In announcing a $300 million gift from hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin this week, Harvard University touted his loyalty and generosity to his alma mater. But it omitted a part of his profile that has angered some in the school community. He is a big supporter of controversial Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
The founder of the investment firm Citadel, with a net worth of $35 billion, Griffin has said he would back a DeSantis presidential run and previously gave $5 million to support his reelection as governor, according to Politico. For critics, bankrolling DeSantis essentially aligns Griffin with the governor’s frontal attack on public education as part of his battle against “wokeness,” and the legislation he’s passed known as “Don’t Say Gay.”
Several Harvard students and alumni on Wednesday expressed dismay, but not surprise, that the school’s Graduate School of Arts and Science will now carry Griffin’s name.
“What’s unacceptable is forcing queer students, students of color, and trans students to learn in a [school] named after someone who pays money to fund legislation that puts their lives at risk, and someone whose political activity jeopardizes their existence and quality of life,” said Zander Moricz, a first-year Harvard student who took the semester off to advocate for student rights in Florida. “It’s really insulting.”
A Harvard spokesperson declined to comment on Griffin’s ties to DeSantis. Griffin, one of the nation’s top political donors, has donated about $500 million in total to Harvard since graduating in 1989. The university renamed its financial aid office in honor of Griffin after a previous $150 million donation for need-based aid.
Griffin, who relocated his business to Miami from Chicago last year, has also supported Democratic causes, including Joe Biden’s 2020 inaugural committee and a $1 million gift to the Obama Foundation in 2017.
Zia Ahmed, spokesperson for Citadel, said in an e-mail that topics important to Griffin include education, public safety, a strong national defense, and fiscal prudence, “to ensure everyone has access to the American Dream.” He added that Griffin supports policies that promote job creation.
“Ken said as recently as today no one who contributes to a politician agrees 100 percent with their views and policy positions,” Ahmed said. “This is as true for Ken’s financial support of Governor DeSantis as it was for his backing of the campaigns of President Obama and Mayor Rahm Emanuel” in Chicago.
The controversy over Griffin’s gift revived the debate roiling many elite campuses: Should donors’ values match those of the institution?
Private colleges, even those as wealthy as Harvard, rely on private donations to fund scholarships, financial aid, research, and facilities. The universities with the largest endowments tend to attract the largest philanthropic gifts, in part because they graduate disproportionate alumni who enter lucrative industries.
Schools such as Harvard also attract impressive gifts because of the cachet of being affiliated with the Ivy League, said Joanne Ciulla, director of the Institute for Ethical Leadership at Rutgers Business School in New Jersey.
“In either case, they may think having their name on a building at Harvard is more prestigious than a state school or local community college, even though the money may make a greater difference to those institutions and their students,” Ciulla said.
University fund-raisers have to balance the need for money with institutional values, which is difficult when soliciting donations from business people who may support a litany of controversial areas, Ciulla added.
Harvard has previously declined to remove the Sackler family name from campus buildings or return donations after facing pushback because of the family’s role in the national opioid crisis. Some Harvard officials also maintained relationships with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, even after then-president Drew Gilpin Faust halted further donations from him following his arrest.
Ciulla said it’s important that Griffin’s Harvard donation is unrestricted, meaning university officials can use the funds as they see fit. She added that being a financial supporter of DeSantis does not mean Griffin personally holds all of the same views.
“There is a utilitarian justification in that,” Ciulla said. “He’s giving to the kind of school that looks into issues of race and looks into issues of rights. He’s not giving to the business school. He’s giving to the arts and sciences, which is significant and somewhat pays for the sins of DeSantis.”
Still, some students view DeSantis and his culture wars as an existential threat to queer rights and academic freedom. The governor has implemented widespread book bans in classrooms, and earlier this year said he won’t allow a new AP African American studies course to be taught in Florida.
DeSantis has set his sights on transforming New College, a small, progressive public college in Sarasota, into a haven for conservatives, similar to Hillsdale College, a private, Christian campus in Michigan.
Saul Glist, a Harvard senior from New York, compared Griffin’s gift to a $350 million donation to Harvard in 2014 from the Morningside Foundation, the family charity of Hong Kong billionaire Gerald Chan, which coincided with the renaming of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Some took issue with that donation because of Chan’s contributions to gentrification in Boston, Glist said.
“Harvard is never going to turn away money anyone offers, whether it’s Jeffrey Epstein or someone who supports Ron DeSantis’ campaign, or huge pharmaceutical companies, such as the Sacklers, [who contributed] to the opioid crisis,” Glist said.
Reflecting the fraught political debate, Griffin also faced criticism Wednesday from some conservative circles. A column in the National Review magazine said “Harvard is now almost completely subordinated to the Left. And it is also one of the least needy institutions on the planet.”
Nadine Bahour, a recent Harvard graduate, said that while she understands that Harvard needs to raise money to support educational pursuits, Griffin’s politics don’t align with Harvard’s core values and motto.
“Even if [Harvard officials are] very vocal about the fact that donors don’t have a say in decisions, accepting this gift is still showing that they have some sort of support for Mr. Griffin,” Bahour said. “Mr. Griffin’s stances are very public. In this very important political moment in the US, this is not something that could be ignored.”