UPenn professor calls foul on Koch brothers funding of black students’ scholarships

David, left, and Charles Koch, known as the "Koch brothers." Credit: Reuters/Koch Industries
David and Charles Koch, known as the “Koch brothers.” Credit: Reuters/Koch Industries

The United Negro College Fund, founded in 1944 to help African Americans pay for higher education, announced Friday that they have accepted a $25 million donation that will go toward scholarships for black students.

But a University of Pennsylvania professor said that the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) should not have accepted the gift, because it came from the Charles Koch Foundation. Charles Koch and brother David Koch are the conservative billionaire businessmen Koch brothers, known for financial support of conservative political causes.

“I believe that they should not have accepted it, that they should have tried to go elsewhere,” said UPenn Graduate School of Education Prof. Marybeth Gasman, author of “Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund.”

“The Koch brothers have underwritten and supported many, many practices and policies that disenfranchised minorities, low-income people and African Americans,” Gasman said.

For example, the Koch brothers donated to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group that has supported voter identification laws across the nation and other conservative causes.

Gasman also cited their donations to politicians around the country who seek to cut programs like Pell grants, SNAP, WIC, Head Start, and other various welfare benefits.

“Their particular politics hurt African Americans. Their particular free market ideas hurt African Americans,” Gasman said of the Koch brothers.

Gasman said she herself grew up in Michigan depending on these types of programs.

“I went to Head Start, my family received food stamps because my parents made very little money … I got student loans. If it weren’t for those programs, I never would have gone to college,” Gasman said.

The Charles Koch Foundation and the UNCF did not respond to requests for comment on Gasman’s criticism.

But the UNCF announcement on Friday said the new “Koch Scholars” program would offer funds to “exemplary students with demonstrated financial need and an interest in the study of how entrepreneurship, economics and innovation contribute to well-being for individuals, communities, and society.”

Out of $25 million, $18.5 million will go to individual scholarships, while $6.5 million will go to historically black colleges and universities and UNCF.

A five-person panel with two UNCF representatives, two Koch representatives and a higher education faculty member will oversee dispensing the funds — which Gasman said is a particularly troubling aspect of this donation.

“The reason why I am worried is it is very hard to navigate the very murky waters of philanthropic relations,” Gasman said. “Most money is tainted in some way. In this day and age, we do need to decide if we are able to stomach where the money comes from.”

Ultimately, Gasman said, the Koch brothers’ support for the UNCF should galvanize those who disagree with their politics to donate to historically black colleges and universities and the UNCF.

“If people have an issue with this, then they should give to black colleges or the UNCF,” Gasman said. “We live in a free country. If the UNCF wants to take that money, they can. If a student wants to, they can.”


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