Managing a divorce is difficult, but it’s even more difficult when over $124 billion is on the line and the entire world is watching.
On May 3, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates, Trinity ‘86, announced in identical tweets that they would be ending their marriage after 27 years. The former couple’s divorce was finalized as of Monday.
The two established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, which is now one of the world’s largest private charitable foundations. Located in Seattle, the Foundation has spent $53.8 billion on making positive differences in many communities globally. In 2019, the Gates Foundation had net assets of over $43 billion. The Gates’ net worth is valued to be the fourth-largest in the world.
The Foundation is one of the largest benefactors of Duke. In 2002, it gave a $35 million gift for the French Family Science Center, and in 2007, it donated $10 million to financial aid for undergraduate and business school students. The Foundation also worked with the The Duke Endowment to establish a $30 million endowment to launch DukeEngage, Duke’s flagship global civic engagement program. In 2015, it granted $20 million to the Duke Global Health Institute.
With French Gates being a Duke alumna, some might wonder if Duke will continue to receive support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation after the divorce. However, Gates and French Gates have said that they will continue to work together as partners at their foundation.
“I believe deeply in the foundation’s mission and remain fully committed as co-chair to its work,” French Gates said.
If after two years of this partnership French Gates decides to resign her position, she will receive personal resources from Gates for her philanthropic work. These resources would be completely separate from the foundation’s endowment, which would not be affected.
Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, said that Duke will continue to work with French Gates and the Gates Foundation. He noted that the Foundation has been a supporter of many programs and activities at Duke, funding about $200 million of grants to the University over the last 20 plus years.
According to Schoenfeld, the way that Duke receives money from the Gates Foundation is identical to how Duke receives grants from any other foundation. The University brings program ideas to a potential foundation, and if the proposal aligns with the interests of the foundation, there is an opportunity for funding.
Some of the funding is used for endowment, and some of it is used for funding operations and activities, Schoenfeld said. For example, the Gates Foundation’s funding for DukeEngage was an endowment for the program so that it would have a permanent source of support over the years. However, funding for research activities, such as those funded by the Foundation at DGHI, would be considered funding directly for a program.
“Duke and the many other organizations around the world that work with the Gates Foundation on public health, education, and their other priorities look forward to working with the Gates Foundation again for a long time to come,” Schoenfeld said.
Although there is uncertainty over whether the Gates Foundation will still receive the majority of Gates and French Gates’ charitable contributions, in both scenarios the split will not prevent the foundation from working with Duke in the future.
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In her 2013 commencement speech at Duke, French Gates told students that “no matter how much time passes … I always feel connected to Duke.”
French Gates graduated from Duke with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and economics in 1986 and earned her master’s degree in business administration at The Fuqua School of Business in 1987. She also served on the University’s Board of Trustees from 1996 to 2003.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s media team did not respond to requests for comment.
Alison Korn is a Pratt sophomore and a features managing editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.