Less than two years ago, the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology was on the brink of extinction.
Today, it stands on the verge of transformation.
Since its near-death experience, the two-year technical school — easily overlooked in this bastion of higher learning but a beacon to the Black and brown students who flock to it — has fended off a takeover, sold its South End campus, and plotted a move to Roxbury, where it belongs.
Now the school is getting the largest gift in its history: $12.5 million from the Cummings Foundation.
That kind of donation might be a rounding error for such well-heeled neighbors as Harvard, MIT, Boston College or Boston University.
But for a school whose students are mostly poor, with an endowment of just $3 million and an annual operating budget of $14 million that it cobbles together each year, it’s enough to alter everything.
And it’s a shock to the system in a city where the big money has followed the same well-trodden paths year after year, century upon century.
“I think it really signals change,” said Bithiah Carter, president of New England Blacks in Philanthropy, a group that promotes giving to Black-led institutions. “Too often, these kinds of donations don’t come to organizations that benefit our community or to Black-led institutions. Hopefully, this will open the floodgates — not just for BFIT, but for other organizations as well.”
BFIT president Aisha Francis stressed that she hopes the Cummings gift is just the beginning.
“What it will do for the college is it tells people that we are worthy of this level of philanthropy,” Francis said. “This is the type of giving that puts an organization like ours on the map. We’ve been underresourced, for a long time, and this starts to change that narrative in a really important way.”
This gift didn’t begin as a BFIT bequest. When Bill and Joyce Cummings — real estate magnates turned high-profile philanthropists — decided they wanted to invest in workforce training, they weren’t initially thinking of Nubian Square in Roxbury.
They met with the president of Harvard, their friend Larry Bacow. And with his counterpart at MIT, L. Rafael Reif. And with Brian Moynihan, chief executive of Bank of America who is from Wellesley. The usual important players.
“The conversations were pleasant and collegial and thoughtful,” Bill Cummings said. “But none of the three of them thought [workforce development] was something they could do.”
But the Cummingses had been donors to Franklin Institute previously, though on a much smaller scale.
And they found a school that was already doing the kind of work they were trying to advance, reaching a community they didn’t know how to reach, with a dynamic new leader in Francis.
“They’ve already got the motivation,” Bill Cummings said. “And they’ve already got the [new] campus mostly paid for. Then we got to meet the president and her ideas really resonated with us. It was easy to say, ‘We want to support you.’ "
Benjamin Franklin Institute is a school that trains a largely nontraditional student body for technical careers in a host of industries, from construction and building trades, to emerging green technologies. About 83 percent of its students are Black or Latino, Francis said, and the majority are low-income. It’s an “open-door” school with no entrance requirements to speak of, other than a desire to learn.
One significant detail of the Cummings donation is that it comes with no strings attached. Francis and her team are free to use the money however they think is best.
“We’ve got no background in teaching,” Cummings said. “We haven’t thought about changing anything Benjamin Franklin would do. We haven’t made a single suggestion.”
I think it’s important to say that this is a huge vote of confidence in an organization led by a Black woman. That matters in a world where the people who can write eight-figure checks to nonprofits are usually white.
“I think it’s a game-changer,” Carter said. ”I hope others will see this as an opportunity to bet on organizations with leaders of color.”
One transformation is already taking place: the college will be renamed the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology, effective immediately.
BFIT will become the fourth school or college bearing the Cummings name, including the Cummings Institute of Global Health in Rwanda, established in partnership with the late, great Dr. Paul Farmer.
The Cummings gift is the latest step in a stunning turnaround for the Franklin Institute. Just two years ago, the school narrowly averted an ill-begotten merger with Wentworth Institute that would have effectively ended its existence as an independent school. Longstanding plans to sell its South End campus to finance a fresh start in Roxbury were moving slowly, too slowly for a school strapped for cash.
But the backdoor deal with Wentworth was quashed once it became public knowledge —mostly through a couple of columns in the Globe. The sale, for an undisclosed but large sum, is moving forward. The school envisions opening its new campus on Harrison Avenue in 2024.
Suddenly, the future of Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology is brighter than Francis could ever have imagined when she took the helm in 2021.
“If you think about a seesaw, we were on the fulcrum,” Francis said. “This really tips us in the direction of the momentum we needed.”