The American Aristocracy Tries to Fight Racism. It's Not Working.


MacKenzie Scott attends the 2018 Vanity Fair Oscar Party with her now ex-husband, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on March 4, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)

In November 2020, when MacKenzie Scott’s people emailed Linda Oubre, the president of Whittier College, to ask for the school’s bank information so they could deposit a gift of $12 million, no strings attached, Oubre thought it was a scam. The small, liberal-arts college in east Los Angeles had never received a donation that big. 

On December 15, 2020, Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, made it public. She announced she was giving nearly $4.2 billion to 384 nonprofits and colleges, including Whittier. 

Since getting divorced and becoming one of the world’s most generous philanthropists, Scott, who’s worth just south of $60 billion, has been vague about her philanthropic vision. What is clear is that she has given away far more money than most countries spend on foreign aid. (In 2017, Norway’s budget was just over $4.1 billion; South Korea’s was $2.2 billion.)

In her public comments, which appear to be limited to a handful of Medium posts, Scott talks a lot about fighting inequity especially racial and gender inequity. In a July 28, 2020, Medium post outlining her strategy for making the world a better place, Scott noted that, of the organizations she pledged to support, “91% of the racial equity organizations are run by leaders of color, 100% of the LGBTQ+ equity organizations are run by LGBTQ+ leaders, and 83% of the gender equity organizations are run by women, bringing lived experience to solutions for imbalanced social systems.” In other words: Scott’s philanthropy seems tailor-made for this moment.

Coursing through her public comments is the conviction that she has benefited from a rigged system.  “There’s no question in my mind that anyone’s personal wealth is the product of a collective effort, and of social structures which present opportunities to some people, and obstacles to countless others,” she wrote in July 2020.

But there are few, if any, yardsticks of success, like eradicating malaria (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), financing student aid (Michael Bloomberg) or unearthing the causes of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative). 

Referring to her new husband, Dan Jewett, a high-school chemistry teacher, Scott wrote in a Medium post in June of this year: “Me, Dan, a constellation of researchers and administrators and advisors we are all attempting to give away a fortune that was enabled by systems in need of change.” 

It’s unclear who these researchers, administrators and advisors are. There is no MacKenzie Scott Foundation. There are no other names, besides Scott’s, that appear in media coverage of her philanthropy. There are just the Medium posts, and the Boston-based Bridgespan Group, which consults to nonprofits (“we help you create the social change you seek”), which was founded by some senior people at Bain & Company and a Harvard Business School professor. (A Bridgespan spokeswoman refused to comment on Scott’s philanthropy, even though its effects will be felt across the country for many, many decades to come.)

Three factors distinguish Scott’s giving. First, she gives away more money than almost any other American billionaire (only her ex-husband topped her in 2020). Second, she initiates the donation (there’s no lengthy grant-application process; recipients just get an email or phone call out of the blue). And, finally, the recipient organizations are almost always led by a member of a “marginalized group.” 

Whittier was lucky. Not only was it a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution meaning more than 25 percent of its student body was Latino but, on July 1, 2018, six months before Bezos and Scott announced they were getting divorced, Linda Oubre became the college’s first black woman president in the college’s 134-year history.

The Scott gift, most everyone at Whittier agreed, was “like manna from Heaven for Linda,” a Whittier College source close to Oubre told me. It came at a fortuitous moment for the college’s 15th president.

Oubre, who had left her post as dean of the business school at San Francisco State University one month before taking over at Whittier, had had a short but rocky tenure. She had alienated many alumni and members of the board of trustees with her hiring decisions and “dictatorial style.” (This was how three faculty and staff put it. Sources with Whittier email accounts mostly insisted on not using those accounts to communicate with me, fearing that Oubre was monitoring their messages.) She had overseen a sharp decline in new students from an average freshman class of 490 to just under 300. That had left Whittier, which relies heavily on tuition to cover its operating budget, in dire financial straits.

On top of that, a new culture had swept the Quaker campus. The college had long prided itself on its sense of community. Now, faculty and former trustees said that that sense of solidarity was being undermined by a relentless focus on race. “She’s out of touch. She’s leaning very heavily on ‘I’m a black woman,’” one alumna told me. “And I say this as a black woman. ”

It’s not that Whittier faculty were against talking or thinking about race. They had been doing that for a long time. It’s that it felt relentless now. Starting in August 2020, the college implemented a series of measures to fight anti-black racism: workshops, trainings, a wide-ranging campaign to “amplify ways to report bias incidents,” and a new position, the Associate Dean for Diversity Equity and Inclusion. “There were faculty that said, ‘What about other students of color?’,” a professor recalled. “And the answer was, ‘The real problem is black students are not obtaining degrees. Hispanic students have been doing great.’”   

On top of the school’s intense focus on race, there were fears, among faculty, that Oubre wanted to transform the residential college into an online vocational school for those already in the workforce   to strip Whittier of its small-school, liberal-arts identity, a college where professors and students forged close bonds, and students were encouraged to indulge their intellectual proclivities. The college’s most famous alumnus was Richard Nixon, but its heart, its identity, seemed more aligned with the novelist Jessamyn West (Class of 1923) or Jeanine Hull Heron (Class of 1960), the founder of the Head Start program. 

Anyone who dared to challenge Oubre ran the risk of being fired or smeared.

This much was made clear at an August 31 Zoom meeting with the president and faculty. (I managed to listen in, uninvited.)

The meeting, as far as professors were concerned, was meant to address questions about the recent hiring of Oubre’s son, Nate Oubre. 

Last month, Nate Oubre was hired as Whittier’s first Director of Innovation and New Ventures a position likely financed by the Scott gift. The job pays well. According to a job announcement posted at HighEdJobs, the salary is between $90,000 and $100,000, about $20,000 more than the average Whittier professor makes. No one is sure what the Director of Innovation and New Ventures does. No one knows what makes Nate Oubre qualified to be that person. He has no experience in higher education. His last job, according to his LinkedIn profile, was corporate manager at a janitorial-services firm. He has a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, but he doesn’t appear to have ever practiced law.

Linda Oubre has said nothing publicly about her son joining Whittier and why the college should spend precious resources on him, even though, after the pandemic struck, the college stripped faculty of the 8.5 percent matching funds it normally contributes to their retirement funds.

At the Zoom meeting, Oubre spoke for a half-hour, mostly about the college budget, but did not address the matter of her son. When I asked the university about Nate Oubre, a spokeswoman for the school said: “The president has recused herself of any involvement in the hiring of her son.” (That the hiring process was over and we were now talking about his employment did not seem to factor into her thinking.)

After Oubre got off the call she said she had to meet with trustees Daniel Jauregui, an art professor and head of the Faculty Executive Council, took over the meeting. “Obviously, we know that there are faculty that are scared to speak up. And I think that’s important for us to notice,” Jauregui said. 

Jauregui added that there had been talk of setting up an anonymous phone line for faculty to call in their fears and complaints. He said that he’d been “contacted by a number of staff members” who “feel they can’t speak openly.” Without mentioning Nate Oubre, Jauregui asked whether faculty wanted a “separate listening session” to discuss the matter. A theater professor, Jennifer Holmes, said they did. 

On Tuesday, the FEC started hosting a series of “listening sessions” to discuss the Nate Oubre hire and, more generally, Linda Oubre’s management of the college.

“I think we know the elephant in the room,” Steve Weston, a former trustee and a former chairman of the Board of Directors of the Whittier Alumni Association, told me. “Everyone’s afraid of coming across as racist. I feel free to talk openly, because, to me, this is not a racist issue. This is a president who, for lack of a better word, is out of control.”

In 2017, a year before Oubre took the helm at Whittier, just 5 percent of college presidents were women of color, according to the American Council on Education. Many trustees were excited about Oubre because she would be a trailblazer for the school, but also because they needed someone who was capable of thinking strategically about the college’s finances. They expected that Oubre -- who had once worked at the Los Angeles Times, where she was tasked with developing new business opportunities, and had been involved in other entrepreneurial ventures -- would spearhead that effort.

“We are thrilled to welcome Linda to Whittier,” Jim Brown, then-chairman of the Board of Trustees, said in a statement at the time. But within months of Oubre taking over, there were rumblings of discontent.

For Weston, the former trustee, the first whiff of trouble came on an August evening in 2018. Weston, with two donors and Steve Delgado, the college’s vice president for advancement, took Oubre and her husband to the Hollywood Bowl to see the Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela accompanied by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They were seated in one of the Bowl’s six-person boxes: “front and center,” Weston said. There was dinner, wine and the philharmonic’s world-famous conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. Weston was surprised, he said, by Oubre’s stand-off-ish-ness. “I couldn’t get two words out of her,” he said.

The next day on campus Oubre addressed the Alumni Association. “She gets up to talk at our meeting,” recalled Weston, who is white, “and, in front of the entire Alumni Board, says that everything we had done under the previous administration was garbage. She just started bashing us like crazy, then started bashing the college for saying it’s diverse when it’s not, that we’re a racist college. I walked out and never looked back.” 

Robert Zemsky, a current trustee and professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, has known Oubre since she was his student. (He signed her dissertation, Seeing What Sticks! Revenue Diversification and New Venturing in the Business Schools of the California State University.) He called Oubre “a spectacular person.” When I asked him about Whittier hiring Oubre’s son, he threatened to hang up. “She wants to change Whittier, and Whittier is not a place that is changed easily,” Zemsky said. “She wants Whittier to grow into its mission as a place for students who aren’t white.” 

In fact, roughly 70 percent of Whittier’s students are non-white. Fifty percent of the study body is Latino; five percent is black.

“That was the problem,” Weston said. “You can’t consider this a truly diverse campus unless there were more African-Americans on campus, is what she came out and said.” 

“I know from friends and former colleagues that not everyone feels equally included at Whittier these days, which is a huge problem, since most of Whittier is not white,” Denise Wong, an alumna who worked as a grant coordinator at the college under Oubre, told me. “And to promote diversity that doesn’t include all people isn’t really inclusion. It’s actually exclusion.”

In one of the FEC’s listening sessions Tuesday, Jose Orozco, a history professor, voiced anger over Nate Oubre’s hiring, saying it felt reminiscent of the old white boys network that once kept Latinos like Orozco from getting ahead, except now there was a black person in charge. (Orozco said he was not at liberty to discuss the listening session.) Other faculty at the listening sessions  they ranged in size from 15 to 30 people  openly complained about what they view as nepotism and cronyism.

It wasn’t just about her son: In her first few months on campus, Oubre replaced longtime senior administrators with three loyalists who, in the view of Whittier staff and faculty, were out of their depth. They included Timothy Anderson, the Vice President of Innovation and New Ventures; Bruce Smith, the dean of students, who recently left; and Falone Serna, the head of admissions. 

A former Whittier College employee called Smith’s tenure “disastrous.” Among other things, he permitted students to live off-campus, causing a major budget shortfall.

Serna came in for even sharper criticism. Six months into the pandemic, enrollment started to plummet  from more than 1,700 in late 2019 to roughly 1,300 today. That was mostly due to Covid-19. But faculty and staff said that Serna, despite having worked in admissions at Pepperdine University and elsewhere, exacerbated things. He reinstated the college-application fee, which deters many first-generation college students from applying, and he didn’t know much about Whittier’s academic offerings. (Admissions officers, for example, incorrectly assumed that applicants interested in a career in nursing might major in biology.) 

Whittier now faces a $10 million budget shortfall. A professor said there has been talk of the college closing.

Oubre has repeatedly blamed Covid for the college’s woes. In the August Zoom meeting, she said: “I know that you guys are mad at me. Covid is bad, and I’m the source of all evil, and I can’t fix it.” 

In March, five of the most outspoken, anti-Oubre trustees resigned in large part, they say, because they feared provoking Oubre and being tarred as racist. This included the board chairman, Chris Caldwell, and Caldwell’s predecessor, Jim Brown. 

Faculty say morale is at an all-time low. “It feels a little like a banana republic,” one professor said. Every faculty member I spoke to asked that their departments not be revealed. There are only 100 professors at the college and, as one put it, “there’s no trust.” (Jauregui, the head of the Faculty Executive Council, did not reply to emails and phone messages. Deborah Norden, a political science professor and Jauregui’s deputy, said, in an email, “I can just say that we have trust in the faculty governance process.”)

As for the Scott gift, “that secured her against criticism, against the board pushing back,” one professor said. “But it had nothing to do with what she had done. It had to do with her skin color and her gender. That’s it.”

It may be that this is the way things are done now. American philanthropy is no longer simply about building libraries or hospitals, finding vaccines, or funding schools. It is about directly writing checks to the people with the identities that philanthropists claim to care about. 

In that way, the gift from MacKenzie Scott was very much of the moment. It had little, if anything, to do with Whittier College and everything to do with Linda Oubre.

The problem is $12 million is a lot of money if not to MacKenzie Scott than to a small college. That can make a big, positive impact. Some of the $12 million is funding scholarships for needy students, for example. But it can also have unintended consequences. It can empower a college president. It can transform the culture of an institution and sow distrust and suspicion. 

Scott probably knows nothing about what’s going on right now at Whittier. The money she gave to the college represents less than a third of one percent of all the money she gave last year. 

And that’s the nub of the problem: It’s not hard for a billionaire like Scott  in her effort to fight inequity or build a brand or out-give other billionaires to wreak havoc on the itsy-bitsy organizations she showers with her largesse.

The question is: How will this new kind of giving  what we might think of as piecemeal reparations handed out by the American Aristocracy reshape our society? Will it be for the good? Or will we regret that it was ever doled out in the first place?

Peter Savodnik’s latest essay for this newsletter was about the unraveling of Afghanistan and what it reveals about the people in charge of our country. Follow him on Twitter @petersavodnik.

And ICYMI . . .

It’s back-to-school week at Common Sense.

  • Yesterday, we published Peter Boghossian’s powerful resignation letter from Portland State University. “Brick by brick,” he writes, “the university has made intellectual exploration impossible. It has transformed a bastion of free inquiry into a Social Justice factory whose only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division.”

  • Homeschooling used to be for hippies and evangelicals. Now? Now it’s for everyone. “While the hoodie-sporting-Ivy League drop-out embodied the tech mogul of the early 2000s, next-gen innovators may not even bother applying to Harvard in the first place. They may not have a transcript to apply with,” Suzy Weiss writes in a reported essay about the explosion in homeschooling.