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Marriott family donates $20 million to Howard University for hospitality leadership center

Howard University has received a $20 million gift to establish a center for hospitality leadership.
Howard University has received a $20 million gift to establish a center for hospitality leadership. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The family behind Marriott hotels has gifted $20 million to Howard University to create a hospitality leadership center, officials said Wednesday.

The Marriott-Sorenson Center for Hospitality Leadership will honor Arne M. Sorenson, the Marriott International president and chief executive who died last week after a battle with pancreatic cancer. The center, which will be housed in Howard’s business school, will establish a pipeline of Black professionals to an industry in which executives of color are underrepresented, officials said.

“Arne’s passion for creating a culture of opportunity brought real change in the executive ranks of our company,” said J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr., the executive chairman and chairman of the board for Marriott International. “But work remains to be done. Our industry needs a pipeline of diverse leadership talent, and that’s exactly what this center will achieve.”

The $20 million gift from the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation will support the program’s endowment. Marriot International, the Bethesda, Md.-based hotel giant, has pledged to donate $1 million to a newly created Arne M. Sorenson Hospitality Fund, which will support programs and career development within the center.

Sorenson helped transform Maryland-based chain into the world’s largest hotelier

While the hotel industry is largely staffed by people of color, minorities are rarely represented in leadership and executive positions, according to an NAACP report. The civil rights group cited data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and noted that, industry-wide, top management positions were getting Whiter.

In 2007, White people held 71 percent of top positions. The number grew to 81 percent in 2015, according to the report.

The NAACP gave Marriott International a “B” rating in 2019 for diversity but said there was room for improvement. The data had shown “very little change” for African Americans since 2012.

Mieka Wick, executive director of the Marriott Foundation, said Howard was a “logical choice” for the company’s efforts to continue to diversify its staff.

For Howard, the center will be a “game changer,” said Wayne A.I. Frederick, the university’s president. The new center will provide mentorship opportunities, internships and other professional development for students pursuing careers in the industry, officials said.

“Lack of diversity in the executive ranks of companies across America has long been a headline and has been further elevated in the national conversation as we are in this important moment of racial reckoning,” Frederick said in a statement. “What we are creating is a direct connection between an industry that is on the edge of change and a top caliber talent pool for them to recruit from.”

The donation comes after several other high-profile donations to Howard and other historically Black colleges and universities.

In June, Reed Hastings, chief executive of ­Netflix, and his wife, Patty Quillin, committed $120 million to Spelman, Morehouse College and the United Negro College Fund. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gifted Howard and other HBCUs $15 million in October.

Author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott donated more than $800 million to HBCUs, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges and universities throughout 2020. Howard received $40 million from Scott.

Kamala Harris, BLM protests put another spotlight on HBCUs. Many now hope for a financial reckoning.

The record donations brought renewed visibility to the schools and have sent the message that minority-serving institutions — still recovering from decades of underinvestment — deserve the multimillion-dollar donations that are commonplace at elite, predominantly White institutions, officials and advocates say.

Anthony Capuano, the new chief executive at Marriot International, took to LinkedIn to call on other hospitality companies to make that message clear.

“I am hoping that other hospitality companies will join us in designing the program and providing experiential opportunities to generate talent that will meet the needs of the industry well into the future,” Capuano wrote in the blog post. “I also hope that other companies, organizations and individuals — no matter the industry — will consider contributing as well.”

An earlier version of the story said Howard University offers an undergraduate program in hospitality management. A university spokeswoman later said the program had been discontinued.