“Dear Mr. Washington: Your favor of June 11th to my father enclosing check for $249 being the balance of his pledge authorizing the expenditure up to $34,000 for a boys dormitory, which balance you state was not required in the completion of the building, is received. My father is gratified to know that the building has been constructed so well within the estimated cost, the more so since it so frequently happens that the opposite is the case. He takes pleasure in returning the check for $249 desiring that the same be applied as you may see fit.” -Very Truly, John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
In John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s follow up to Booker T. Washington, who on June 11, 1903 returned an extra $249 to his father, Mr. Rockefeller not only expressed his “gratitude” for Mr. Washington’s gesture, but he did something more. He confirms and affirms that the actions of the founding principal and president of Tuskegee (Institute) University were atypical-even unusual-completely unlike what the Rockefellers had been used to: “My father is gratified to know that the building has been constructed so well within the estimated cost, the more so since it so frequently happens that the opposite is the case.” Note, it was and continues to be no small matter to receive commendations and endorsements from major donors, significant external constituencies and foundations within the class and/or influence of the Rockefellers. These contributors are among a select group who are able to either offer transformative gifts to an institution to help further its mission and vision-its tradition and trajectory-or who are able to recommend an institution to similarly situated persons and organizations. Mr. Rockefeller’s affirmation of both the manner and method of Tuskegee (Institute) University’s then-operating principles carried the kind of weight in the kinds of circles that institutions want to be well regarded in. Moreover, the senior Rockefeller went still further: “He takes pleasure in returning the check for $249 desiring that the same be applied as you [Booker T. Washington] may see fit.” Whether the founding principal of Tuskegee expected this gesture or no, it is clear that the Rockefellers held Washington in such regard that not only did they return the unspent funds but permitted him to use these funds in an “unrestricted” manner. Institutions will make use of all kinds of funds “restricted” or “unrestricted” but “unrestricted” use is particularly helpful for an institution and its president when granted this unique opportunity because it allows these funds to be used “as you see fit.” “Trust,” one of the greatest 5-letter words is a key component of institutional integrity. Like any strong relationship, it takes time to develop and it is often developed through stewarding smaller gifts until the donor trusts that the institution will steward larger gifts-“here a little, there a little.” Here, it is clear that the Rockefellers trusted that this man, Booker, would do what he said he would do, and that he would do no more or no less. And herein lies an object lesson for persons in the 19th, 20th, 21st century or any century. It is never the “quantity” of endorsements, affirmations and commendations received from signal constituent groups but the “quality” of the individuals and organizations that offer them.
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.
7th President, Tuskegee University