July 1, 2005
When Jim Clark opened the New York Times on the morning of Dec. 22, 2003, he probably didn't realize he was about to read a $60 million article, but that's just what the story on page one turned out to be. The article was about Washington University in St. Louis, a private university that in the last 30 years has transformed itself from a sleepy commuter college to one of the Top 10 universities in the nation according to U.S. News & World Report.
Washington University accomplished that feat thanks largely to a wildly successful capital campaign and an aggressive approach to merit aid, the term used to describe non-need based financial aid awarded by a university. Washington University had gone head-to-head with the Ivy Leagues by doing something the Ivys don't: Offering scholarships to highly qualified students regardless of financial need.
The article, particularly the notion of merit aid, caught the attention of Clark, co-founder of Netscape and a member of the Board of Tulane. Clark had built his career on a canny ability to recognize the potential of new ideas, and this was an idea he liked. "If you get the very best students to come to your school, then your alumni are more likely to be successful," Clark says. "And if they're successful, they'll make a lot of money and in turn give some money back to the school. So it's a nice, virtuous cycle if you can get it going."
The question was what would it take to get it going at Tulane. Clark discussed the idea of a merit-scholarship fund with Tulane President Scott Cowen and then shot off an e-mail to David Filo (E '88), co-founder of Yahoo!, and told him of his intention to make a large gift to Tulane to fund merit-based scholarships. Filo, a Tulane scholarship recipient himself, liked the idea. On July 29, Clark and Filo announced donations of $30 million each to Tulane.
The gifts are dedicated to the university's endowment and the income generated will be used to provide scholarships for undergraduate students of extraordinary academic merit. Each gift represents the largest single donation in Tulane history. "Tulane played an instrumental role in me being where I am today, and key to that was the scholarship that allowed me to go to Tulane," says Filo. "So it's kind of an obvious thing for me to give back to Tulane and to do that with scholarships, because it's what impacted me."
"Because Tulane allowed me to take courses without a high school degree I was able to get some credits, and as a consequence I was able to get into college without a high school degree," Clark adds. "I've always felt indebted to Tulane for that reason."
Bored with high school, Clark had enlisted in the Navy in 1961, where he found himself assigned the lowliest and most humiliating jobs imaginable due to his lack of education. He resolved to change that. Clark began taking night courses at Tulane's University College, where despite his lack of a high school diploma, he was able to earn enough credits to be admitted to the University of New Orleans.
"My biggest break was when I came to Tulane and took some math," says Clark, who would go on to found Silicon Graphics and Netscape Communications, among other companies. "When I took calculus, I was able to get A's. There's a tremendous positive reinforcement that comes from getting good grades, so after that I was on a mission to get a good education."
Less than eight years later, Clark had a bachelor's degree, a master's in physics and a PhD in computer science. After nearly a decade in academia, Clark in 1981 founded Silicon Graphics to realize his vision of producing three-dimensional computer graphics in real time. The company revolutionized computer graphics, paving the way for dramatic advances in everything from aircraft design to Hollywood special effects. Eyeing the next "new" thing, Clark co-founded Netscape Communications, maker of the world's first commercial World Wide Web browser and one of the first companies to showcase the power of the Web to change the way people work and play.
Clark would go on to found or co-found Healtheon/WebMD, a medical records management service; Shutterfly.com, an on-line digital photo storage and printing service; and myCFO Inc., a fully integrated online financial management service geared toward the very wealthy. In Silicon Graphics, Netscape and Healtheon/WebMD, Clark has the distinction of being the only person in business history to guide three ventures from startup to becoming multibillion-dollar companies.
David Filo's story is equally dramatic. In 1984, Filo was a high school senior from Moss Bluff, La., with a wealth of ability and a lack of funds. With little thought as to how he'd be able to afford it, Filo submitted an application to Tulane, whose lofty reputation attracted the talented young student but whose tuition made his attending unlikely.
In the end, Filo didn't have to worry about the cost. He was awarded a Deans' Honor Scholarship, which covers a recipient's full tuition for four years. Filo eventually graduated at the top of his class in the School of Engineering and was named Tulane's Top Graduate of 1988.
"At the time, I thought Tulane was a real long shot," says Filo. "I can't even remember exactly why I applied because there was no way I was going to be able to afford to go. I wouldn't have been able to attend Tulane without scholarships."
Filo went on to graduate school at Stanford University, where he and fellow grad student Jerry Yang started Yahoo! in 1994 as a way to organize their favorite sites on the rapidly expanding World Wide Web. As more and more people discovered the ingeniously designed directory, Yahoo! quickly became a full-time job for Filo and Yang. The pair incorporated the business in 1995, and in 1996 Yahoo! issued a highly successful IPO, turning the soft-spoken, media-shy Filo into a multimillionaire overnight.
Today, Yahoo! is one of the most recognized brands in the world, offering a comprehensive network of services to more than 232 million people each month. Clark and Filo are in agreement that Tulane is poised to become one of the premier universities in the nation, but it won't come without effort -- and a large part of that effort must be to build the university's endowment.
"Tulane has a very high stature, but a school like this cannot be among the most elite schools without having a larger endowment," Clark says. "In my view, the biggest reward from this merit scholarship fund would be that in 20 years the endowment of Tulane has grown significantly because of alumni who have graduated because of this program."
"Just as scholarships played an important role for me to be able to get the kind of education Tulane provides, I hope that the scholarships we're endowing will have the same impact on people who want to pursue technology and would not otherwise be able to do it," Filo says. "I'm just hoping that these scholarships impact people in some way, even if it's just a small fraction of the way similar scholarships impacted my life."
Mark Miester is an editor in the Office of University Publications.
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