When Hollywood Helps Higher Education
February 01, 2023 | Emily Burden Rees
Hollywood breakups, breakdowns, and breakouts rarely affect the public beyond glances at the tabloids in a grocery store checkout line. A few Hollywood celebrities, however, have found a way to make an enduring public impact. Through their philanthropy, Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, and Oprah Winfrey have helped generations of college students.
In 2007, Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington pledged $1 million over 10 years to re-establish the debate team, which had been defunct for 80 years, at Wiley College. The actor became aware of the historically black college in Texas following the release of the film he directed, The Great Debaters. The film recounts when English professor and poet Melvin B. Tolson, played by Mr. Washington, led the debate team in 1935 to become the national debate champion over the University of Southern California, despite the challenges of segregation and economic depression. Denzel Washington renewed his $100,000-per-year gift in 2018, committing to an additional million.
Mr. Washington also gave $2 million in 2011 to endow a chair in theatre at Fordham University's Lincoln Center. He graduated from the school in 1977. Phylicia Rashad (best known for The Cosby Show) served as the inaugural Denzel Washington Chair in Theatre. The position rotates yearly so that students can benefit from a diverse roster of acclaimed directors, playwrights, actors, and set designers. In addition, he gave $250,000 to establish the Denzel Washington Endowed Scholarship for seniors studying theater. Pictured are the annual scholarship recipients between 2012 and 2017.
Left to right: Darby Davis ’16, MaYaa Boateng ’13, Daniel Velasco ’14, Eric Lawrence Taylor ’18, Amber Avant ’15, and Siena Zoë Allen ’15. Not pictured is Cesca Wolos-Fonteno ’17.
Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep and her husband, Don Gummer, gave $3.3 million to Vassar College through their foundation, the Silver Mountain Foundation for the Arts, between 2001 and 2014. Ms. Streep is a 1971 graduate of the private liberal arts college and has served on its board of trustees. She has also given four- and five-figure gifts to the Indiana University Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design, Northwestern University, Harvard Medical School, and Yale University.
Television personality and actress Oprah Winfrey, famous for her generosity, has donated more than $400 million to education, food insecurity, and other causes. She is a dedicated supporter of Morehouse College. Over the last 30 years, Ms. Winfrey has given $25 million to the Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program, providing full scholarships and service and leadership opportunities to more than 700 students at the all-male historically black college in Atlanta, GA. Recipients mentor local middle and high school students and serve abroad in South Africa.
Ms. Winfrey with Morehouse College Oprah Winfrey Scholars.
Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, and Oprah Winfrey are household names who have shined their Hollywood lights on higher education. Through their generosity, hundreds of students receive valuable educational and service opportunities and may also be inspired to give back to their alma maters in the future.