Robert F. Smith, World Economic Forum

May 19, 2019; NBC News

Robert F. Smith will be a hard act to follow. As the speaker at the commencement ceremony of Morehouse College, the founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners pledged an estimated $40 million to pay off the student loans of every one of the school’s 396 graduating seniors. This was the second mega-gift to a historically black college or university (HBCU) in the past year—Spelman received a $30 million gift in December—and the largest ever to Morehouse or another HBCU.

Smith was the first Black signer of the Giving Pledge. He has given generously to higher education in the past, donating $50 million to Cornell, his alma mater, in 2016. That gift established a fellowship program and, according to Inside Philanthropy, which wrote a good summary of his giving a year ago, supported black and women students at Cornell’s College of Engineering. He has also pledged to pay for the education of 24 Chibok girls, including 21 released by Boko Haram. On the whole, he has given generously through his Fund II Foundation to a variety of diverse causes.

Of course, yesterday, he invested directly in people by eliminating unreasonable and sometimes crushing barriers to their future success and it took a moment for the crowd to really register the commitment.

Smith, who was given an honorary degree from Morehouse, declared, “This is my class, and I know my class will pay this forward.”

“You great Morehouse men are bound only by the limits of your own conviction and creativity,” said Smith, who is estimated to be worth $4.4 billion. “On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus, and I’m counting on you to load up that bus.”

When Dr. King said that the “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” he wasn’t saying it bends on its own accord. It bends because we choose to put our shoulders into it together and push.


That’s our reality. This is the world you are inheriting. I don’t want you to think that I’m bitter, nor do I want you to be bitter. I call upon you to make things better, because the great lesson of my life is that, despite the challenges we face, America is truly an extraordinary country and our world is getting smaller by the day. And you are equipped with every tool to make it your own.

Oscar nominated actress Angela Bassett also spoke at the ceremony, ringing out some of the same notes. “I want you to proudly walk in your own shoes,” she said, “and you know what it’s like when you get a new pair of shoes? I want you to be uncomfortable, I want you to be mindful, I want you to be wary.”

Some presidential candidates are taking up the causes of student debt and HBCUs. This gift is tailor-made to point to the depths of a far larger systemic problem.—Ruth McCambridge