When the Koch Foundation gave the United Negro College Fund $25 million, it set off a maelstrom of comments in cyberspace and real time. How dare the UNCF take money from the Koch brothers, some asked. They ought to send it back, said others. One woman told me she would never give to UNCF again because of the Koch donation. Another says the Koch donation changes her perception of UNCF.
The donation will provide $18.5 million in scholarships, money that is badly needed to get some of our young people out of school, especially with the cuts so many experienced because of reduced access to the Parent Plus loan. Another $4 million will go to the 37 UNCF schools for general support, again to make up some of the losses that came from reduced enrollment due to Parent Plus. The remainder goes to UNCF for their general support.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Make the most of it
Koch scholarships will be awarded to students with good grades, financial needs, and an interest in studying how “entrepreneurship, economics and innovation contribute to well-being for individuals, communities, and society.” Sounds like conservative free markets to me. More than that, it sounds like granting scholarships to further the Koch government-reducing, free market focus. Koch protects its interest by having two seats on the five member scholarship committee, with the other three from the UNCF. While non-Koch interests are the majority, it will be interesting to see if a donor can sway a committee.
What else? The Koch brothers are making the most of this gift in the media. Rarely have I seen so many headlines generated by a gift of that size. $100 million, maybe. $250 million, surely. But while $25 million will mean a lot to the UNCF, schools such as Harvard would likely consider it nothing more than a modest behest. The Koch brothers must think they’ll get some positive publicity from their gift, and they obviously have the PR team to pitch it.
Voter suppression culprits
Furthermore, these are the very Koch brothers who have supported voter suppression efforts.They would reduce the size of government, which means the Pell grants that so many students depend on would shrink in size. What one hand gives, in other words, the other takes away. If the Koch brothers would fight to maintain or increase the size of the Pell grant, fewer would look askance at their gift. Instead, many see this as the cynical manipulation of a deep-pockets donor who gets much publicity from their gift.
On the other hand, when the New York Times criticized the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation for its corporate support, Elsie Scott, the then-director said that if we spent money on certain products it was only right that we get their support. Does this apply to the Koch donation?
Unfortunately, too many African-American organizations buy what we want and beg for what we need. Many in the African-American community have $25 million to give to the United Negro College Fund. Many could spend the dollars to support our students. The fact that we do not leaves us vulnerable to contributions like Koch, contributions that come with strings and, perhaps, a conservative agenda.
Should UNCF President Michael Lomax send the money back? Only if someone steps up to replace it.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer and President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.