On Friday, June 6, 2014, the United Negro College Fund accepted a $25 million donation from the Koch brothers. I urge the historic organization to consider giving it back. This money is tainted and there will be strings attached.
I authored a book titled Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund in 2007. The book tells the story of the creation of the UNCF and its delicate relationship with white philanthropy, mainly the Rockefeller family. Research tells us that white industrial philanthropists supported black colleges in order to educate a semi-skilled labor force for their businesses and those of their friends, and to control the education of black people. The money created opportunities during desperate times for some black students at UNCF institutions, but that doesn’t make the motives irrelevant. Given these historical motives, I’m compelled to ask: What are the motives of the Koch brothers, given their past affiliations and activities?
Since its establishment in 1944, the UNCF has worked across party lines and has taken money from people of all political persuasions. They have often had little choice, given the lack of access to capital that African Americans have had throughout American history. However, in the 1970s, under the leadership of Vernon Jordan and Christopher Edley Sr., the UNCF began to push back against the control that came bundled with white philanthropic support – control that manifested in the organization not being able to write a check for over $250 without the authorization of Rockefeller’s associates. The UNCF took on a stronger position, began hiring more black fund-raisers, and launched an edgy Ad Council campaign – "A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste" – that pushed back against American racism and the oppression of blacks.
Alternative Point of View
The UNCF's goal of helping students at black colleges requires a focus on the value of philanthropy, not the politics of the donor, writes Brian K. Bridges. Read more.
Times have changed. Taking a donation from the Koch brothers hammers away at the integrity of the UNCF. Yes, $25 million is alluring and could be used to help black students. However, the costs are too high. The end does not justify the means. The Koch brothers have a considerable history of supporting efforts to disenfranchise black voters through their backing of the American Legislative Exchange Council. In addition, the Koch brothers have given huge amounts of money to Tea Party candidates who oppose many policies, initiatives, and laws that empower African Americans.
The UNCF has also given the Koch brothers two seats on the five-person committee that determines who will receive the scholarship money that the Koch brothers donated. Specifically, “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.” This is dangerous and gives the Koch brothers too much influence.
I urge the UNCF to consider returning this money to the Koch brothers. Yes, I know the organization needs it, but the cost is too high. Call Warren Buffet and beg him to give you the money instead. Call Oprah and ask her to help. Call every wealthy celebrity/athlete/business person who cares about education and the rights of African Americans and ask them to give. Make a plea to every black college alumnus, noting that you need him or her to save the UNCF’s integrity.
As designed by Tuskegee University President Frederick D. Patterson, the United Negro College Fund is a hallmark of African-American ingenuity and entrepreneurship. It is the organization that taught all of us that a mind is a terrible thing to Waste. Please join me in letting the UNCF know that an organization’s integrity is also a terrible thing to lose.
Oh, and while you are at it, please make a donation to the UNCF and support historically black colleges and African-American students. It’s not right to complain unless you put your money where your mouth is. I’m making my donation right now.
Marybeth Gasman is professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She also serves as director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (John Hopkins University Press, 2007).
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