We Don't See This Every Day: A Private Equity Guy Steps Up Big for Black Studies

Since a 2014 police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, racial equity has been near the top of the national agenda in a way we haven't seen in decades. At the same time, though, the scholarly firepower focused on issues of race in U.S. universities has been in decline in recent years. Many black studies departments have been cut or reduced. Georgene Bess Montgomery, president of the National Council for Black Studies and associate professor at Clark Atlanta University, notes that “although we would like for black studies to be considered mainstream like a traditional department, that is not always the case."

Certain schools are seeing their programs cut in response to low enrollment numbers. Western Illinois University, for instance, recently cut its African-American studies major this summer after only 13 students picked it as their primary field of study in the 2015-16 school year, as the Chicago Tribunereports. Black studies also confronts challenges that the humanities and social sciences face. Do these majors translate into the employment opportunity after graduation?

Black studies as a discipline was born out of the civil rights movement, as the demand for greater representation of black Americans in academia rose. Black students at San Francisco State University organized during that era to establish a black studies division with its own chair, faculty and staff, and the ability to grant a bachelor's degree in the field. The department, the first of its kind nationally, launched in 1968, according to a 2012 article in the Journal of Pan African Studies.

Perhaps now, in an era of Black Lives Matter, with tensions at times spilling over to college campuses, black studies is poised for a comeback. 

Enter the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, which "supports research on the history and culture of people of African descent the world over and provides a forum for collaboration and the ongoing exchange of ideas." Prominent African-American Harvard professor and host of PBS' Knowing Your Roots, Henry Louis Gates Jr., directs the center, one of whose projects is to identify persons of color who served the continental cause in the American Revolution.

The center's benefactor, meanwhile, is Glenn Hutchins, whom we've written about before. A Harvard graduate, Hutchins co-founded Silver Lake Partners, a successful private equity firm specializing in technology and technology-enabled companies. Hutchins, via the family foundation he runs with his wife, Debbie, has a particular interest in this area. The foundation's education grantmaking aims to "support world-class research in African and African American studies, to revitalize undergraduate residential life and learning, to promote excellence in high school math and science and to bring the work of the academy to the public square."

OK, now, let's just state the obvious: We don't come across a lot of white finance guys who make it a point to support African African American scholarship. In fact, I can't think of any off the top of my head.

In an interview earlier this year, Hutchins told us that a reason he was drawn to this area was because, while issues of race are hugely important, they attract very little money from donors. Like so many of the newer philanthropists we're tracking, Hutchins is looking for places where he and Debbie can catalyze something new that wouldn't otherwise happen. Their other big investments—a research initative on chronic fatigue syndrome and a center on monetary and fiscal policy at the Brookings Institution—also focus in niches that don't attract much other donor support.  

A few years ago, Hutchins and Debbie helped found and endow the Hutchins Center African & African American Research with a $15 million donation. Now comes news that Hutchins has given a $10 million gift to the Hutchins Center. 

Related: A Three-Pronged Focus: A Look At Glenn Hutchins' Philanthropy

Some of these funds, $2 million, will be used for a new study of inequality experienced by African and African American residents in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, looking at housing, labor, criminal justice, and child welfare with the ultimate aim of influencing public policy. Prominent black sociologist William Julius Wilson will lead the effort, which will look at "cumulative adversity."

“By cumulative adversity, I mean people who have been exposed to multiple, different, and reinforcing hardships, racial hardships, and economic hardships,” Wilson explains.

Wilson, of course, is the preeminent black sociologist of his generation, best known for 1987 book, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy.

Meanwhile, Harvard itself has been the site of race-related activism including Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and it's worth noting that many prominent institutions have been challenged to improve relations in their broader communities.

As for Hutchins, expect the wealthy financier and family to continue to dig into this area in the coming years.

Related: Glenn Hutchins