David and Charles Koch have given hundreds of millions of dollars to restoring and maintaining the fine arts, finding a cure for cancer and conservative politics. A $25 million gift for them could easily be considered a light ask on a slow day.
Unless the United Negro College Fund is asking for it. Now, one of the nation's richest and most influential companies with political leanings that weigh heavily against the mission and the culture of historically Black colleges and universities, is one of the largest benefactors to our most vulnerable institutions.
The gift breaks down into $6.5 million in unrestricted support for the 37 UNCF member schools, with $4 million set aside specifically to fill in gaps created by PLUS Loan/Pell Grant changes -- at most, just over $175,000 for each institution. The other $18.5 million is earmarked for 3,000 merit-based scholarships to African-American students in financial need who show an interest in entrepreneurship, economics and innovation.
When asked about potential cultural dissonance with the gift, UNCF President and CEO Michael Lomax put us doubters collectively in our places.
Criticism is a small price for helping young people get the chance to realize their dream of a college education, and if I've got to bear the brunt of someone else's criticism to ensure that we have the resources to help those students, then I can handle it, and I can take the heat.
Then he took the airwaves to defend the gift.
So HBCU students, alumni and administrators are put into the greatest trick bag; do you take money from someone who wants to give the impression of support for Black people without the troublesome task of directly doing so, or do you turn the much-needed money down to support cultural dignity and moral standing? It is a question that HBCUs, real and fictitious, have faced before.
UNCF, Thurgood Marshall College Fund and other advocacy organizations are trading good name and good mission for millions in support of students, because we don't have enough political and economic autonomy to do otherwise. Advocacy organizations, Black-owned media operations, nonprofits, fraternities and sororities have to find places as modern sharecropping hubs for countercultural partners and politics, sometimes outside of the general realm of awareness of the HBCU community, and often at the price of their own branding and market presence.
It's hard to blame Lomax for partnering with the Kochs, or TMCF President and CEO Johnny Taylor for partnering with Bacardi, when the first bullet point on their respective job descriptions is "get that money." Their responsibility is keeping their individual jobs and ensuring that students are able to collectively go to college -- in that exact order.
And the way to do that is the daily spin of the Rolodex of fast food and liquor conglomerates, hair care impresarios, automotive makers, insurance dealers, and opportunistic sharks on both sides of the political aisle; hoping that they can garner enough support so that HBCUs can have revenue streams from tuition and fees that will keep them open and operating for another 36 months.
We read the coverage of HBCUs and believe that our institutions are in trouble; the advocacy executives see the enrollment data and the endowment numbers and know how certain and dire the HBCU situation really is. They are the watchmen of the HBCU doomsday clock, and they realize that every federal policy change and every dollar they are compelled to turn away for moral reasons brings the hand of death closer to midnight.
Of all the timeless HBCU adages, the 'we do more with less' is perhaps the most accurate, most destructive descriptor of the culture. Twenty-five million dollars will be viewed as a windfall to 37 HBCUs; meanwhile, Huntington Bank in Ohio invested five times that in The Ohio State University for scholarships and community development around the institution.
So what makes us angrier? Twenty-five million dollars from conservative business owners who fix elections, suppress voters and shape policies which negatively impact million of Black folks nationwide? Or the fact that our schools can't afford to tell the Koch brothers' where to shove it?