Morgan State University announced Tuesday that it has received a $40 million gift from philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott, marking the largest single private donation in the university’s history.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Morgan President David Wilson said the school — Maryland’s largest historically Black university with an enrollment of more than 7,700 — received this “transformative” gift around two months ago and has had the difficult task of keeping it under wraps since then.
Scott’s donation more than doubles Morgan’s endowment, which Wilson said was $18 million when he arrived at the school about a decade ago. It mostly will be used to seed the university’s first-ever unrestricted endowment fund, which Wilson said will be used to support research and faculty development initiatives and bolster the university’s efforts to serve as a “transformational institution” in Baltimore.
After Wilson first got wind of the donation from Scott, the former wife of Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos, he reached out to her. He recalled a “glorious” conversation. She told him how impressed she was with the university’s efforts to promote racial justice and produce graduates who are the kinds of leaders the country needs.
“I had to collect myself,” Wilson said. “I was quite emotional upon hearing this because I wasn’t expecting someone would be on the other line, validating what I’ve known about Morgan since I’ve been here.”
After Wilson learned of the record-breaking gift, he called Donna Howard, the vice president of Morgan’s Division of Institutional Advancement. The two of them wondered at the donation, their “jaws on the floor,” Howard remembered.
“We’re just grateful that MacKenzie Scott is such an individual that understands the power of philanthropy and also the positive impact that higher education has in the health and well-being of individuals and communities in our nation,” she said.
Before Scott’s donation, the largest gift in Morgan’s history came from philanthropist and Morgan alumnus Calvin E. Tyler Jr. and his wife, Tina. Their $5 million donation established a scholarship fund that has supported students who are academically qualified but lack the resources necessary to pursue a college education.
In a post on Medium announcing the gifts, which totaled over $4.16 billion, Scott said her team started with a list of nearly 6,500 organizations, which they culled to about 822. Then they dug into evidence of impact, management and other factors before choosing 384 organizations.
“We do this research and deeper diligence not only to identify organizations with high potential for impact, but also to pave the way for unsolicited and unexpected gifts given with full trust and no strings attached,” Scott wrote.
Other Maryland organizations receiving donations from Scott include Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, both historically Black universities. Scott also gave to Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland, the Y in Central Maryland and United Way of Central Maryland.
Franklyn Baker, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Maryland, said Scott’s $20 million gift was the largest individual donation the organization ever received. He highlighted the significance of the unrestricted nature of the gift.
“We can literally use our best assessment based on data of gaps and need to determine where we park the investment. So, we are the arbiters of determining where that goes,” he said. “That’s a wonderful thing.”
Similarly, the $25 million Bowie State University received from Scott also was the largest it ever received, Bowie President Aminta Breaux said. Most of the funding will be used to grow the school’s endowment, Breaux said, which was just over $9 million before Scott’s gift.
When Breaux first heard of Scott’s donation, she admits she was a little skeptical of its legitimacy, what with all of the hacking and misinformation running around these days. So to see it come to fruition?
“It’s huge. Huge,” she said. “I can’t thank Mackenzie Scott enough for her generosity, for her commitment to making a difference in our country and with the organizations she is supporting.”
Scott was married to Bezos from 1993 to 2019. His current net worth of $182 billion makes him the wealthiest person on Earth. The former couple’s record-making divorce settlement left Scott with $35 billion, which she promised last year to thoughtfully and carefully give away “until the safe is empty.”
In July, Scott announced she had donated $1.7 billion to 116 organizations, including the historically Black institutions Howard University, Spelman College and Morehouse College.
Jacqueline Ackerman, associate director of research at the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, said the speed, transparency and careful research of Scott’s giving habits is like nothing she’s seen before. Thinking of what Scott’s donations will mean to nonprofits — which were stretched thin even before the pandemic — made Ackerman emotional while reading her latest Medium post.
“To be able to take a deep breath and know that you really can do what you need to do to help people in your community — I mean, the note that she wrote said there were tears on the phones when she and her team would call these nonprofits,” she said. “If I’m crying reading about it, it has to be really incredible for these organizations.”
Wilson praised Scott’s generosity, expressing hope that it will mark a new age of philanthropic giving, in which donors will invest in organizations that are “doing the heavy lifting” without receiving the resources they need, unlike already wealthy institutions, such as Harvard University, whose endowment was worth nearly $42 billion at the end of the most recent fiscal year.
“Why would you simply just want to grow and Xerox privilege, when there are institutions like Morgan that are not getting the billions, but basically are carrying the heavy load?” he asked.
Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy and author of the book “Giving Done Right,” echoed Wilson’s hope that Scott’s approach to giving will inspire other multi-billionaires to follow her lead.
Oftentimes, when philanthropists give to institutions of higher learning, Buchanan said they turn to their alma maters or the universities with the greatest name recognition — many of which cater disproportionately to the privileged — rather prioritizing the institutions that are the “real engines of equity and mobility.”
“There are also all of these institutions that are out there ... that have just quietly been doing a really good job with limited resources in attracting and graduating students who might not come from a lot of advantages, and yet somehow, they’re not on the map of the elite donors,” he said. “If she can help put them on the map and attract other donors that recognize them for the good work they do, that would be fantastic.”
In the meantime, though, Howard said it’s a “great, great, great, great” feeling to know that Morgan will have the sort of undergirding that such an endowment will provide, allowing the school to maintain stability and enhance its students’ success.
“Its just meant a lot, particularly now with the times that we’re in and all the ways we’ve been struggling and our students have been struggling,” she said. “It’s just a ray of hope.”