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Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow defended the decision to accept a $300 million donation from Republican Party megadonor Kenneth C. Griffin ’89 and rename the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in his honor during an interview on Monday.
Harvard affiliates criticized the University for accepting the unrestricted gift to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, citing Griffin’s support of Republican political candidates and causes.
Critics of the donation particularly slammed Griffin’s decision to back Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for president in 2024. As governor, DeSantis has passed anti-gay legislation and spoken out against gender-affirming healthcare for transgender people.
Bacow said the University should not screen potential donors for their political affiliation.
“One of the things which we do not do — nor should we do — is have political tests for who donates,” Bacow said. “The institution does not speak with one voice.”
In response to criticisms that Harvard’s decision to rename GSAS after Griffin creates a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ Harvard affiliates, Bacow cautioned against conflating Griffin’s political views with those of the candidates he chooses to financially support.
“Ken himself is a libertarian,” Bacow said. “I suspect if you talk to him about this specific view, you might get a different response than what some politicians that he has supported might give.”
“We don’t hold individuals responsible for the actions of their countries,” he added. “We also should not hold individuals responsible for every action, every opinion of every candidate that they support.”
Griffin has publicly supported DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” law, describing the politician’s stance as “a really important point of view,” per Forbes. The 2022 Florida state law prohibits curricula discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten to third-grade public school classrooms.
Jaquelyn M. Scharnick ’06, a spokesperson for Griffin, wrote in an April 12 statement to The Crimson that it is “patently false that Ken would in any way support viewpoint restriction as he has been 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,” wrote Scharnick, a former Crimson News editor. “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.”
Griffin donated nearly $60 million to Republicans during the 2022 election cycle, including a $5 million contribution to DeSantis’ reelection campaign. He has also previously donated to Democratic candidates, recently giving $500,000 to President Joe Biden’s inaugural committee.
DeSantis has not announced a bid for president.
Bacow said the decision to rename GSAS in Griffin’s honor followed a “conversation between the donor and the University.”
According to University guidelines, all large corporate gifts and naming recognition must be reviewed by the Gift Policy Committee, which is chaired by Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber ’76. Other members of the committee include Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Brian K. Lee, General Counsel Diane E. Lopez, and other senior University administrators and faculty members.
The Gift Policy Committee reviews the donation and makes a recommendation to the Harvard Corporation, which makes the final decision regarding financial gifts and renaming.
Bacow said Griffin, with his $300 million donation to the FAS, has contributed more than $500 million in total to the University. In 2014, Harvard renamed its Office of Financial Aid in honor of Griffin after he donated $125 million to support financial aid for Harvard College students.
“Very few people have donated that level in all of higher education. Over half a billion dollars to this university, almost all either for financial aid or totally unrestricted to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences,” Bacow said. “That’s an exceptional gift.”
“I’d be surprised if there’s another institution that has received a gift of that magnitude, which has not recognized the donor in one way or another,” he added.
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