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Straight Up Conversation: UNCF CEO Michael Lomax on $25m Koch Gift

By Rick Hess — June 16, 2014 7 min read
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Earlier this month, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) announced a $25 million donation from businessmen and philanthropists Charles and David Koch. The gift drew a lot of attention (see, for instance here) and, mostly because the Kochs give heavily to conservative causes, sparked plenty of controversy. Last week, University of Pennsylvania professor Marybeth Gasman took to Inside Higher Ed to call for the UNCF to give the money back. (Full disclosure: I teach at UPenn’s Graduate School of Ed.) Now, I’ll be straight. Personally, I don’t get the fuss, because: A] I happen to agree with much of what the Kochs support; B] I think it good and admirable when anyone (whether George Soros or Charles and David Koch) gives money to the causes and candidates they believe in; and C] whatever I thought of their politics, it’d never occur to me to complain that someone was giving away millions to help people attend college. But setting all that aside, I thought it’d be interesting to discuss all this with Dr. Michael Lomax, the president and CEO of UNCF. Here’s what he had to say:

Rick Hess: So, how did this $25 million Charles and David Koch gift come to be?

Michael Lomax: Koch Industries has been a supporter of UNCF since 2005, when they acquired Georgia Pacific. I saw a real opportunity to build on the relationship that UNCF had with Georgia Pacific to get to know them, and Koch Industries has supported us with about $1.5 million since the acquisition. We really went into serious conversations back in January of 2013, when we had a meeting at the Charles Koch Foundation. We presented them our new public service announcement campaign, with our tagline expanding to: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to invest in.”

Originally we looked at possibly doing a program like what they already do at colleges around the country, funding professorships. But that didn’t appeal to me as much as the idea of creating a signature scholarship program. You know that’s really UNCF’s sweet spot. We’re the nation’s largest minority scholarship provider. How low-income kids are going to pay for college, I think, is a national emergency.

I’m on the board of KIPP and Teach For America. I know we’re producing college-ready high school graduates from low-income communities who want to go to college but can’t afford it. So I felt there was an opportunity to focus their attention on an unmet need, building out an even more powerful private scholarship capability at UNCF. We award, you know, around 12,000 scholarships a year, valued at about a $100 million. But the tragedy is that for every award we make, we have to turn down nine highly qualified students because we don’t have the financial resources.

RH: Can you explain a bit about the programs that UNCF offers?

ML: We oversee 400 scholarship programs. The largest of which is the one we do with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for high school seniors, in which we award a thousand of these annually based on academics and leadership. We get 14,000 completed applications for 1,000 awards, and the students who receive this award go anywhere in the country. Then we have programs of annual awards which go largely to UNCF member institutions, and the student awards are made by the institutions themselves. We also have something called “the campaign for emergency student aid,” where we pay the last bill that a student has so that she can walk across the stage and get her diploma. We’ve raised almost $20 million for that program. We also have a program we’ve been doing with Merck and Company, with $40 million over the last 25 years. It supports undergraduates in biological sciences, students pursuing PhDs, MD-PhDs, post docs--it’s highly competitive and can go to African American students anywhere in the country.

We want to emphasize even more that we want to see more focus on UNCF member institutions. Because over the last decade we’ve seen a 78 percent increase in the applications to our institutions and a 70 percent increase in the acceptance rate, but flat enrollment. Our hypothesis is that the reason we’re not reeling in more students is that our institutions don’t have enough private scholarship support. So, every chance we get, we’re trying to direct more of those scholarships to UNCF 37 members.

RH: So how will the Koch gift be spent, then?

ML: The $25 million will be spent over seven years. Of it, $18.5 million goes directly into the scholarship program and the support that’s required to manage it. There are 2,800 awards of $2,500 each, or 1,400 awards of $5,000 annually. And then we also will have graduate awards of $10,000 a semester, with 125 of those, and then 50 post-doc awards of $25,000 per semester. Then there is another $4 million which will be distributed, $2 million this year and $2 million next year, to the 37 UNCF member colleges and universities.

RH: How big is this gift to UNCF, in the scheme of things?

ML: We’ve been around for 70 years. Our really large gifts began in 1990 when Walter Annenberg gave us $50 million. That was the largest gift between 1944 and 1990. In 1999 Bill and Melinda Gates gave a billion dollars to start their program. That was followed up with another $600 million gift since. This is the fifth biggest gift we’ve ever received. But, you know, I’m still looking for more big gifts...

RH: Have you been surprised by the backlash regarding the Koch gift?

ML: No. We anticipated surprise and that there would be need for us to place it in the context of the work that we at the UNCF have been doing for 70 years and the impact that we have on 10,000 students every year. The response has been what we expected. The criticism has come but there’s also been strong affirmation, particularly within the African American community, that we should accept this gift. Leaders I’ve spoken to, and I made a lot of phone calls in the last week, have said, “Take the gift and do good,” and that’s been our philosophy. You know we’ve been blessed to be the guardians of an institution that has made a powerful universal appeal for over 70 years and has gotten a universal response. We have over 100,000 donors, including folks from every point along the political spectrum. So the Koch gift is in the context of a very diverse space of supporters.

RH: How have you responded to supporters who’ve had a problem with the gift?

ML: I just remind them, number one, that we have never used a political or ideological lens to determine who can or cannot support UNCF, and that our appeal is to all Americans. We do this every day. I mean, if you turn on your television set, or if you see one of our billboards, they say, you know, invest in UNCF because, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to invest in.” It doesn’t say only certain people can do that. Everybody can. That is a defining principle for the organization. We stand by it. Our board stands by it. Our president stands by it. Over the long-term the criticism will be muted by the work that we do and the impact we have.

RH: Have any of your supporters threatened to withdraw their support over the gift?

ML: No. In fact, some of the critics have said, “We disagree, but we’re sending a check.” Listen, I expected the criticism, and it’s a small price to pay if we can help our kids. Because the hardest, hardest, hardest question I have to answer is from a high school graduate who says, “I’ve done everything right. I want to go to college. I’ve been accepted, I just don’t have the money. Dr. Lomax, can you give me a grant? Can you give me a scholarship?” That’s the hard one to answer, and the Kochs are going to help us with a group of students. But we need a lot more help.

RH: Look, I understand that reasonable people disagree with Charles and David Koch on the appropriate size and role of the federal government or on public policy. But I have a hard time making sense of why that means they’d complain about these guys giving away millions to help young people attend college. Can you help illuminate why critics have had that reaction?

ML: I think that Washington’s partisanship has really poisoned the thinking of some people all across the country. For them, there’s this kind of purity thing that, unless we agree on everything, there is no common ground. Call me a pragmatist but, if I can agree on something meaningful with folks that I don’t agree with on other things, I’m going to try to work on what we agree on and, hopefully, build a meaningful and productive relationship. I come from a family of six kids. You know, I learned early on to compromise and collaborate. I’ve been a college president, and I’ve knocked on all kinds of doors.

So I’ve learned that there’s a way to find common ground. And on this issue you have to, because it’s not an academic exercise. This is the difference between getting a chance to go to college or not. This is the difference between getting that degree that will enable you to earn a million dollars more in a lifetime or not. So I hear the criticism. I listen to it, I don’t want to disregard it. It’s part of a healthy debate in the country. But my job is to raise money to help kids go to and complete college.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.