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 said 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 will go to UNCF for their general support.
What’s wrong with this picture?
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.
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.
It kind of reminds me of the Donald Sterling gift to the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP. After Sterling’s racist rant, his donation was returned. Still, the NAACP was in the process of giving him a second lifetime achievement award prior to his verbal rampage. Indeed the 2014 outrage against Sterling had elements of class bias. The multi-million dollar players weren’t angry when he discriminated against African Americans and Latinos in the slum housing he owned—which cost him a couple of million dollars to settle with the Justice Department—but they were dismayed when he made negative comments about them. Their earlier silence equaled acquiescence to Sterling’s racism; their protest suggested that they would get angry only when rancid racism was directed at them.