OPINION: Twenty million dollar gift to rural HBCU is unprecedented. It shouldn’t be.

For 10 years in a row, Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C. has cracked the Top 10 of HBCUs ranked by U.S. News & World Report. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)
For 10 years in a row, Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C. has cracked the Top 10 of HBCUs ranked by U.S. News & World Report. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

President of Claflin University says HBCUs play critical role and deserve greater investment

Dwaun J. Warmack is president of Claflin University and a 2019 Eisenhower fellow.

In this guest column, Warmack discusses the $20 million gift to Claflin from novelist and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, who helped her ex-husband Jeff Bezos launch Amazon.

In the last four months. Scott has given away nearly $4.2 billion to 384 recipients. Among them was Clark Atlanta University, Georgia’s largest, private historically Black university, which received $15 million, its single largest gift in its history.

Warmack came to Claflin in 2019 from Harris-Stowe State University where he served as president for five years. Warmack was also a senior vice president at Bethune-Cookman University and associate dean of students at Rhodes College.

Here is an AJC story about Claflin’s remarkable history.

By Dwaun J. Warmack

Claflin University was recently honored with a landmark gift of $20 million—the largest in school history—which will accelerate our mission to prepare students to contribute, compete, and lead. For our small, rural community, this is a game-changer. Beyond the borders of our campus, this gift will power deeper investments in the greater Orangeburg, South Carolina community.

Claflin has consistently “punched above its weight” in higher education. Our rigorous, student-focused academic programs and top-tier faculty have earned us a top 10 HBCU ranking in U.S. News & World Report for the past decade. We are also ranked a Best National Liberal Arts Institution and are ranked No. 1 among HBCUs for annual alumni giving.

Yet, Claflin has been a well-kept secret nationally. Until now.

As we face a worldwide pandemic, uncertain economic conditions, and a racial reckoning, Americans are pausing to evaluate our institutions and weigh their effectiveness as tools for confronting 21st-century challenges. This gift enables us to take a bold step forward in pursuit of the economic and social justice outcomes we have always championed.

Claflin University President Dr. Dwaun J. Warmack
Claflin University President Dr. Dwaun J. Warmack

Consider our history. Claflin, an affiliate of the United Methodist Church, was founded in 1869 and is South Carolina’s oldest HBCU. We were the state’s first institution of higher education to open its doors to all students, regardless of gender, ethnic origin, race, or religion. Today, our campus is both a cutting-edge learning hub for our students and a center of cultural enrichment and economic empowerment for the Orangeburg community. We believe our track record is a model for how investing in an HBCU benefits everyone.

After all, HBCUs play an outsized role in American higher education. Nationwide, HBCUs award 26% of all bachelor’s degrees and 32% of all STEM bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students. Annually, HBCUs produce 134,090 jobs and $14.8 billion in total economic impact for their local and regional economies. South Carolina’s eight HBCUs generate $463 million in total economic impact, with Claflin contributing $79 million to the local and regional economies.

Although the accomplishments of HBCUs are celebrated, we must remember that many of these successes occur despite the limited resources of these institutions.

At Claflin, our endowment is $24 million, which is less than what some HBCUs have and much less than endowments at larger, predominately white schools like Harvard—which has $40 billion. The disparity is striking and underscores the significance of gifts like the one we received from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Strengthening our endowment to ensure long-term sustainability is a key priority for which we will use this gift.

Other top targets are fortifying student success and retention programs, bolstering initiatives aimed at excellence in teaching and learning, and adding to workforce and economic development throughout the community. Finally, part of the investment will go toward building a new, state-of-the-art student center that will be the cornerstone of our university’s living and learning community.

Claflin has a proud legacy of producing visionary leaders who are well equipped to deploy their values of justice and equity as they take on the world’s complex economic, social, and environmental problems. We invite you to support Claflin University as we continue our role as an agent for positive change.

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