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Is billionaire libertarian investor Charles Koch using money with strings attached to co-opt the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a supporter of historically black colleges and universities? Or are the two parties strange bedfellows united by a surprisingly common purpose?

Those questions were debated Thursday after the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a national group supporting public and private HBCUs, announced a $25.6 million gift from the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries. The fund is using the money, which will be disbursed over five years, to launch a new Center for Advancing Opportunity that will focus on education, criminal justice, entrepreneurship and other issues affecting what it calls fragile communities. The center will create think tanks on HBCU campuses, establish scholarships, set up graduate fellowships and make grants to faculty members.

The debate over the donation will likely continue, considering Koch, his business and his family have been vilified by the left as far-right forces seeking to influence American democracy through questionable means, including controlled philanthropy. But the two sides involved argue the donation does not arrive with onerous restrictions, stems from a common purpose and has the potential to fund groundbreaking research while having a drastic impact on HBCUs.

“Listen, I’m a healthy skeptic,” said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. “I couldn’t believe it -- let me be honest -- when the Koch Foundation said to us, ‘Listen, this is yours.’”

The donation’s roots run back two years, according to Taylor. He was in the shower when he heard a television interview in which Charles Koch was discussing criminal justice practices and opportunity. Taylor wrote to Koch, and discussions progressed from there.

The Thurgood Marshall College Fund was already looking into criminal justice, education and opportunity, Taylor said. Meanwhile, Koch has been involved in many of the same issues. The Charles Koch Foundation funded a newly released Vera Institute of Justice report on the cost of policing and the judicial system in New Orleans.

“Believe it or not, we designed this concept before we actually went directly to Koch -- we’ve actually pitched some version of this concept to a number of funders,” Taylor said. “The Koch Foundation wasn’t on the top of my list of funders.”

What the foundation has done vaults it toward the top of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s list of supporters, however. The fund made headlines in 2015 when Apple announced it was dedicating more than $40 million to it for student and faculty initiatives. But the Apple money comes in over 10 years, Taylor said. The Koch donation is $25.6 million over five years, resulting in the fund’s largest gift, measuring on an annual basis.

The concept for the efforts the Koch gift will fund is in place, but many of the details have yet to be established. Broadly, the $25.6 million will go toward original research, creating three campus research centers and funding research efforts. It will also go toward scholarships and fellowships for students in education, sociology, economics and criminal justice. It will also support on-campus programming, funding speakers like educators and entrepreneurs. And it will pay for research and polling, helping Gallup create an opportunity index and survey fragile communities, which are defined as those where residents face barriers to economic advancement and which exhibit high crime rates, low-quality education options and limited mobility.

Fragile communities are not defined by race, Taylor said. But placing the initiative in the hands of HBCUs puts research that is often conducted by Ivy League institutions into new territory.

“It wasn’t intended to be a race-based intervention,” Taylor said. “It was using HBCUs, the very diverse community of HBCUs, to tackle vexing social problems.”

The Center for Advancing Opportunity is being established in Washington, D.C., to act as a coordinating body and grant administrator. Three HBCUs will be selected in the future to host research centers. The number of on-campus research centers could grow if they’re successful. But mechanisms have not been developed for deciding which institutions receive research centers, which professors receive funding or which students receive scholarship money.

Right now, the effort is operating under “broad guidelines,” Taylor said. It will appoint an executive director in the next week or so, convene the presidents of Thurgood Marshall College Fund member institutions and then work to create a more specific structure. Gallup has begun work on a more closely tailored definition of fragile communities that will likely be set in early June so data gathering can begin.

After that, a State of Opportunities Summit will be held in August. A group of scholars -- undergraduate researchers and graduate fellows -- will be chosen for the fall.

The fact that the mechanism for awarding money has not been determined could cause concern. Koch gifts have previously been controversial at non-HBCUs, where some faculty members believe that Koch organizations push for too much control over curricular decisions. Koch also generated controversy in 2014 for a $25 million gift to the United Negro College Fund, in part because an agreement between the two parties specified that Koch representatives would hold two seats on an advisory board for scholarships. Some questioned whether that gave Koch the potential to direct the funds. The donation prompted the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to end an internship and grant program with the UNCF.

Recently, the UNCF/Koch Scholars program reported receiving more than 3,000 applications since its inception. The program makes awards of up to $20,000 over four years to African-American students interested in entrepreneurship and economics. It has supported 176 students with just over $1 million in scholarships.

The new donor agreement between the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and Koch will not be available because the fund keeps all donor agreements private, Taylor said Thursday. But he said no explicit evaluation metrics are built into the donor agreement.

That didn’t satisfy concerns from one of the critics of the Koch’s donation to the United Negro College Fund. Marybeth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, wrote in 2014 that the United Negro College Fund should give the money back.

She outlined a similar argument in an email Thursday, saying that she appreciates the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s thoughtfulness around the issues involved and that it is better that the donor have no official involvement in day-to-day decision making. She also called the idea for the Center for Advancing Opportunity “fresh and needed.”

But Gasman continued to find issue with the source of funding.

“I continue to question the ethics of taking money from the Koch brothers/philanthropies given their systematic and long-term disenfranchisement of minorities, including African-Americans,” she said. “It’s important to look at their history of pollution in minority communities, their busting of unions that support minorities, their disenfranchisement of minority voters and their support of ultraconservative candidates and organizations that support the defunding of programs and policies that support African-Americans.”

Gasman wondered whether the donation could come with unspoken expectations.

“It is important in terms of money -- HBCUs need donations -- but what are the long-term ramifications of the gift?” she said. “Do the Koch brothers inadvertently shape the research? Do HBCUs feel pressured to conform to the whims of the Koch brothers in terms of the research products? Regardless of having an official role, funders always have influence, and the Koch brothers are deeply powerful.”

Some users on social media voiced their concerns as well. Others took a more nuanced view or voiced support for the donation.

John Hardin, the director of university relations for the Charles Koch Foundation, tried to alleviate concerns. He asked critics to look at the foundation’s record, which he characterized as supporting opportunities for students and citizens. The foundation does not presume to have the answers to the issues the new effort will address, he said.

“How do they organize it?” Hardin said. “All of that, that’s TMCF’s responsibility. We’re just excited to provide the money so that it can happen.”

The foundation could be interested in providing funding beyond five years, Hardin added.

“These are really difficult, entrenched problems that these university centers, that these scholars and students are going to be tackling,” Hardin said. “This is going to take a lot longer than five years, and we know that, and we hope that this is a very long partnership.”

Taylor, meanwhile, said civil unrest breaking out in recent years in U.S. cities from Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore adds urgency to the Center for Advancing Opportunity’s work. Maybe bridging traditional gaps can shatter the existing paradigm, advance research and find a new set of solutions for communities that have been left out or left behind.

“While I understand the conventional wisdom is, ‘These people don’t talk to these people,’ this is not working,” he said. “The definition of lunacy is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.”

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