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Harvard Affiliates Slam Ken Griffin Donation, Citing Support for DeSantis

The GSAS Student Center is located at Lehman Hall in Harvard Yard.
The GSAS Student Center is located at Lehman Hall in Harvard Yard. By Amanda Y. Su
By Rahem D. Hamid and Elias J. Schisgall, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences is now $300 million richer, and its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has taken a new name — that of billionaire hedge fund CEO and Republican megadonor Kenneth C. Griffin ’89. Not everyone is thrilled.

Following University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s Tuesday announcement of Griffin’s unrestricted donation to FAS, some students and faculty celebrated the donation, while others blasted his support of Republican political candidates.

Griffin gave nearly $60 million to Republicans in the 2022 election cycle and has publicly backed Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for president in 2024. DeSantis has not announced a presidential bid.

Griffin has also given to some Democratic politicians and donated $500,000 to President Joe Biden’s inaugural committee.

In total, Griffin has given more than half a billion dollars to Harvard, including a 2014 donation of $150 million largely to bolster financial aid at Harvard College. The College’s financial aid office was renamed after Griffin following the donation.

Theda R. Skocpol, a Government and Sociology professor and former GSAS dean, slammed the decision in an email to The Crimson.

“I am absolutely disgusted at the sale of the GSAS name to a multi billionaire who works in US politics today to undermine the foundations of liberal civil society, including free speech, and to eviscerate the essential trans partisan features of fully representative US democracy,” she wrote.

“This is a shocking and unnecessary sell out by Harvard and FAS leaders who, at the same time, claim to be worried about Harvard College’s acceptance of slavery in the 1700s,” Skocpol added. “Feel free to quote me.”

In a statement, Jaquelyn M. Scharnick ’06, a spokesperson for Griffin and a former Crimson News editor, called Griffin “one of the strongest supporters of free speech and free inquiry in the country.”

“Ken said as recently as today that no one who contributes to a politician agrees 100% with their views and policy positions,” Scharnick wrote. “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 2022, DeSantis signed a state law — widely known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law — forbidding kindergarten to third-grade public school classrooms from teaching about sexual orientation and gender. DeSantis has proposed expanding the ban to all age levels. He has also spoken out against children attending drag performances and gender-affirming health care for transgender minors as he prepares for a likely presidential run.

Griffin has publicly endorsed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, calling DeSantis’ move “a really important point of view,” per Forbes.

Ericka R. “Ricky” Sanchez, a Ph.D. candidate in English, said Griffin’s endorsement of DeSantis shows “disdain” for queer people such as herself.

“It does feel quite antithetical to name this institution, or this part of the institution, after somebody who is so hostile to the survival of the people who make up the school,” she said.

FAS spokesperson Anna G. Cowenhoven declined to comment and referred The Crimson to the official announcement in The Harvard Gazette, a University-run publication. The Gazette article does not mention Griffin’s political views or activities.

In the Gazette, Bacow praised Griffin’s “exceptional generosity and steadfast devotion,” adding that he appreciates “the confidence he has placed in us — and in our mission — to do good in the world.”

“His choice to support FAS underscores the power of education to transform lives and to expand the reach of our research in every field imaginable,” Bacow said.

Still, third-year Harvard Law School student Ash E. Tomaszewski said Harvard should have refused to accept the donation because of Griffin’s political contributions, adding that they were “disgusted” but “not surprised.”

When it comes to funding, however, some argued that a potential donor’s political background should not come into the picture.

Kenneth C. Griffin '89 addresses attendees during the dedication of the College's Office of Financial Aid in 2014.
Kenneth C. Griffin '89 addresses attendees during the dedication of the College's Office of Financial Aid in 2014. By Katherine L Borrazzo

Economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw wrote in an email that Harvard “should not judge the political views of its donors,” adding that he was “very grateful for Mr. Griffin’s generosity.”

Zad Chin ’24 said she was “glad” that Griffin had donated to the school, saying his political views should be “independent” of his giving to the school.

She said if somebody is “generous enough to donate money to the school, I don’t see why we should not accept the money from him.”

Laughing, she said that the flag outside Lehman Hall, which houses the GSAS student center, was changed to include Griffin’s name “like, one second after the announcement.”

Griffin is the third donor in the last nine years whose donation has renamed a Harvard school. In 2014, billionaire Gerald L. Chan’s Morningside Foundation donated $350 million to Harvard’s School of Public Health, which was renamed after his father T.H. Chan. The following year, Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences was renamed for hedge fund billionaire John A. Paulson after a $400 million donation.

The University has not historically renamed schools for donors. The last time before 2014 was in 1638, when John Harvard’s donation led to a renaming of the University.

Lorenzo J.F. McClellan, a Ph.D. candidate in History, felt Griffin’s donation was “probably driven by vanity and a desire to see his name on a major Harvard institution,” adding that he “cannot imagine having $300 million to give to a charity and deciding that Harvard University was the scrappy institution in need of more money.”

“It would be great if they topped up my stipend,” McClellan said of Harvard’s new unrestricted funds.

Tomaszewski said they and Harvard’s graduate student union would advocate for the funds to directly benefit graduate students and other staff, but felt pessimistic about this coming to fruition.

“We have to beg and beg and beg for pennies,” they said.

Other affiliates said they appreciated the donation.

“I presume that the GSAS — which is very, very hard to raise funds for — will be a major beneficiary,” Harry R. Lewis ’68, a former dean of Harvard College said. “I am perfectly happy to have Mr. Griffin honored by that renaming.”

Citing recent donations to science and engineering initiatives at Harvard, Lewis celebrated the fact that the arts and humanities will also benefit from Griffin’s gift.

Still, while Lewis is not concerned with Griffin’s political activism, he hopes the school will support teaching and research rather than “administrative bloat.”

“I would hate to see it used to pay administrative salaries that might have been eliminated if some belt-tightening had been necessary,” Lewis wrote in a follow-up email.

—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at rahem.hamid@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at elias.schisgall@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.

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