family photos courtesy of the hart family
Coming from a small farming community in southwest Michigan, Brett Hart, ’91, admits that applying to the University of Michigan was “a bit of a stretch” for him. But he did so anyway, and Hart, along with his teachers, was surprised when U-M admitted him.
“Even after I got into Michigan, there were people who I really respected who told me that Michigan probably wasn’t the right decision for me because it would be difficult for me to thrive there,” Hart says. “But I decided that was a risk I wanted to take. And it turned out to be a great experience. I did thrive.”
He says the reason he succeeded was because he was given an opportunity and he seized it. Hart, now the president of United Airlines, says the experience at U-M changed the trajectory of his life and the lives of his immediate and extended family and he wants others to have the same access to opportunities.
That desire is why Hart and his wife Dontrey Britt-Hart have become major donors to the LEAD Scholars program. They established the Hart Family Scholarship Endowment, which currently is funding four students; and the Hart LEAD Scholars Community Program Fund, which supports engagement for all LEAD Scholars in the program. For their generosity, the LEAD Community Room inside the Alumni Center is named after them.
The LEAD Scholars program offers scholarships and community support to underrepresented minority students who are admitted but not yet enrolled at U-M. At the time of the scholarship offer, they are often deciding whether to attend U-M or choose another elite institution.
“It’s a shame that there are kids out there who could thrive and do well, find themselves, blossom on a campus like that, but for various reasons, don’t get that opportunity,” Hart says. “In particular, it is unforgivable that there are those who are admitted and can be at Michigan, but there is a financial reason why they are unable to make that happen.”
Hart grew up in Cassopolis, Michigan, a town of about 1,700 residents near the border with Indiana. His father was a big University of Notre Dame fan, but Hart fell in love with U-M.
“I didn’t grow up thinking it was a viable option,” he says of attending U-M. “Not many people from my hometown attended or applied to Michigan.”
When he showed up at Mary Markley Hall in 1987, Hart admits that the experience of being on a large campus inside a massive dormitory was, at first, a bit overwhelming and that his first year on campus was driven by a fear of not making it.
But his initial focus on “survival” turned into a thriving experience as he found community.
“Within a day or two, I had met at least a half dozen people who are still great friends of mine today,” he says. “They were all guys from the city, but they largely took me in. That made the experience much more manageable.”
While on campus, Hart joined Alpha Phi Alpha, a historic Black fraternity that shared his personal values: being both community-oriented and focused on academics. He says that with the fraternity, he developed deep friendships and found his voice as a student.
“That whole experience was a coming-of-age experience for me that was really important,” Hart says.
While he attended U-M, the number of Black students on campus was on the upswing. In 1987, 5.4 percent of the undergraduate population on the Ann Arbor campus was Black. By 1991, it had risen to 7.3 percent. But the numbers have dropped significantly in recent years. In the fall of 2022, only 4 percent of the undergraduate population at U-M was Black. The steep drop came after the passage of Proposal 2 in the state of Michigan in 2006. That measure outlawed the consideration of race in the admissions process.
“We had a tremendous community of African American students, but I feel for the students now because they don’t have the same type of experience and community now with the numbers being at the levels they are,” Hart says.
After graduating from U-M’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts with a double major in English and philosophy, Hart went to law school at the University of Chicago. Shortly after graduating, Hart met his future wife, Dontrey Britt-Hart, who was completing a master’s degree at DePaul University. The two now have three boys: Jonah, Aidan, and Matthew.
Dontrey Britt-Hart has worked in public relations and has a lifestyle brand called Denim & Damask. Brett Hart held roles at U.S. Department of Treasury, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal law firm, and Sara Lee Corp. before joining United Airlines as general counsel in 2010. He was promoted to president of the company in May 2020, just days before George Floyd was murdered, launching a national conversation about systemic racism.
Brett Hart says the company held a town hall discussion where he spoke honestly and frankly about the impact of what he saw on the video of Floyd’s murder and how it affected his family.
“It was pretty remarkable to have those sorts of conversations in the workplace,” he says.
Dontrey Britt-Hart says the end result of having those tough discussions is people being able to bring their full and authentic selves to work and elsewhere in life, along with understanding the value that diverse voices bring organizations.
The couple has been very active in philanthropic, cultural, educational, and economic efforts. They donate and sit on boards of many causes, including the Innocence Project, the Chicago Volunteer Doulas, Northwestern Medical Group, The Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz, and the Obama Foundation Inclusion Council, to name a few. But they’re especially focused on the difference they can make in education.
“I know how I’ve benefited personally — and we’ve collectively benefited — from education and the difference that just having those opportunities brings,” Dontrey Britt-Hart says. “And we would have been one of the students that benefited from the causes that we support. It is personal for us. It matters. We know the difference that it makes.”
She says that while the issue affects all races, the reality is that a disproportionate number of kids who don’t have access to educational opportunities happen to be Black and brown children. However, diversifying educational spaces and workplaces benefits all.
“People think diversity is a Black or brown issue, but it’s really a world issue because when more voices are at the table, it’s better for all of us,” Dontrey Britt-Hart says.
A love for Maize and Blue runs deep in the Hart home. The family’s Wi-Fi network is even named “Wolverine’s Den.” But when it was time for their oldest son, Jonah Hart, to pick a college, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to U-M.
“I kind of wanted to do my own thing,” Jonah Hart says of his early apprehension about coming to U-M.
In the end, he found that U-M was the best place for him because of the balance of being an elite academic school with a great campus and good social scene. He says, like his father, he found a good mix of friends after arriving on campus in 2022.
“I feel like anyone can find their place at Michigan and I don’t think you can say that about every school,” Jonah Hart says. “I feel like Michigan is the epitome of the balanced college experience.”
During his first year at U-M, Jonah got involved with FATE, a mentoring program that worked with first-year high school students in Detroit. He says he saw himself and his brothers in the students he interacted with in the program.
“It was great being able to find a community that I could help and be a part of,” Jonah Hart says.
Brett Hart and Dontrey Britt-Hart say they are proud of their son’s work in the community because giving back is so important to them. That, along with their love of U-M is why they support the LEAD Scholars program so deeply. They want to see the University be the best it can be.
The family has loved getting to know LEAD Scholars in recent years and Brett Hart says he has been impressed with how the program touches virtually every school and unit at the University.
“The broader University is benefiting from the work of the LEAD program and these remarkable students,” he says.
“They are world-beaters. They are going to do incredible things over the course of their lives and they are going to do it their way as well,” Brett Hart says. “They are incredibly smart and courageous. It’s really fulfilling to be in their company.”
JEREMY CARROLL is the content strategist for the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan.