Historically Black College Florida A&M in Crisis Over ‘Ceased’ $237 Million Donation From Mysterious 30-Year-Old ‘Hemp Farmer’

The university’s administration is facing backlash for not noticing red flags including that the hemp farmer had no prior connection to the school and had previously had another giant donation fall apart.

Via YouTube
The mysterious donor, Gregory Gerami, right, presenting the $237 million donation along with FAMU's president, Larry Robinson. Via YouTube

A top Florida A&M University official resigned amid fallout over a $237 million donation from a little-known and out-of-state hemp farmer that has plunged the nation’s top public historically Black university into turmoil.

The school announced the gift at commencement earlier this month, touting a record-high donation for the university — as well as one of the largest gifts ever in higher education — from an obscure 30-year-old hemp farmer named Gregory Gerami, the proprietor of  Batterson Farms Corp in Texas.

Yet initial excitement over the gift, the largest in FAMU’s history, and its potential to help FAMU students was quickly replaced with skepticism from students, alumni, and the press. Questions about Mr. Gerami — and the university’s internal gift process — surfaced as little information could be found out about his wealth or his hemp company, which appears to have a small online footprint except for a website describing several hydroponic farming and hemp plastic products.

ABC News, whose president, Kim Godwin, is a passionate FAMU alumna, had sent two crews to the school to do a story on the donation, according to Puck. Ms. Godwin, who’d been criticized for devoting Disney resources to the school, resigned days later after a rocky three-year tenure.

At FAMU, the mysterious donation quickly collapsed under scrutiny. Although the school “ceased” the donation, the university’s president, Larry Robinson, said he took “full responsibility” for accepting it in the first place and not noticing red flags including that the hemp farmer had no prior connection to the university. 

“I saw in this unprecedented gift ways to serve our students and athletic programs in ways unimaginable at that time,” Mr. Robinson said, Politico reports. “I wanted it to be real and ignored the warning signs along the way.” 

Just last week — despite initial online skepticism about the gift and its donor — the university had doubled down that the donation was legitimate. 

“We are fully aware of the skepticism that sometimes comes with such a large gift,” the university said. “As expected, some individuals in the public are and will continue researching Mr. Gerami,” the school said, adding that “FAMU has done its due diligence when it comes to this matter.” 

Yet this Wednesday, the resignation of the university’s vice president for university advancement and the executive director of the FAMU Foundation, Shawnta Friday-Stroud, was announced, the same day the Board of Trustees voted to conduct an investigation into the handling of the dubious gift.

That board meeting saw anger and frustration from board members about the lack of institutional control over the gift and the national embarrassment over it.

“This should not have happened,” the vice chairman of the university’s board, Deveron Gibbons, said, per Bloomberg.

Another board member, Chekesha Kidd, said the fallout calls for wider institutional reform.

“We all believe and understand that there was positive intent here,” she said during Wednesday’s meeting. “But if that doesn’t signal that we need to take a step back and look at getting our own house in order, I don’t know what else does.”

“The vote during a Zoom meeting was held hours after Shawnta Friday-Stroud, Ph.D., vice president for University Advancement and executive director of the FAMU Foundation, resigned to return fulltime to her role as School of Business and Industry dean,” the university said, in a statement provided to the Sun. 

In the fallout over the gift, it came to light that a $95 million donation by Mr. Gerami to Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina had also fallen apart. FAMU was criticized for apparently not having noticed that controversy before trumpeting Mr. Gerami’s donation to FAMU.

Mr. Gerami said he had felt disrespected by Coastal Carolina University and that he had experienced racism from school officials, which the university denied.

“I just decided enough is enough, and this isn’t working for me,” Mr. Gerami said at the time, the Sun News of Myrtle Beach noted

The outlet reported last week that as recently as 2020, court records showed that Mr. Gerami was living in a Texas home appraised at $176,000 with his then-wife and three children. There was also a recent GoFundMe to pay family medical and funeral expenses. 

For its part, FAMU insists that its “financial standing is strong,” given a recent clean state audit and a $225,000 gift from Shell. The Sun was unable to reach Batterson Farms Corp.

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