"Remove All Obstacles." Behind a Historic Gift to Boost STEM Diversity

ByMike Scutari

Washington, D.C.’s Howard University recently received a $10 million gift from the Karsh Family Foundation to endow its Bison STEM Scholars Program, which provides scholarships covering all tuition and fees for about 30 students each year. Founded in 2017, the program produces more underrepresented minorities earning a Ph.D. or combined M.D./Ph.D. in a STEM discipline than any other institution in the U.S. Howard will rename the program the Karsh STEM Scholars Program in recognition of the gift.

The Karsh Family Foundation was founded in 1998 by Bruce A. Karsh, the co-founder and co-chairman of the Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital Management, and his wife Martha L. Karsh, an attorney and designer. To date, the foundation has awarded approximately $250 million to support education and scholarships. Forbes recently pegged Bruce’s net worth at $2.2 billion.

“We are excited to endow this visionary program at Howard,” said the couple. “Simply put, we believe education, expertise and research in STEM fields will define mankind’s future, and we are proud to be able to help Howard attract and support the best and brightest students for its already renowned program.”

The commitment is the latest in an impressive run of gifts flowing to perpetually underfunded historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) over the past 12 months, suggesting that the success of HBCUs in achieving equity at scale is resonating with funders in a big way.

Meet the Karshes

Bruce Karsh, whom Inside Philanthropy recently profiled as one of the private credit industry’s top givers, attended Duke University as an undergraduate and then University of Virginia Law (UVA), where he met Martha. He co-founded the Los Angeles-based investment firm Oaktree Capital Management in 1995. The firm has roughly $122 billion of assets under management.

Launched in 1998, the Beverly Hills-based Karsh Family Foundation focuses on educational and health institutions, as well as Jewish charities. Recipients include Brown University, the Jewish Museum, Teach for America and the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences. Karsh and his wife funded the Karsh Family Social Services Center in Los Angeles. Karsh also co-founded the Santa Monica-based Painted Turtle, a nonprofit camp for children with life-threatening diseases.

In 2011, the couple donated $50 million to Duke for an endowment to support need-based financial aid for undergraduate students. In 2018, they gave UVA Law $43.9 million to fund the school’s student scholarship program, establish the Karsh Center for Law and Democracy, and create an endowed professorships fund to support faculty associated with the new center.

The couple’s support for the historically black Spelman College dates back to 2012. In 2018, they gave the school a $2 million gift to fund annual and endowed scholarships that support graduates of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools, a nationwide network of open-enrollment, college-preparatory public charter schools.

Of the Karshes’ $10 million gift to Howard, $8.9 million is for the Karsh STEM Scholars Program and $1.13 million will establish the Lomax KIPP Scholarships, a debt-free financial aid program for graduates of KIPP, named after Michael L. Lomax, CEO and President of United Negro College Fund. “We are inspired by Dr. Lomax’s passion to remove all obstacles for underserved students, and his relentless passion to advocate for HBCUs,” said the Karshes. Martha serves on the KIPP Foundation board.

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