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A mega-gift for an HBCU college fell through. Here's what happened — and what's next

Florida A&M University announced a "transformative" donation earlier this month — but the school said it ceased contact with the donor after questions arose about the funds.
Jeffrey Greenberg
Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Florida A&M University announced a "transformative" donation earlier this month — but the school said it ceased contact with the donor after questions arose about the funds.

Transformative financial donations don't come along often in higher education. So when a donor promised a $237.75 million gift to Florida A&M University, school officials were understandably excited.

The donor was Gregory Gerami, a 30-year-old businessman from Texas who said he wanted to make sure the historically Black school's windfall would help students who needed the money most. Funds were also designated for FAMU's athletics department.

"This is more than $100 million more than we have currently in our endowment," FAMU President Larry Robinson said as he unveiled the donation at the school's spring commencement ceremony in Tallahassee, Fla. "This is just incredible."

But amazement at the large gift soon gave way to shock as questions arose about Gerami's donation. And as word of the surprise donation spread, FAMU leaders were confronted with news reports that linked Gerami to an earlier transformative gift to another school — a donation that never came to fruition.

In an interview with NPR, Gerami refused to confirm or deny his role in that earlier donation to a university in South Carolina. As for FAMU, Gerami says he fulfilled his part of the arrangement.

But FAMU's Robinson now says it was a mistake to accept Gerami's gift — and the school's board wants to know why Robinson and a small circle in his administration agreed to keep the donation a secret.

The fallout has begun: Robinson said last Wednesday that Shawnta Friday-Stroud, who as the vice president for university advancement played a key role in the donation, was resigning from that post. She will retain her job as dean of the school of business and industry, he said.

Mysterious graduation speaker announces a massive gift

Gerami announced the donation during a May 4 commencement ceremony, in an elaborate event where he delivered a fairly standard graduation speech — before giving Robinson a belt buckle and saying he should buckle up for what was coming.

As a gigantic nine-figure check was brought onto the stage, the PA system played a montage of songs, including The O'Jays' "For The Love of Money" and "Grateful" by Hezekiah Walker.

About the $237.75 million donation, Gerami told the crowd: "By the way, the money is in the bank."

Friday-Stroud later said that Gerami's speech was his idea. And last week, Robinson, the university president, apologized for the event, saying it's something that should not have happened.

The university has removed the video of the commencement from its YouTube page, along with other mentions of the donation from its website and social media channels.

Gregory Gerami stands with Florida A&M University President Larry Robinson and other leaders at a commencement ceremony on May 4, unveiling a large donation. Robinson now says the announcement shouldn't have happened.
/ FAMU/Screenshot by NPR
FAMU/Screenshot by NPR
Gregory Gerami stands with Florida A&M University President Larry Robinson and other leaders at a commencement ceremony on May 4, unveiling a large donation. Robinson now says the announcement shouldn't have happened.

How the events unfolded

After the May 4 commencement, skeptics such as Jerell Blakeley, writing for the Education News Flash Substack on May 6, raised questions about Gerami, highlighting news reports connecting him to at least one earlier big college donation that fell apart.

FAMU then put the donation on pause, with Kristin Harper, chair of the board of trustees, stating in a public meeting on May 10 that "serious concerns have been raised regarding the validity of the gift, the adequacy of the due diligence processes and whether the foundation board and board of trustees have been provided ample oversight opportunity."

Last week, Robinson said engagement with Gerami had "ceased," and he began referring to the gift as a "proposed donation" that was stopped in its tracks.

As the school's foundation and board of trustees held public Zoom meetings to discuss the matter, more details about the donation emerged:

  • While Gerami said the money was "in the bank," Friday-Stroud said the donation was made in the form of 15 million shares of stock in Batterson Farms, Gerami's privately held company.
  • As for the gift amount of $237.75 million, Friday-Stroud told FAMU's foundation on May 9 that the sum reflected the stock being valued at $15.85 a share. But in that board meeting, it also emerged that FAMU did not have a third party analyze the valuation.
  • When asked why FAMU hadn't independently verified the stock's value during discussions about the donation, Friday-Stroud said a decision was made to hold off on a third-party valuation of the stock until the university's annual financial audit, scheduled for early summer.
  • Friday-Stroud said that she and Robinson were among the people who signed nondisclosure agreements requiring them to keep the donation secret from other leaders. She also cited donors' rights to privacy and confidentiality under state law.
  • Robinson says he didn't tell the chair of either the school's foundation or board of trustees, who have legal and financial oversight for the institution, because he was worried that doing so might "jeopardize this transformational donation."

Friday-Stroud told the foundation board that Gerami contacted the university in the fall of 2023 about making a donation. After an initial wealth screening review, she said, "a more expansive second screening" of Gerami made the small circle of FAMU officials aware of potential concerns — "pretty much all of which is what has been put out now in social media," she said, seemingly referring to reports alleging Gerami was linked to failed donations to South Carolina's Coastal Carolina University and another school.

But around the same time officials became aware of those allegations, Friday-Stroud said, Gerami's stock certificates were transferred to the university's account. She and Robinson discussed the matter and chose to move forward, she said. The school recently released the gift agreement it signed with Gerami, listing the transaction as taking place in April.

"I wanted it to be real and ignored the warning signs along the way," Robinson told the board of trustees on May 15. But it wasn't until after the donation was announced, he said, that he decided "engagement with Mr. Gerami should cease."

"I take full responsibility for this matter and ensuing fallout. I apologize," Robinson said.

Board members are now seeking an investigation into how the donation became a debacle, including the university president's failure to disclose the deal to the board before commencement, the nondisclosure agreements, the donor-vetting process, and other questions about who knew what about the deal, and when.

Gerami responds to the allegations

"The stock was transferred [to FAMU] and that's really all that I have to say," Gerami said in an interview with NPR, adding that his gift agreement with FAMU was made public.

He also said he's the subject of stories that are inaccurate, without identifying any information that was incorrect.

His remarks to NPR are in reference to news stories that emerged in 2020, when Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., announced a $95 million donation pledge. But within a few months, the school said it had "ended its relationship with an anonymous donor who .... has not fulfilled an early expectation of the arrangement."

In an email to NPR, the university refused to confirm or deny the donor's identity. But The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., reported that the donor was Gerami, citing data gained from a Freedom of Information Act request, its own research and multiple interviews with him.

"Gerami reluctantly confirmed he was the donor," the paper reported last June, adding that in Gerami's telling, he pulled the plug on the deal because he felt disrespected by some Coastal Carolina officials, alleging racism in one instance.

When NPR asked him about the Coastal Carolina University donation, Gerami acknowledged knowing about the gift, which he called "a planned gift."

He also gave NPR conflicting accounts of what his ties to the gift were. At one point, he said "I don't know who the donor at Coastal is" and "There's no documentation to show that I'm the donor at Coastal." Moments later, he said "I'm not going to confirm or deny that I'm the donor at Coastal."

Coastal Carolina's initial statement about the proposed gift, which is no longer on its website, said its new donor was also a supporter of Miles College, a private HBCU in Alabama. But, The Sun News reported last year, "Gerami said a planned donation to Miles College was also never made."

Officials from Miles College did not reply to NPR's requests for comment.

When NPR asked Gerami why — if he wasn't the donor at Coastal Carolina — he didn't seek a correction to last year's Sun News article, Gerami replied, "that story did not carry much weight ... it didn't pick up much traction. ... So why would I feed into that traction? ... I didn't feel like I needed to jump in there."

"I have no issues with Coastal," he said. Later, he added, "I don't have any issues with anyone that is out there. So no, I'm not going to touch on things just because somebody writes a story."

When asked how he feels about FAMU ending its plan for a donation from him, Gerami replied, "Things are being taken out of context." He ended the conversation shortly afterward.

What we know about Gerami's business

In his speech at FAMU, Gerami said he had overcome "formidable challenges," including being born with an opiate addiction and fetal alcohol syndrome and diagnosed with cerebral palsy and ADHD. He was raised by a foster family, he said, after being born to "a single mother who was 24 with eight kids," according to NPR's transcript of the now removed video.

In portions of their commencement-day remarks that closely echoed each other, Gerami and Robinson mentioned two mentors: an unidentified Merrill Lynch banker; and a former Arlington, Texas, mayor named Robert Cluck (who did not reply to NPR's requests for comment).

In 2015, Gerami ran for public office, challenging an incumbent city council member in Arlington, Texas. He finished a distant fourth, trailing a university student and a part-time mail carrier.

Then, in recent years, came reports linking him to eye-popping college donations.

At FAMU, Gerami didn't go into much detail about how he purportedly accrued a fortune. He said only that he had harnessed his "entrepreneurial spirit, transforming a small lawn care business into a successful property management company" before becoming the founder and CEO of Batterson Farms Corp.

Batterson grows industrial hemp in warehouses, using hydroponics, Gerami said during this speech. The venture also researches bioplastics and "cultivating industrial hemp for cancer research," he added.

Batterson Farms has a website, but it offers few details about the company's scale. The only available product it lists is HempWood, a composite material produced by a company in Kentucky that says all its hemp fiber is grown within 100 miles of its location in that state. NPR reviewed Batterson Farms' public Facebook page and records from the Texas Department of Agriculture to learn more about Gerami's company.

On its Facebook page, Batterson Farms displays its license as a hemp producer in Texas. The company also says it operates multiple Texas locations, including in Van Horn; the Dallas area; Austin; San Antonio; Houston; and El Paso. In April 2023, Gerami was featured in a news story in Lubbock, Texas, saying his company had taken control of seven warehouses on 114 acres of land to grow hemp there.

In response to a records request from NPR, the Texas Department of Agriculture Hemp Program said on Monday that it has a contact address for Batterson Farms in San Antonio, and a business address in Austin, and that there is "no registered hemp production" at those locations.

The state agency confirmed that Batterson Farms has a current hemp producer license (the first step in the state's commercial hemp licensing process), and a lot crop permit, both of which are tied to an address in Paradise, a small town in Wise County, northwest of Fort Worth.

"A Hemp Producer is required to purchase a lot crop permit anytime they plan to grow hemp under the TDA Hemp Program. A lot crop permit is good for one hemp crop," according to the Texas agriculture department, which also confirmed that this location is registered to grow hemp.

"Batterson Farms Corp does not have any other license or permit with the TDA Hemp Program," the agency said. The company isn't on the state's most recent list of hemp processors, for instance.

The agency also said that it "does not have any information for [Batterson Farms] locations in Van Horn, TX; Dallas County, TX; Houston, TX; or El Paso, TX."

The available information provided few details about whether Gerami's company is operating at a scale making its stock worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

At the time of publication, Gerami had not responded to NPR's request for more information about his donation and his business.

What does this mean for Florida A&M University now?

It's an embarrassing setback for FAMU, at a time when its leaders are touting the school's successes as one of the country's top HBCUs and in fundraising and sports.

HBCU institutions have been getting more money as donors realize their importance in preparing Black Americans for success, Amir Pasic, the dean of Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, told NPR. In his view, it makes sense to invest in a school like FAMU.

"Spelman in particular just a few months ago got a $100 million gift," he said. "And Mackenzie Scott has been investing in HBCU and community colleges as well."

But, Pasic added, the school should have been alerted to a potential problem due to how quickly the mammoth gift proposal took shape, in only about six months.

"It is rare that these gifts aren't part of a long-term conversation that donors have had over multiple years and sometimes even decades with the university," he said, particularly from a first-time donor.

Pasic said he agrees that the now-canceled donation would have been "transformative" for FAMU. He also has ideas about the fallout for FAMU and what its leaders should do now.

"It's something of an embarrassment. But on the other hand, I think the silver lining for them is that it demonstrated their ambition and that they really want to do more and achieve more for their students, faculty and staff," he said.

"So I think they should just embrace that."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.