Sunday, June 23, 2024

Catawba College’s $200 million surprise

The anonymous $200 million donation to Catawba College that was disclosed last week may be the most stunning news in North Carolina higher education of 2021.

It triples the endowment of the Salisbury college that was formed in 1851 and provides a platform for growth and excellence for a school with an enrollment of about 1,300. Catawba in recent years has earned solid reviews  from the closely watched U.S. News & World Report rankings of Southern regional colleges.

But Catawba has rarely had a high profile in a state filled with dozens of public and private campuses. It may be best-known in North Carolina as the home of Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history who is the state’s most frequently quoted political campaign commentator, and as the alma mater of former N.C. Governor and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who is now running for U.S. Senate.

Earlier this year, the Rowan County college received an anonymous, $13.7 million gift that it used to clear most of its outstanding debt. The listed tuition and other costs is $43,500 this year, though most students receive financial aid. Catawba is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, a progressive-leaning denomination.

Under terms of the latest donation, about one-third of the gift will provide recurring funding to support existing Catawba programs in environment and sustainability, which the college says is a nationally recognized area of distinction.

The other $133 million will support strategic initiatives, scholarship programs, student success programming,  a thriving work place and faculty excellence, Catawba officials said in a press release.

Eleven U.S. campuses have received donations of at least $100 million this year. Six nationally known universities received those mega-donations including Yale, Georgetown and the universities of Oregon and Wisconsin, according to Forbes. But five lesser-known schools have also received such stunning gifts: Montana State, Western Michigan, Kenyon in Gambier, Ohio, Wofford in Spartanburg, S.C., and now Catawba.

The unnamed donor doesn’t want publicity, but Salisbury is the home of Fred Stanback, who is in his 90s and is a billionaire whose family started the Stanback headache-powder business. He was a Columbia Business School roommate of Warren Buffett, best man at the financier’s wedding and an early investor in Buffett’s phenomenally successful Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate.

Stanback has been a donor to the Sierra Club Foundation and other environmental groups, along with many other causes, some of them controversial. Given the focus on sustainability in the Catawba program, his lifelong support for his hometown and his wealth, and his longstanding desire to avoid publicity, he would seem to be the most likely $200 million donor.

Earlier this year, three historically Black N.C. universities received a total of $90 million from MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. N.C. A&T State University received $45 million, Winston-Salem State, $30 million and Elizabeth City State, $15 million. Each was a record donation for those schools. No strings were attached to Scott’s philanthropy.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at

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