black graduates in STEM, 50% of all Black teachers and doctors, and 80% of Black judges in the United States. However, in a study done by Edwards himself, Black students only make up “9% of the population in 96 art and design schools”, and only 4.8% of employees in the design industry.
Robert F. Smith’s Support of Black Students’ Careers
Many of Robert F. Smith’s philanthropic efforts work to help Black students achieve professional and academic success and to expand access to the arts for underrepresented groups.
Smith made headlines in 2019 for pledging over $34 million to Morehouse College graduates, which helped clear loan debt for around 400 students and their families. To further his commitment to reducing Black student loan debt, he helped launch Student Freedom Initiative, a nonprofit that offers funding alternatives to STEM students attending participating HBCUs. Student Freedom Initiative was launched with two major donations: a $50 million donation from the Fund II Foundation, of which Smith is founding director and President, and a matching $50 million gift from Smith in October 2020. Outside of financial help, the program provides internships, mentoring, tutoring and other student and school services to all students at participating schools.
As an advocate for making the arts more inclusive, Smith works with many philanthropic groups. He serves as chairman for the Board of Trustees at Carnegie Hall, one of the most iconic music venues in the world. As chairman, Smith has helped “grow Carnegie Hall’s extensive music education initiatives in schools and communities” so music and artists can reach the “widest possible audience.” On Smith’s election as chairman, Carnegie Hall President Sanford I. Weill said, “he recognizes that music education is important to the intellectual development of young people and that we must play a role in returning music to our schools.”
Smith is also a supporter of Sphinx Foundation, a nonprofit focused on increasing representation of Black and Latinx classical musicians. In 2016, Smith made a $250,000 donation to the Sphinx Organization, and Fund II Foundation contributed another $3 million in 2019. After Smith’s donation in 2016, the organization created the Robert Frederick Smith prize to award one extraordinary musician participating in the program.