WASHINGTON – Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has discontinued supplying scholarships to the United Negro College Fund because it accepted a $25 million donation from ultra-conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch and because of UNCF President Michael Lomax’s apparent support for the brothers’ right-wing ideology.
Saunders, an African American, said in a stinging letter to Lomax that he was “deeply troubled” when the UNCF accepted the donation from Koch Industries, Inc. and the Charles Koch Foundation in June, but was even more shocked when Lomax later attended the Koch brothers’ event in California.
“This was a betrayal of everything the UNCF stands for. The avowed purpose of this private event was to build support – financial and political – for the Koch brothers’ causes. Your appearance at the summit can only be interpreted as a sign of your personal support and the UNCF’s organizational support of the Koch brothers’ ideological program,” Saunders wrote.
He explained, “The Koch brothers and the organizations they fund have devoted themselves for more than a decade to attacking the voting rights of African Americans. They support voter identification laws. They seek to restrict early voting and voter registration. They support laws that threaten organizations that register voters in the African American community.”
For nearly a dozen years, AFSCME provided annual scholarships and aid packages worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to UNCF, according to officials with the labor group.
When Koch Industries acquired Georgia-Pacific in 2005, they continued a long-standing relationship between the manufacturing giant and UNCF that spanned decades. Since then, according to UNCF’s website, both Georgia-Pacific and Koch, have continued to support UNCF programs.
Charles and David Koch have been criticized for also supporting the American Legislative Exchange Council, the driving force behind voter identification laws in the United States. ALEC also worked with the National Rifle Association on “Stand Your Ground” legislation that gained notoriety worldwide following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teen in Sanford, Fla.
In response to Saunders letter, Lomax and UNCF issued a statement touting UNCF’s successful efforts in sending underprivileged students to college, while recognizing the incredible need for resources that often goes unmet.
“This year alone, UNCF awarded $100 million in scholarships to more than 12,000 students at 900 schools across the country, yet had to deny 9 out of every 10 qualified applicants due to lack of resources,” the statement read.
Lomax wrote that although he was “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.”
Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh accused AFSCME of operating similar to a plantation with UNCF as its slave.
Lezli Baskerville, the president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), an umbrella group that represents both public and private black colleges, said that Lomax, as the head of UNCF, carries a heavy burden.
“He has to raise scholarship money for all of these institutions and figure out how to get our kids to and through college,” said Baskerville. “I certainly stay up at night trying to figure that out as well.”
Black families, still reeling from housing and job losses during the Great Recession, suffered another setback when the Obama administration abruptly changed the eligibility requirements for the Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS) program, stifling college dreams for thousands of black students. When enrollment dropped at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the nation, the schools were forced to cut programs and staff.
In a press release about the new Koch Scholars Program, UNCF said that grant will not only cover “nearly 3,000 merit-based awards to African American undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctorate students,” but the money will also be used to “offset funding shortfalls as a result of recent changes to the Parent PLUS loan program.”
Advocates for HBCUs and black students defended Lomax for accepting money from the Kochs, but said that UNCF should have managed the public relations around the partnership better.
“For all of those people in our community who were upset with the Koch brothers or anyone else who takes a tough position against the administration and our Black president, the reality is that our schools were compromised by a decision that was made by this administration, and our Black president was leading it,” said Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, an organization representing public HBCUs. “And if someone else came up and offered money to help offset the losses that our schools experienced I say, ‘Good for them.’”
Taylor said he understood why people didn’t approve of the partnership, but he wasn’t as troubled by it, until he found out that Lomax had attended the Koch summit, which also featured Charles Murray, co-author of “The Bell Curve,” a book that asserted that blacks were intellectually inferior to other races, partly because of genetics.
“There is no person in America whose work is more opposed to the fundamental mission of the UNCF than Charles Murray,” Saunders pointed out in his letter to UNCF. “For decades, he has dedicated himself to promoting the notion that the over-representation of African Americans among America’s poor and in America’s prisons is the consequence not of our history or of the types of public policies the Koch brothers promote, but rather is a consequence of our genetic inferiority.”
UNCF officials said that Lomax was at the Koch-sponsored event “simply to discuss the new Koch Scholars Program and the importance of a diverse and divided nation coming together in pursuit of equity in education for all.”
Taylor said, “If you’re going to go into that environment and be used, then you have to ensure that when you walk away it is not unclear to anyone what your mission is or the communities you serve and why this unexpected audience should be more sensitive in making some of the decisions that it’s making. That would have been so much more compelling.”
Still, Taylor said that blacks that don’t give and just sit back and criticize are part of the noise and he encouraged them to be a part of the solution.
The Nielsen Company predicts that black buying power will eclipse $1 trillion in 2015, yet top 10 HBCUs, ranked by endowments, combined for less than $2 billion, compared to the top 10 majority-white institutions that combined for more than $150 billion in 2013, according to the National Association for College and University Business Officers.
“For all the people that are screaming bloody murder about this gift, the question is: How much have you given to an HBCU?” asked Taylor. “If you haven’t, I’m not so sure you have the right to have an opinion about this gift.”