Heiress Donates $12M to Harvard Ethics Center

At a time when the moral values of financial firms are being publicly questioned, the widow of a multibillionaire banker has donated $12.3 million in support of Harvard’s interfaculty initiative on ethics, the University announced yesterday.

Billionaire heiress Lily Safra, 71, gave the sum to Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics to permanently endow graduate fellowships and support the center’s new research lab.

Founded in 1986, the center received its current name following a large gift made in the name of her late husband, Edmond, in 2004, from his foundation.

The center will use part of the funds to implement an ethics program to strengthen applications of “moral insights” modeled in part after Oxford University’s Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program, said Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig, who directs the center.

Lessig added he hopes to expand the center’s reach to undergraduates by offering ethics courses, for example, though that effort is currently in a planning phase.

Safra’s donation yesterday comes from a judgment issued to her by a French court in March, according to local media reports. The court ruled that Safra could keep a €39 million down payment a potential buyer made on Villa Leopolda—her mansion on the French Riviera, one of the world’s most expensive homes—after a deal to sell the property fell through.

Safra distributed the money to 10 charitable and education institutions, with Harvard receiving the largest slice.

“If we truly value justice and basic human dignity, ethical questions need to be part of every field of study and every policy discussion,” Safra said in a statement yesterday.

The well-known socialite and philanthropist is known for her wealth, which she accumulated through her four marriages. Her net worth is estimated at $1 billion, according to Forbes Magazine, which ranked her as the world’s 701st richest person in 2009.

Edmond J. Safra, her fourth husband, died in an arson fire in 1999.

Lily Safra’s philanthropic activities include donations to several research universities, support for schools in impoverished areas, and humanitarian relief.

—Staff writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at

—Staff writer William N. White can be reached at