The country's largest public services employees union said on Thursday that it will pull the plug on its funding for the United Negro College Fund, the nation's largest minority scholarship foundation. The move comes after the organization linked up with industrial titans and political heavyweights David and Charles Koch for a new scholarship fund.
With more than 1.6 million members, the head of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) penned a letter announcing the union would sever its decade-long relationship with the UNCF, which includes a joint scholarship program.
“We are doing this as a result of actions you have taken as president of the UNCF that are not only deeply hostile to the rights and dignity of public employees, but also a profound betrayal of the ideals of the civil rights movement,” AFSCME president Lee Saunders wrote in the letter addressed to UNCF president Michael Lomax.
Saunders said he was “deeply troubled” when he learned the UNCF had accepted a $25 million donation from Koch industries and the Charles Koch Foundation, but he assumed this did not indicate support for the Koch brothers views or causes.
This period of understanding was short lived, with Lomax’s subsequent appearance at a Koch brothers summit in California appearing to be what pushed the AFSCME over the edge. Saunders said he was “truly stunned” by the act and that “this was a betrayal of everything the UNCF stands for.”
For 70 years the UNCF has helped raise money and provide scholarships for historically black colleges and universities across the country. The organization currently has 37 member schools.
“The Koch brothers are the single most prominent founders of efforts to prevent African Americans from voting,” Saunders wrote.
The billionaire siblings have been major donors to both conservative and libertarian political causes. Their support for the American Legislative Exchange Council has caused many to link the pair with controversial voter identification laws.
Lomax responded in a statement that said: "While I am saddened by AFSCME's decision, it will not distract us from our mission of helping thousands of African American students achieve their dream of a college degree and the economic benefits that come with it.”
He said the organization does not have a “litmus test” for donors, and that all of their 100,000 donors “believe in helping young students of color realize their dreams of a college education.”
The $25 million grant from the Koch empire was announced by the UNCF on June 6. The donation includes $18.5 million to be injected into the UNCF/Koch Scholars program, $6.5 million for general support for the colleges, with $4 million earmarked for financial relief.
In an essay for Inside Higher Ed, the UNCF’s Frederic D. Patterson Research Institute’s executive director Brian K. Bridges said they were “grateful” for the grant. Bridges said the Koch scholarship would maximize the impact of UNCF scholarships. According to Bridges, a $5,000 scholarship for an African-American freshman improves their odds of graduating by more than seven percentage points.
Marybeth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading scholar on historically black colleges, told VICE News she doesn't think the UNCF realized the ramifications of their decision.
“Taking money from someone trying to disadvantage the very people you support? People are not going to like that,” she said. “I trust the UNCF to spend the money properly, but to get in bed with the Koch brothers is not a sensible decision.”
Something she finds worrying is the Koch Scholars program, which will focus on innovation and entrepreneurialism, creating 1,400 scholarships of $5,000 each. This will reportedly align with the interests of the 22 percent of UNCF students majoring in business, many of whom Bridges said have entrepreneurial aspirations.
“Our students are hungry for opportunities to succeed in their communities, and many will start their own enterprises,” he wrote in the Inside Higher Ed essay.
Gasman said the selection committee for the Koch Scholars program will consist of two Koch representatives, three UNCF representatives, and a school faculty member. She is concerned the Koch foundation representatives will play a majority role in the decision making, considering they're the ones putting up the money.
“One of the biggest issues here is that the president of the UNCF is saying ‘we don’t care about ideology,’” she said. “But my god, you have to care about someone’s ideology, all philanthropic gifts have some strings attached.”
While she continues to question the decision, Gasman said the UNCF realistically had to take the money since historically black colleges have a hard time raising money. She explained that fundraising staffs are typically small and donations are low, especially for student bodies where many need scholarships.
“If people are going to complain, then they have to give,” she said. “Alumni are going to have to put their money where their mouth is, rally around the UNCF not accepting the gift, and rally around the greater good.”
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB
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