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Thurgood Marshall College Fund accepts Koch funding despite funders’ political leanings

TMCF to receive $25.6 million over 5 years for research of ‘fragile communities’

The Thurgood Marshall College Fund defines a “fragile community” as one in which residents — no matter their race or ethnicity — face significant barriers to opportunity. That means these communities are burdened by the usual stereotypes: crime, poverty, despair, and joblessness.

How about solutions? Problem-solvers? Enter historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the Charles Koch Foundation.

In an effort to reduce the fragility in those communities, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), which represents 47 mostly public HBCUs around the nation, announced a partnership initiative with the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries Inc. to create the Center for Advancing Opportunity. The Koch Foundation and Koch Industries Inc. will donate $25.6 million during a five-year period to the cause.

And there is the irony in all this.

HBCUs doing business with the staunchly conservative Koch family often has evoked skepticism among some observers, who have accused the Kochs of expecting certain favors in return for donations. Asked if there are any political/economic strings attached to the TMCF deal, John Hardin, director of university relations for the Charles Koch Foundation, responded unequivocally, “No. I know people say those things about us. But those things are not true. We know TMCF has a vision; we provide funding to help facilitate that vision. That’s how we measure success: Does it benefit society in some way. In enabling all people to have the opportunity to improve their own lives.”

Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of TMCF, in essence says get over it. Time to move on, telling The Undefeated, “It’s pretty unfortunate that we have gotten to the point where, because we have different positions on specific issues with an individual, that we vilify their very existence and encourage others to do the same. With respect to criminal justice and education reform [especially public K-12], we should be celebrating — not denigrating a wealthy philanthropist’s investment in research to solve these most vexing societal problems.”

The Center for Advancing Opportunity, based in Washington, D.C., will serve as the administrator of grants and coordinator for all projects, including HBCU-driven faculty research and studies, student scholarships and Gallup-produced data. Campus-based centers at participating HBCUs will focus on each school’s particular research specialties, targeting three key areas: criminal justice, education, and entrepreneurship.

“All of this money will be spent in the HBCU community,” said Taylor. “That’s a big thing. It puts HBCUs in the arena of being thought leaders.”

And to be clear about the demographics of the TMCF research project, black folks won’t necessarily be the sole focus of “fragile communities,” as Taylor explained. “It’s not a race-based research initiative. As you know, we have HBCUs in West Virginia that could, for example, study ‘coal country’ — where there are a large number of predominantly white fragile communities.”

This is the allocation breakdown of the $25.6 million:

  • HBCUs will compete to be campus centers, as part of the Center for Advancing Opportunity. Three schools will be chosen, based on the determination and recommendations of TMCF and a committee of HBCU presidents/chancellors in an unbiased process. Those three colleges each will receive $3 million during the five-year period.
  • Professors themselves at HBCUs (not necessarily at the campus centers) can seek additional funds on a yearly basis to study and examine the plight of “fragile communities” in the three key topics: entrepreneurship, criminal justice, and education. A sum of $1 million will be allocated each year for five years.
  • Twenty students at HBCUs between their sophomore and junior years will receive scholarships that will fund their final two years of schooling. Money also will be allocated for doctoral student candidates and those pursuing fellowships. A total of $1 million per year will be allocated for the five years. The students must major in the social sciences, including education, economics, sociology, psychology, and criminal justice.
  • The remaining $6.6 million will be used for overhead, including salaries for the main center in Washington as well as the campus centers, travel expenses, annual conventions and summits and miscellaneous costs.

TMCF also has procured a five-year contract with Gallup research for in-community polling and research.

Hardin said education has been the bedrock of the Arlington, Virginia-based Charles Koch Foundation for more than 50 years. And most assuredly will continue in the future.

“When TMCF reached out to us about this,” Hardin said, “we were excited to get involved. We know there are serious challenges facing these communities. We hope this initiative is successful and grows.

“Then, we hope TMCF will come back and ask for more money.”

In a nutshell, the core purpose of the center is to make sure money allocated for these communities — from local, state or federal resources — is better spent. Better thought out on a grass-roots level. Get off that continuing carousel of failure.

For example … “People have said this school system is failing,” said Taylor, the architect of the partnership initiative with Koch. “So we need more money. But nothing changes when they get more money. What we’re saying is let HBCUs research the problem. This is about engaging with the community. Let’s examine the situation and spend the money more smartly.”

Asked if the “fragile communities” themselves will receive any of the funds, Taylor responded, “No. This project is totally academically-based. And run by the TMCF, with the HBCUs.”

He added that the TMCF office in Washington is aiming in the next few weeks to hire an executive director to oversee the center, which essentially is the control room, the control center for the project. TMCF is seeking an MBA-type to run the program-management side, while the HBCU faculty members will operate the research component.

Taylor hatched the idea for a TMCF-Koch partnership when listening to Charles Koch discuss criminal justice reform on a television news show in 2014. “Then, he offered his proposal to us, and the rest is history, like they say,” Hardin explained.

Charles Koch spoke to hundreds of HBCU students during the annual TMCF Leadership Institute gathering at the Washington Hilton Hotel in November 2016. “We were especially impressed with the questions from the students during the Q&A part,” Hardin said. “We are all about supporting education.”

In the political arena, the Koch family philosophy appears to run counter to the best interests of most black folks.

For example:

  • According to the Huffington Post, the Koch brothers, who are from Wichita, Kansas, pledged $60 million in donations to defeat President Barack Obama in the 2012 election. As in $40 million from Charles Koch, and $20 million from his brother, David. Two wealthy men worth a combined $80 billion-plus, mainly derived from their lucrative oil, petrochemicals and refining business.
  • According to Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist and adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, in an essay for U.S. News & World Report, the Koch brothers have helped bankroll Tea Party groups, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks and Citizens for a Sound Economy. That amalgam of organizations traditionally has been against such Obama initiatives as Obamacare, Medicare expansion, global warming regulations, green/renewable energies, among others.

Asked if it was appropriate for black folks to do business with white-dominated conservative groups, an adamant Taylor responded, “Yes. Black people are not homogenous and monolithic; there are plenty of black conservatives. Would I take money from a black person who belongs to the Tea Party? As easily as I would take it from a member of the Democratic Party. If they believe in education access for all, I will take their contribution.”

Said Hardin, who has been with the Charles Koch Foundation for six years, “We separate politics from the Charles Koch Foundation. Some people kind of aggregate everything together about us [politics and education]. But that’s not what we’re about.”

Charles Koch, in an exclusive interview with Forbes magazine in 2015, said, “The main thing is the education system needs to be run for the benefit for their customers. The schools need to be run today for the benefit of the students, with innovation and experimentation, rather than being run for the benefit of the teachers and the administrators.”

The Center for Advancing Opportunity further aims to advance the cause through:

A.) On-campus programming, meaning HBCU faculty members will invite speakers, including economists, entrepreneurs and educators to aid in facilitating conversations designed to help advance ideas and mechanisms toward removing socioeconomic barriers and advancing opportunity.

B.) A polling and research segment, allowing Gallup, with its expertise in data-driven news, to develop an Opportunity Index aimed at gleaning real opinions, beliefs and attitudes from people living in “fragile communities,” a process that also will help spur further dialogue.

C.) State of Opportunity in American Forum, which essentially will be an annual convention whose purpose is to discuss and examine research findings and develop solutions.

The Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries Inc. donated $25 million to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) in 2014, with $18.5 million allocated for scholarship programs and the remaining $6.5 million targeted for general support to HBCUs.

That donation to the UNCF, of course, didn’t occur without controversy.

In 2014, Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education and director of the Center for Minority-Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, told Inside Higher Ed that accepting the funding was “wrong.”

“I think it is very, very important to think about who you are taking money from,” she said. “Yes, that money can do a lot of good for students. But it allows that organization to have quite a bit of influence.”

She questioned the rationale of accepting money from Koch organizations that have been “deeply affiliated with the Tea Party.” She added, in the Inside Higher Ed interview, that the Tea Party was hell-bent on weakening the political interests of black folks. Gasman also was concerned that Koch associates were slated to occupy two of the five seats on the scholarship selection committee for the UNCF, whose relationship with the Charles Koch Foundation goes back at least 10 years.

At the time, UNCF president Michael Lomax told Inside Higher Ed that there would be “no political tests” on scholarship recipients. He added that liberal-leaning students could receive scholarships, saying the criteria for selection was based on grades and willingness to “engage with the program.”

Lomax also said that the two members from the Koch organization wouldn’t change “the high standards” used by the UNCF in determining scholarship recipients.

As for TMCF, which also will grant scholarships and fellowships with its Koch donation, Taylor was asked if similar Koch associates would be placed on committees/panels involved in determining scholarship winners and/or fellowship winners and/or doctoral candidates and/or individual professors receiving funding. He pointedly responded:

“We will assemble our own review panel for the faculty grants. All TMCF scholarships are selected by TMCF and TMCF-selected reviewers. Koch will not select or influence the selection of our awardees.”

He added, “No political/beliefs test for anyone. Believe me, during my seven years at TMCF, I have been diametrically opposed to some of the views of people we funded — students, faculty, and presidents. It’s never been about agreeing with anyone. You can actually dislike someone you fund, and you can be funded by someone you dislike when it comes to [the academic environment].”

Still, Gasman maintained her strong opposition to Koch donations for HBCUs now, in 2017. In referencing TMCF specifically, she told Inside Higher Ed, “I continue to question the ethics of taking money from the Koch brothers/philanthropies, given their systematic and long-term disenfranchisement of minorities, including African-Americans. It’s important to look at their history of pollution in minority communities, their busting of unions that support minorities, their disenfranchisement of minority voters and their support of ultra-conservative candidates and organizations that support the defunding of programs and policies that support African-Americans.”

Hardin again spoke in broader terms, “We are about expanding educational opportunity.

“The problems that TMCF and the HBCUs are researching won’t be solved in five years. But if our country is going to solve some of the problems we face, it will take a variety of people — citizens, students and scholars — help put a dent in these barriers facing some in our society.”

The Charles Koch Foundation has provided funding and resources to more than 300 colleges and universities, ranging from Ivy League schools to major predominantly white public universities to HBCUs to small private institutions.

However, some advocacy groups such as UnKoch My Campus warn that all those donations to all of those schools of higher education are steeped in red flags.

Ralph Wilson, based in Tallahassee, Florida, and co-founder of UnKoch My Campus, told The Washington Post, “Koch’s presence in higher ed is not educational, but strictly political in purpose. When they give the donor control, the trade-off is academic freedom.”

Taylor responded, “While the UNKoch people spend their time ridiculing the partnership, TMCF and Charles Koch will be working hard to improve opportunity for all Americans.”

Kathaleena Edward Monds is a professor and co-director of the Center for Economic Education/Small and Minority Entrepreneurship at Albany State University. She received a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2012-13 that allowed her students to study and research black-oriented entrepreneurial activities, as well as participate in workshops to gain economic understanding. They examined the legacies and contributions of entrepreneurs from Atlanta (i.e., Sweet Auburn Avenue), Detroit (i.e., Motown), Tulsa, Oklahoma, (i.e., Black Wall Street) to their communities.

Monds said, “Faculty grants, whether provided by public [i.e. U.S. Department of Education] or private [i.e., Charles Koch Foundation] entities are granted based on the goals and objectives of the grant proposal. Said proposals are typically aligned with the academic backgrounds, experiences and/or interests of the faculty and the students who are being served; thus, the framework for most grants are only limited by the contents of the proposal submitted by the faculty.”

She added, “In addition, students have become empowered and engaged in conversations that help them understand how they can use their competitive advantage, via entrepreneurship, to find ways to create value in the marketplace of ideas, products, and services — all in an effort to improve their own lives, while improving society as a whole.”

Both Hardin and Taylor stressed this project initiative, that is, the Center for Advancing Opportunity, isn’t about politics and persuasion.

“This is about the students and scholars,” Hardin maintained. “It’s about the power of ideas. Let the students be students; let the scholars be scholars.”

Added Taylor, in getting back to basics regarding “fragile communities,” “This is about helping that single mother build a better life for her kids. A better life than she had before.”

Gregory Clay is an editor, writer and television/podcast commentator focusing on current news events. Based in Washington D.C., he has worked at Newsday and McClatchy and once gave a speech at a convention for the Texas State Bar Association.