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Few were surprised when The College Fix began running articles supportive of President Trump’s pick to be education secretary, Betsy DeVos.
The College Fix describes itself as a student-reported dose of “right-minded news and commentary” from across the country. Its provocative headlines tend to be skeptical of higher education and frequently criticize the prevalence of liberalism on college campuses. Other news organizations, including Breitbart, have covered reporting from the site. Inside Higher Ed has cited campus controversies in which The College Fix has been involved.
But The College Fix is connected to DeVos in ways it has not previously publicized. Her son sits on the board of directors for the Student Free Press Association, a nonprofit group that runs the site and that has received a large portion of its funding from an anonymous conservative donor fund that the DeVos family has donated to heavily in the past.
The connections could give a glimpse into the views of an education secretary nominee who has been largely a blank slate on higher education since she was tapped for the position in November. As the U.S. Senate prepares to vote on DeVos's confirmation today, her ties to The College Fix show that the DeVos family, long noted for its attempts to influence public policy in favor of K-12 charter schools, also touches higher education news media.
Federal tax forms for the Student Free Press Association list five directors for 2015, the most recent year available. One of them is Rick DeVos, one of Betsy DeVos's sons.
Rick DeVos was not compensated for the role, the forms show. They list him as putting in an hour per week, on average, indicating he is not involved in day-to-day operations.
The College Fix's founder and chairman, John J. Miller, acknowledged that Rick DeVos is a board member in a brief phone interview Friday. But Miller declined to go into detail.
The DeVos family has not given the media organization money, Miller said. But tax documents show the DeVos family has donated money to a conservative fund that in turn has donated large sums of money to the Student Free Press Association.
Donors Capital Fund gave $265,600 to the Student Free Press Association in 2014. That was more than half of the $482,729 in total revenue that the group disclosed that year. The fund contributed similar amounts in several previous years.
The fund is affiliated with Donors Trust, which also gave money to the association, in 2011. Both nonprofits were founded in Virginia in 1999, share the same leadership and control a total of more than $100 million in assets. Anonymous donors who maintain balances of more than $1 million are referred to the Donors Capital Fund, which also funnels money through gifts to Donors Trust, according to federal tax filings.
"Donors Capital Fund only supports a class of public charities firmly committed to liberty," the fund says on its website. "These charities all help strengthen American civil society by promoting private initiatives rather than government programs as the solution to the most pressing issues of the day in the areas of social welfare, health, the environment, economics, governance, foreign relations and arts and culture."
Lack of Disclosure
While the two funds are designed to be private and anonymous, DeVos family charities have given them money.
The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, the largest of the family's charity groups, reported giving $6.5 million to Donors Trust through its DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative between 2009 and 2012. Richard and Helen DeVos are Betsy DeVos's father- and mother-in-law.
So while it's impossible to say for sure whether DeVos money went to The College Fix, at least one DeVos family foundation gave a substantial amount of money to the affiliated fund of two of the site's biggest financial supporters.
Foundations with positions on higher education give money to many journalistic organizations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has funded reporting by The Hechinger Report, Washington Monthly and many other news outlets. Likewise, The 74, a web publication focused on K-12, has disclosed that it received financial support from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation.
So while issue-driven philanthropy is not new to education reporting, The College Fix's lack of disclosure about its relationship with the DeVos family is problematic, said Aly Colón, a professor of media ethics at Washington and Lee University.
Colón said it's a good idea to disclose any potential conflicts of interest within news articles.
“All I can say is that it raises questions,” he said. “The less questions an organization raises about what it does and why it does it, the more effective it can be.”
The College Fix has written supportively about Betsy DeVos with relative frequency. On Nov. 23, the day Trump nominated her for education secretary, the site assembled supportive responses from prominent Republicans. On Jan. 20, it ran a story headlined “Attacks on Betsy DeVos show ‘how ideological and unmoored the campus rape debate has become.’” The next day it ran a piece by Dave Huber, an assistant editor for the publication, saying educators hypocritically ripped Betsy DeVos after they had complained for more than a decade about No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, the signature pieces of education reform from President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, respectively.
That piece described Betsy DeVos as “someone who believes in less federal red tape and oversight and more autonomy for teachers,” before asking, “educators are actually griping about that?!”
The article closed by saying “Betsy DeVos -- hopefully -- will be someone who looks ‘outside the box’ for the solutions which seemingly have eluded educationists for decades.”
None of the College Fix articles referenced the fact that Rick DeVos serves on the board of the site's parent organization. Nor did they acknowledge any potential funding stream from the family.
Disclosing such relations does not completely eliminate questions about conflicts of interest, Colón said. But it gives readers the information necessary to make an evaluation.
Asked whether The College Fix had a policy on disclosing its relationship with the DeVos family, Miller, the founder and chairman, declined to respond.
Miller directs the Herbert H. Dow II Journalism Program at Hillsdale College, a conservative institution in Michigan that does not accept federal funding. His profile there says that he fell in love with opinion journalism when he was 18 years old and is supportive of students learning journalism by practicing it.
Miller has written about members of the DeVos family in publications for well over a decade. In Philanthropy magazine in 2011, he profiled Rick DeVos and an art competition he created in Grand Rapids, Mich., with funding from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. In 2003 he wrote a piece for the National Review on Betsy DeVos's concern about a proposed Michigan ballot initiative to ban affirmative action.
That article shows disagreement between Betsy DeVos and Miller. She was chairwoman of the state GOP at the time, and Miller quotes her as saying the referendum would divide people along racial lines. Miller was skeptical of that argument, writing that an earlier California proposition "doesn't sound too divisive." He closed by calling on Michigan Republicans to be leaders among a herd of followers, but not before writing that Betsy DeVos was following Democrats.
"What’s more, she is following the lead of liberal Democrats in attacking a civil rights initiative for Michigan," he wrote.