Koch Brothers' $25 Million Gift to UNCF Sparks Controversy

Koch Brothers' $25 Million Gift to UNCF Sparks Controversy

After announcing last week that it had received a $25 million gift from Koch Industries and the Charles Koch Foundation, the United Negro College Fund is scrambling to defuse criticism of its decision from those concerned about the libertarian Koch brothers' influence on education policy, Inside Higher Ed reports.

The gift includes $18.5 million to create the UNCF/Koch Scholars Program, which will provide funds to outstanding students with demonstrated financial need and an interest in studying how entrepreneurship, economics, and innovation contribute to the well-being of individuals, communities, and society. The remaining $6.5 million will be used to provide general support to UNCF and historically black colleges and universities, with $4 million set aside to help students who have been denied U.S. Department of Education PLUS loans as a result of stricter eligibility rules. The agreement specifies that "an advisory board consisting of two UNCF representatives, two Koch representatives, and one faculty member from an existing school will be created to review scholarship applications and select recipients."

Gifts from Charles and David Koch in support of higher education — in many cases linked to support for programs or initiatives related to free enterprise economics — have sparked controversy at Florida State University, where a faculty review found numerous instances in which the language in the agreement left the university vulnerable to "undue outside influence," and the Catholic University of America, where  university officials pushed back after fifty Catholic educators protested the gift, citing the Koch brothers' support for "organizations that advance public policies that directly contradict Catholic teaching on a range of moral issues, from economic justice to environmental stewardship." The  brothers are unabashed supporters of conservative and libertarian politicians, think tanks, and organizations that advocate for sharp cuts in federal spending, so-called "voter security" efforts, and the elimination of regulations on fossil fuel development.

Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education and director of the Center for Minority-Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, told Insider Higher Ed it was wrong for UNCF to accept funds from Koch-related organizations, which have been "deeply affiliated with the Tea Party" and its efforts to undermine the interests and political activities of African Americans and institutions that support them. The Koch brothers' agenda to reduce the scope of state and federal governments endanger programs such as Pell Grants, student loans, and Head Start that "have built the black middle class" and will contribute to the advancement of black students who are still impoverished, she added. "I think it is very, very important to think about who you are taking money from. Yes, that money can do a lot of good for students. But it allows that organization to have quite a bit of influence."

UNCF president Michael Lomax told Insider Higher Ed that the organization does not  factor the politics of potential donors into its gift-acceptance decisions. "UNCF has one principle that we hold on to — and it's one that I looked at throughout this process, and that I've held firm to," he said. "[T]hat is that we believe and have believed for seventy years that our cause should be supported by all Americans, and therefore we urge all Americans to support UNCF."