Is Papa John’s $500K Gift to Bennett a New Day for HBCU Philanthropy? Or the Same Old Story of Missed Opportunity?

Just over four months ago, Papa John’s was Public Enemy #1 on historically black campuses across the country. Racist remarks from founder John Schnatter has just hit the airwaves, and business partners of the national pizza chain were looking for a way out of their relationships.

Schools were abandoning agreements to sell Papa John’s pizza on campus, and while the company had zero sponsorship agreements with black colleges, schools like Morehouse College also gave the chain the boot.

But Papa John’s appears to be turning over a new leaf, announcing this morning a $500,000 gift to Bennett College to help the school retain its accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, and a pledge of support to Simmons College of Kentucky, the latest campus to earn HBCU federal designation.

“Papa John’s has supported educational institutions of all levels for years and we are a proud partner to many colleges across the country. That legacy continues through The Papa John’s Foundation’s support of Bennett College,” said Steve Ritchie, CEO of Papa John’s. “In August 2018, I committed to establishing a corporate foundation, and I’m pleased that its first grant will go to an institution that shares our values of equity, fairness, respect and opportunity.”

The gift was sorely needed; with the $500,000, Bennett remains about $3 million short of its $5 million goal and Feb. 1 fundraising deadline. If unsuccessful, Bennett will either be forced to close its doors or to sue the accrediting body for a stay of accreditation while seeking admission into another accrediting membership so that students can continue to receive financial aid.

On the surface, the gift appears to be a corporate boost for a college in crisis-level need of fund and friend-raising in the final days before learning its fate. But a look just below the surface of Papa John’s historic support of Bennett and Simmons shows something that has always troubled the HBCU sector, particularly in its efforts to court white wealth.

Why is bailing out HBCUs a more attractive ask then building them?

The obvious question for Papa John’s is ‘why now’ and not weeks, months or years ago? If there was a relationship between Bennett and the pizza company’s philanthropic leadership, why swoop in at literally the last minute with just 10% of the school’s ultimate goal and more than 60% yet to be raised?

If Bennett is unsuccessful in meeting its fundraising goal, what will support from Papa John’s look like into the school’s future under another accreditor? Will it be more millions, more workforce development or entrepreneurial opportunities? And if there are millions to be given in the future for a partnership with Bennett, could a case be made for Papa John’s to give it now to ensure the school can actually make good on the partnership, simply through staying open?

And how was Bennett targeted for such a large and public gift, when other HBCUs in far less dire straits could have made effective cases as beneficiaries with with far less to lose than accreditation?

Bennett has lost its accreditation and Simmons is accredited through the Association For Biblical Higher Education Commission On Accreditation. Both schools, like most HBCUs, needed major investment years ago to realize their full potential. Instead, the intent of supporting may help both schools to avoid the indignity of closure, but it is still leagues away from helping both to achieve sustainable systems for recruitment, teaching and training, and expanding.

If we take a sincere view of Papa John’s gifts, we can see them as really generous efforts that get two worthy schools closer to the finish line, but not quite over it. That’s particularly tough for Bennett, which, save for a lot of circumstances beyond the control of their leadership and graduates, doesn’t deserve to be teased with a 10% stake in survival, it deserves to survive.

If we take a cynical view of corporate philanthropy being a kinder, gentler form of marketing to potential customers, then Papa John’s HBCU Day of Support would seem to be a genius reversal of their bad fortunes from the Schnatter fall out. Help two struggling HBCUs with gifts that will make regional and national attention, and pledge ongoing support for them once they avoid drowning in debt or obscurity.

And if they don’t make good on your investment, you forever have the brand of being one of the few corporate bodies who earnestly tried to save them.

Bennett deserves support today as it did 10 years ago, and Simmons deserves a chance to thrive. But they don’t deserve to be the targets of ill-timed or opportunistic philanthropy when their very existence depends on it. HBCUs which aren’t on the verge of closure do not deserve to be taunted by major gifts which, if they had received them, actually could have generated more of a return on investment than paying off debts and keeping lights on.

Papa John’s is trying, and for that they deserve credit. But from where a lot of us stand, it is difficult to tell if they should be credited for caring, or for having a calculated strategy on how to get back in the good graces of Black America without real investment in the same.