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Howard University receives largest gift in its history for STEM scholars program

The $10 million donation is the latest in a string of record-breaking gifts to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Founder's Library at Howard University to be renovated
The Founder's Library at Howard University, February 29, 2016, in Washington, DC.Evelyn Hockstein / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

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By Liam Knox

Howard University received the largest donation in its 153 year history to fund its efforts for diversity STEM fields.

The $10 million gift from the Karsh Family Foundation will go toward the university’s Karsh STEM Scholars Program, which provides scholarships covering all tuition and fees for about 30 students each year.

The program, formerly known as the Bison STEM Scholars Program and renamed after the historic gift, was founded in 2017 to diversify STEM professions and “increase the number of underrepresented minorities earning a Ph.D. or combined M.D./Ph.D. in a STEM discipline.”

Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick told NBC News that the new gift, which follows a $4 million donation to the program made last month, is reflective of the program’s early success.

“We were able to attract highly qualified students who can actually get into any major university in the country ... but thought the idea of pursuing a degree in STEM with compatriots who look like them and had similar lived experiences would be attractive,” Frederick said.

According to a 2013 study by the National Science Foundation, Howard is the number one producer of African American undergraduates who go on to pursue a Ph.D. in a science or engineering-related field, and all but one of the top 10 are HBCUs.

Jarrett Carter, the founder of “HBCU Digest”, said HBCUs like Howard are becoming a focus of initiatives to diversify STEM professions not only because of their proven track record, but because of their relative affordability -- especially when compared to STEM research juggernauts like Stanford University.

“In as much as they're trying to grant equity and opportunity, [donors] are interested in schools that are conscious of how much it costs for someone to go there and get a top quality education,” Carter said.

Howard’s historic donation is just one in a line of record-breaking gifts to HBCUs in the past year. Spelman College received a $30 million donation from one of its trustees in December, the largest in its 137-year history. And in October, Oprah Winfrey established a record-breaking $13 million endowment at Morehouse College.

“It speaks to this growing … recognition that you can't say that you believe in equity in American excellence and not invest in HBCUs,” Carter said.

One of the reasons Frederick thinks Howard can attract more highly qualified African American STEM students than other prestigious research institutions is because its faculty is much more diverse, an especially distinguishing feature in science, engineering and mathematics. According to a 2017 study in “Educational Researcher,” black professors make up 0.7% of biology faculty are 1.4% of chemistry faculty nationwide, whereas 83% of biology professors and 81% of chemistry professors are white. At Howard, 70% of the faculty are black.

Why is this significant? Carter put it simply: “You can't be what you can't see,” he said.

Frederick hopes that graduates of Howard’s STEM scholars program will help bring diverse perspectives to a field that, he said, suffers from cultural and racial blindspots. He said this helps explain why facial recognition technology doesn’t work for many African Americans or why funding for research on Sickle Cell Disease, which disproportionately affects African Americans, receives less funding than many less prevalent diseases.

“Having African American students who are culturally competent and sensitive to the needs of the broader population allows us to develop our technologies and apply them in a way that does not harm those communities as they have in the past,” Frederick said.