PRAIRIE VIEW, Texas — In-person learning resumed at Prairie View A&M University at the end of August, and the campus was soon buzzing with familiar sounds and sights: freshmen laughing in the dining hall, students walking across the sprawling yard in between classes.
There were also inescapable nods to our current era, like signs on light posts with different reminders, including “Today’s Task: Wear Your Mask.”
If colleges have been among the most disrupted institutions during the pandemic, they have also been centers of hope and resilience. At Prairie View, a historically Black university, some of that optimism has been magnified by a $50 million donation from MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Jeff Bezos, who has quietly given billions of dollars to underfunded organizations since 2020.
The president of Prairie View, Ruth Simmons, is using the money for initiatives to reignite the campus, including starting a writing program, opening a center for race and justice, increasing the university’s endowment and reserving $10 million for a grant program from which some students are already benefiting.
Joshua Gant, 21, remembers texting his mother several months ago about his remaining balance for the summer semester and his concerns about how it was going to get paid. He had applied for a Panther Success Grant — created in 2020 to provide support for students financially impacted by the pandemic — but had not heard back yet.
Born in Shreveport, La., Mr. Gant came to Prairie View to study mass communication and play trombone in the marching band. At the height of the pandemic, he juggled his music, a part-time job and his virtual classes, all while managing the anxiety and depression that crept in during isolation.
When he finally reached the financial aid office, Mr. Gant was told that if he didn’t pay off his tuition balance in time he would be dropped from his classes. Then, just before the deadline, $2,000 landed in his account and reduced his debt to $0.
“It said: Panther Success Grant has been added to your account,” Mr. Gant said. “I’m like, ‘Mom, you don’t have to worry about it.’ And she’s like, ‘Thank you, God.’”
The grant helped him quit his job so he could focus on graduating. He hopes to stay at Prairie View for graduate school, too, for audio engineering or radio broadcasting.
‘Our Future Is in Fund-Raising’
Students, faculty and graduates of historically black colleges and universities have a special kind of school pride.
This stems from the experience of attending schools where Black people aren’t the minority, where Black culture is celebrated and where the academic needs of Black students are a priority, despite historically racist systems that have made those aims difficult.
But what does it feel like when decades of underfunding and lack of support make it hard for an institution to meet all of its academic and operational demands?
Prairie View is the first state-supported college for African Americans in Texas and the second oldest public university in the state. Founded in 1876, it has been an incubator for Black talent. The school was built on a former plantation, where enslaved people worked the land, and, more than 140 years later, the university has educated tens of thousands of mostly African American students.
Nearly 9,000 students attend Prairie View. They come from various socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities; many are first-generation college students and immigrants.
Prairie View, one of two public H.B.C.U.s in the state, has historically received less money from the state government and philanthropists than state flagship schools like Texas A&M University, which was founded the same year.
In April, The Houston Chronicle reported that Prairie View spends a larger percentage of its overall budgets to provide scholarships and support services to students, but graduates a greater number of students with more debt than those at Texas A&M.
“One of the most difficult things that we do as a state institution is to try to persuade this government that we deserve to be supported at the highest level, and so they’re not there yet,” Dr. Simmons, Prairie View’s president, said in an interview. “After 1876 and all of the years that we have been at work doing what we do and providing a Black professional class for the state and doing so much for the state, there still is not enough recognition of the value of the institution.”
The state has worked to rectify these inequities and has made “generous” contributions, Dr. Simmons added, but she believes that bolstering the school’s funding initiatives is the key to a successful future.
“I’m certainly persuaded that our future is in fund-raising,” she said. “It’s not in being a supplicant to the state government.”
Philanthropists were galvanized to assist Black communities after last year’s nationwide protests in response to the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis and the exposure of the immense disparities between minority communities and nonminority communities.
In 2015, a similar tragedy hit the university close to home when Sandra Bland, a 2009 graduate of Prairie View, died inside a jail cell in Waller County three days after she was arrested by a white Texas state trooper during a traffic stop.
Her death spurred protests across the country as questions were raised about what happened at the jail. The Prairie View City Council later voted to change the name of University Drive, the roadway that leads to Prairie View A&M where she was stopped and arrested, to Sandra Bland Parkway.
Ms. Scott first made an anonymous donation of $10 million to Prairie View in November to help during the pandemic. She gave the remaining $40 million in December and allowed the university to reveal her as the source.
The university has used some of the money to create the Ruth J. Simmons Center for Race and Justice and the Toni Morrison Writing Program; revamped its library’s student center; and invested in faculty development and career services.
At the end of May, the school’s endowment was more than $142 million, up from $95 million the previous year. Tulane University in New Orleans, which enrolls about 5,000 more students than Prairie View, has a pooled endowment of about $1.4 billion.
Where Will the $40 Million Go?
Amid the excitement and optimism over the recent improvements there is also some wariness about how the additional funds from Ms. Scott will used. That concern may be underscored by past experience.
Imani Taylor, 21, a senior, said that she’s excited for the recent donations but hasn’t seen much change.
“I know a lot of students have wanted more parking, better housing,” said Ms. Taylor, who is studying management information systems.
She described the Wi-Fi on campus as “terrible.” “And especially since we’re in the middle of nowhere, even our cellular doesn’t always work,” she said. “So it’s times where the Wi-Fi will go out in the housing unit and we can’t do anything. It’ll even go out in the actual academic buildings.”
She was also a recipient of the new grant and said that it has been nice to have extra funds to support her along with her scholarships, but as someone who will graduate soon, she hopes to see the underclassmen reap more benefits in the future.
“Even if I don’t get to experience it, there’s going to be other generations that go here,” Ms. Taylor said. “And like I said, just improving the quality on campus will make a drastic difference in the lives of the students and the teachers.”
Prairie View is a small, largely rural city within Waller County that comes with the quirks of having limited cellular coverage, grocery stores and restaurants. Many students acknowledged that these issues aren’t all attributable to the school but that they would like to see more efforts being made to fix them.
Mr. Gant said that he notices the differences on campus between Prairie View and other, predominantly white institutions nearby with more funding and larger endowments.
“Right now we still don’t have some working water in my major’s department,” he said. “How are we supposed to wash our hands?”
Issues like these aren’t exclusive to Prairie View. Last month, students at Howard University began protesting against what they described as subpar living conditions inside the dorms, including mold growth and poor Wi-Fi connections.
Melanye Price, an endowed professor of political science and the director of the new race and justice center at Prairie View, said that when it comes to H.B.C.U.s, there is a tendency to believe that “we don’t take care of it well.”
“That’s not the whole story,” Dr. Price said.
She said that she had attended public schools from kindergarten through graduate school, including Prairie View as an undergraduate in the 1990s. The only school that wasn’t underfunded, she said, was a predominantly white institution, Ohio State University, where she received her Ph.D.
“Endowments allow you to do the things that the state won’t pay for,” Dr. Price said. “Endowments allow you to bring back top-shelf professors and scholars to teach here because we can cut down the number of classes they can teach. Endowments help us fund more students to not drop out of school because they can’t come up with $600.”
Having a deep endowment, she said, is key to “do all the things we’ve been dreaming about over time.” She also described it as a safety net. “There are some schools for whom, if in Covid, they had to give back all the tuition — I’m thinking Harvard, Princeton, University of Texas — they would still have enough money in their endowment to make it,” she said. “We wouldn’t.”
Dr. Price said that Prairie View takes those who have been “underserved” in their early education and turns “them into engineers.” For the most part, she said, the students there are “not trying to choose between Harvard and us. We’re taking kids who are choosing between nothing and us, and we’re saying, ‘I know nobody expected you to go to college. I know you were not well prepared in your high school.’”
Marquinn Booker, a 22-year-old from Houston and the president of Prairie View’s student body, gave the welcome remarks at the first virtual gathering for the Toni Morrison writing program. The event featured its inaugural writer-in-residence, the poet Nikki Giovanni.
When it comes to the future of the university, Mr. Booker said, he’d like to see the state and others assist more in helping the university build a stronger infrastructure. But regardless of what happens, he is certain that Prairie View will continue to support its students.
“I’m going hard behind Prairie View because Prairie View has given me something that I haven’t received anywhere else,” he said. “Once you receive your degree, you’re supporting the fight behind your education.”
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