America’s black colleges are struggling for funds. The Republican Party is struggling to attract black voters.
Enter a $25 million gift to the United Negro College Fund from the conservative Koch brothers, which has pitted the needs of black students against liberals’ insistence that the Kochs are pursuing a racist political agenda.
Whether genuine philanthropy, political jujitsu or some of both, the gift sparked a debate that peaked when Lee Saunders, president of the powerful American Federation for State, County and Municipal Employees union, sent the UNCF a blistering letter ending the union’s financial support.
Historically black colleges and universities have educated a huge percentage of black America. Today, HBCUs are facing unprecedented challenges: decreases in government funding, tougher parent loan eligibility, and the threat of losing even more federal aid based on low retention and graduation rates.
In this environment, how could the UNCF turn down $25 million – much of it earmarked for direct distribution to needy students?
“I can take their money and use it for good,” said Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University.
Kimbrough’s historically black university has already received about $50,000 from the Kochs’ UNCF gift, earmarked for students whose parents no longer qualify for federal PLUS loans.
Dillard is giving the money in increments of $2,000 to $5,000 to candidates such as an honor student whose single mother lost her job due to health issues. The student had been planning to sleep on classmates’ couches because she didn’t have money for room and board, Kimbrough said.
Kimbrough does not agree with much of the Kochs’ political actions. But “I’ll still fight for things important to the African-American community, and I’ll use their money to do it,” he said.
David and Charles Koch inherited an oil business from their engineer father and expanded it into the privately held Koch Industries, which had $115 billion in 2013 revenues, according to Forbes. They are reviled by liberals for donating hundreds of millions to conservative causes, and have been labeled as racists particularly for their support of laws that critics say make it harder for black people to vote.