Lynden Archer, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, left; and Robert F. Smith ’85.

Robert F. Smith gift expands STEM access for underrepresented students

As he accepted his Distinguished Alumni Award from Cornell Engineering on May 13, Robert F. Smith ’85, founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, announced a new gift of $15 million for engineering student aid, with a focus on assisting undergraduate students who come to Cornell from urban high schools, and graduate students who attended historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

“I am grateful to Robert for sharing our commitment to welcoming the most talented and promising students, regardless of background or ability to pay, and helping us ensure that cost never becomes an obstacle to a Cornell education,” said President Martha E. Pollack. “His leadership in advancing equity and making higher education accessible to all students will have an impact for generations to come.”

The Distinguished Alumni Award recognizes engineering alumni whose professional accomplishments bring distinction to the college. Smith received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Cornell before founding Vista, a private equity firm with more than $93 billion in managed assets. Widely considered one of the world’s most successful investors and a leading philanthropist, he came to campus to accept the 2020 Cornell Engineering Distinguished Alumni Award – an event that had been delayed by the pandemic.

 “It truly is an honor to receive the College of Engineering’s Distinguished Alumni Award,” said Smith, who currently serves on the Cornell Tech Council and is an emeritus member of the Cornell Engineering College Council. “My goal has always been to lift up and provide opportunity for those who have historically faced barriers to success. My hope is that these funds will elevate more students and afford them the opportunity to attend my alma mater and pursue careers in STEM, as well as continue to support the diverse pipeline of extraordinary talent that Cornell produces.”

The gift will establish an undergraduate scholarship fund and graduate student fellowship fund, both in Smith’s name. Once fully funded, the scholarship fund will provide at least seven undergraduates a year with up to $45,000 in grants that do not need to be repaid; the graduate fellowship fund will support approximately 12 master’s students or five doctoral students.

This gift further advances Cornell Engineering’s diversity, equity and inclusion goals, as well as Cornell’s goal to increase the number of aided undergraduate students by 1,000. In recent years, Cornell has invested in financial aid at a rate that significantly exceeds the annual increase in tuition, more than tripling the total annual institutional grant aid in the last 20 years.

Smith’s philanthropy will also establish the Robert F. Smith Student Success Fund, which will provide support for student participation in national conferences, professional development training, connections with employers, mentoring programs and immersive learning opportunities.

“This gift will create critical pathways for talented students to become the innovative, future-ready leaders that industry and academia desperately need,” said Lynden Archer, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering. “We are deeply grateful to Robert for expanding opportunities for our students, who – as he exemplifies – are prepared to excel and make meaningful impacts in essentially any field.”

In 2016, Smith and the Fund II Foundation gave $50 million to advance teaching and research in chemical and biomolecular engineering and provide scholarships, graduate fellowships and program funding to help recruit and support underrepresented students. In recognition of his philanthropy, the university named the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in his honor.

“The Smith School is committed to tackling systemic issues in the broader scientific community that have historically prevented exceptional minds from realizing their full potential,” said Susan Daniel, the William C. Hooey Director of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “Robert’s generous giving is enabling us to make significant strides toward that goal. By supporting student access to an education that will cultivate the best problem solvers and leaders of tomorrow, he is helping us keep Ezra Cornell's promise of ‘…any person… any study.’” 

Syl Kacapyr is associate director of marketing and communications for the College of Engineering.

Editor's Note: This story was updated on May 11, 2023 to clarify the impact of the gift.

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Rebecca Valli