Robert F. Smith
Robert F. Smith
Robert Frederick Smith (born December 1, 1962) is an American businessman, investor and philanthropist. A former chemical engineer and investment banker, he is the founder, chairman and CEO of Private Equity firm Vista Equity Partners. Robert Smith was ranked by Forbes in 2016 as the 274th richest person in America, the second wealthiest black person on the list after Oprah Winfrey. He was #688 on Forbes 2016 list of the world’s billionaires, with a net worth of $3 billion.In 2017, Smith was named by Forbes as one of the 100 greatest living business minds in the world.
Robert Smith, Vista Equity Partners, at 2015 Color of Wealth Summit
Robert F. Smith
The $40 Million Dollar Graduation Gift
“This is my class, 2019. My family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans,” Smith told graduates on Sunday. (COURTESY OF MOREHOUSE COLLEGE)
Philanthropist surprised Morehouse College graduates at commencement by announcing he would pay off their student loans.
The commencement speakers have a routine: a few words of encouragement, a good—or maybe not so good—joke, and a bit of advice. But this year, Robert F. Smith, the billionaire founder of the private equity firm Vista Equity Partners, who delivered the commencement address on Sunday morning at Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, took a different approach.
“Your great Morehouse men are bound only by the limits of your own conviction and creativity,” Smith told the soon-to-be graduates of the venerated HBCU (historically black college or university). Smith then did something astonishing: He did what he could to make that actually true, telling the class that his family would be eliminating the graduates’ student debt. The crowd, as expected, went wild.
The gift, estimatedabout $40 million, is expected to clear the debts of nearly 400 graduates in this class—and is the single largest donation from a living donor to an HBCU in history. The gift is, of course, significant in a political sense, coming at a time when candidates for president and other politicians are seriously mulling debt cancellation; but it is also significant for these black men at Morehouse in particular.
According to a report from the Center for American Progress, black students are more likely to take out student loans than their white peers, and nearly half of black borrowers default on their student loans. One Morehouse graduate told the Associated Press that he had $200,000 in student debt, and that when Smith announced the gift, “we all cried. In the moment it was like a burden had been taken off.” By eliminating these graduates’ debt, Smith is very directly changing their future.
The thing about generosity, though, is that it is not a salve for systemic problems. Smith, who has a net worth of $4.5 billion, could eliminate debt for thousands more—and some parents hope that he will. (“Maybe he’ll come back next year,” the father of one Morehouse graduate, who has another son who is currently a junior, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) But one billionaire can only help so many, and more than 40 million people in the United States have student loans. And no graduation gift can help the millions of young people who never complete their degree.
It’s for this reason that several Democratic presidential candidates believe that the problem of mass student debt requires a systemic approach and have proposed various “free college” policies. Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, has pushed to make public four-year colleges, community colleges, and trade school tuition-free. Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have signed on to debt-free college legislation. Elizabeth Warren has called for a fund of at least $50 billion to help historically black colleges in particular, as well as other minority-serving institutions, known as MSIs. And in addition to making public colleges tuition-free, her plan would also allow private historically black colleges, such as Morehouse, Howard University in Washington D.C., or Spelman College, to opt in to the federal tuition-free college program. Republicans argue, however, that injecting more federal money into colleges would simply encourage them to drive their tuition up more.
“This is my class,” Smith told the graduates and their families, “and I know my class will pay this forward.” Perhaps this is the start of a new trend; HBCUs are not used to receiving such large donations from living donors, and now the record—first a $30 million gift to Spelman back in December, now $40 million to Morehouse—has been broken twice in the past six months. Smith said he hopes that “every class has the same opportunity going forward.” But what are the chances? How many Smiths are out there, ready to swoop in?ADAM HARRIS is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers education. (May 5, 2019)
Robert F. Smith’s speech at the 135th Commencement at Morehouse College
Published on May 19, 2019
Morehouse College 135th Commencement
Who Is Robert Smith? Learn More About the Billionaire Whose Generosity Shocked a Graduating Class
Hope Smith and Robert Smith attend the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Awards Dinner at the New York Hilton on December 13, 2017 in New York City.Gilbert Carrasquillo—FilmMagic/Getty Images
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Founded in 1867 in the basement of Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., by the Rev. William Jefferson White, with the encouragement of former slave the Rev. Richard C. Coulter and the Rev. Edmund Turney of the National Theological Institute, Morehouse College has had a 150-year legacy of producing educated men and global leaders.
Starting as Augusta Institute under the first president, Dr. Joseph T. Robert, the institution was created to educate black men for careers in ministry and teaching. At the urging of the Rev. Frank Quarles, the school moved to Atlanta’s Friendship Baptist Church in 1879 and changed its name to Atlanta Baptist Seminary.
The seminary moved to downtown Atlanta, and then, in 1885, to a former Civil War battleground site in Atlanta’s West End under President Dr. Samuel T. Graves. By 1897, the institution had become Atlanta Baptist College.
Dr. George Sale was named president in 1890, and Atlanta Baptist College expanded its curriculum and established a tradition of educating leaders for all American life.
During the tenure of the College’s first African American president, John Hope, the College was renamed Morehouse College in 1913, in honor of Henry L. Morehouse, corresponding secretary of the National Baptist Home Missionary Society.
Dr. Samuel H. Archer lead the College as president during the Great Depression, giving the College its adopted colors of maroon and white. (1931-1937)
Beginning in the 1940s, the College’s international reputation in scholarship, leadership, and service began to flourish, particularly as then-president, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, oversaw the increase of faculty members with doctoral degrees, accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and the establishment of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter.
Under the presidency of Dr. Hugh M. Gloster ’31, the first alumnus to serve as president, the College expanded its endowment to more than $29 million, completed a $20-million fund-raising campaign, and added 12 new campus buildings. The Morehouse School of Medicine was founded in 1975 and became independent in 1981
During the administration of eighth president, Dr. Leroy Keith Jr., the College’s endowment increased to more than $60 million, with faculty salaries and student scholarships also increasing. Buildings such as the Nabrit-Mapp-McBay Hall and the Thomas Kilgore Jr. Campus Center were constructed, and the College produced its first Rhodes Scholar, Nima A. Warfield. The College’s A Candle in the Dark Gala was founded in 1989 to raise scholarship funds during this time.
Dr. Walter E. Massey ’58, Morehouse’s ninth president, ushered in a 21-century approach to learning; his vision was for the College to become the nation’s best liberal arts college. Morehouse leaders expanded the College’s dual-degree program in natural sciences, launched the Center for Excellence in Science, Engineering and Mathematics, and established a new African American studies program.
The Andrew Young Center for International Affairs was established in 1993 and the Morehouse Leadership Program was established in 1995. These were combined into a new Center in 2012, named the Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership, for the former United Nations ambassador.
The Davidson House Center for Excellence, the president’s official residence and a mini-conference center, was constructed during this time, as was the Dr. John H. Hopps Technology Tower, in honor of Hopps ’58, an administrator, professor, and scientist committed to enhancing scientific research on campus.
Two more students became Rhodes Scholars: Chris Elders in 2002 and Oluwabusayo “Tope” Folarin in 2004.
By June 2006, the College had successfully completed its most ambitious capital campaign, raising a record $112 million, far exceeding the campaign’s goal of $105 million. That same year, Morehouse became the custodian of the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection, more than 10,000 hand-written notes, sermons, letters, books. and other artifacts belonging to King, the College’s most noted alumnus.
Dr. Robert M. Franklin Jr. ’75 became president in 2007 and led the institution forward with his vision of the “Morehouse Renaissance,” further elevating public confidence in the College’s stature as a premier institution providing quality education and enhancing institution’s intellectual and moral dimension. He accomplished this in part by establishing the “Five Wells”— well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, well-dressed, and well-balanced—which were about developing men of Morehouse with social conscience and global perspective.
Franklin oversaw the completion of a $20-million project started by Massey, the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center and Music Academic Building, a facility named after the late legendary musician. The latter building would later be named The Aretha Robinson Music Academic Building, for Ray Charles’ mother. Franklin also led cultivation efforts that increased the total number of new donors at the College by 4,500. Morehouse generated more than $68 million in institutional funds and $60 million in restricted funds from federal sources, including Congressional appropriations and competitive federal grants.
In 2013, Dr. John Silvanus Wilson Jr. ’79 was named the College’s 11th president. He and his team were champions of STEAM initiatives (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) and significantly increased the College’s private gifts, grants and contracts. During Wilson’s tenure, computer science major Prince Abudu ’16 became the College’s fourth Rhodes Scholar.
Wilson played a pivotal role in bringing U.S. President Barack Obama to Morehouse as the 2013 Commencement speaker and in hosting Vice President Joseph Biden in 2015.
William James Taggart assumed the role of interim president of the College in 2017 after serving as chief operating officer since 2015. A results-driven leader in the private and public sectors, Taggart had more than 30 years of experience with Fortune 500 companies, higher education, and federal agencies. Tragically, just two months after his appointment, Taggart suddenly passed away in June 2017.
Harold Martin Jr. ‘02 left the Morehouse Board of Trustees temporarily to accept an appointment as interim president in June 2017, becoming the youngest person to lead the College since 1913. The attorney and business consultant with an extensive background in advising senior executives at higher education institutions and Fortune 500 companies served Morehouse College until Dec. 31, 2017. Under Martin’s steady leadership, the College began to heal after suffering the tragic loss of Taggart.
Martin set campus-wide priorities to improve accountability, boost enrollment, increase the graduation rate, and highlight the contributions of young alumni. He guided a rebranding and expansion of the Office of Alumni Services. The department was changed to the Office of Alumni Engagement and Giving and a new initiative was launched — the Morehouse College Young Alumni Engagement Program. In addition, Martin was also instrumental in the launch of the program’s successful “We are Morehouse” campaign and website wearemorehouse.com, which uses images and business profiles of hundreds of successful young alumni who graduated after 1990 to communicate Morehouse’s unique value proposition to prospective students, friends, and donors.
In October 2017, the Morehouse Board of Trustees voted to name Dr. David A. Thomas as the 12th President of Morehouse, ushering in a new era of leadership for the College. Thomas took office on Jan. 1, 2018. A visionary leader, Thomas has 30 years of higher education experience as a professor and an administrator. He holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior Studies and a Master of Philosophy in Organizational Behavior degree, both from Yale University. He also has a Master of Organizational Psychology degree from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Administrative Sciences degree from Yale College.
Thomas is the former H. Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and the former Dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, where he raised $130 million in a five-year capital campaign.
Thomas is the first Morehouse President in 50 years who did not graduate from the College. (The last President who was not an alumnus was Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, Morehouse’s revered sixth President.) Thomas’ childhood dream, however, was to attend Morehouse, but his family could not afford the tuition. As a result, he plans to launch a major capital campaign to raise millions of dollars to support student scholarships so that deserving students who also dream of becoming Morehouse Men are not shut out because they can’t afford to attend. In addition, Thomas plans to raise funds to support campus renovations, faculty research, infrastructure improvements, and other needs. His other priorities include expanding academic and leadership opportunities for students, increasing the graduation rate, and growing enrollment to 2,500 scholars.
Morehouse is the world’s only HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) for men. It has produced four Rhodes Scholars, several college presidents, and leaders in many other fields. According to the National Science Foundation, Morehouse is the nation’s top producer of black males who continue their education and receive doctorates. The National Science Foundation also ranked Morehouse as the No. 1 producer of black men who receive doctorates in education, life and physical sciences, math and computer sciences, psychology and social sciences, as well as humanities and the arts. Morehouse currently has more than 17,000 alumni representing more than 40 states and 14 countries.
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