UPDATED: May 26, 2023, at 3:10 p.m.
When Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences raised its new flag bearing the name of Kenneth C. Griffin ’89, it was just the fourth time the University had ever renamed a school following a donation.
The first happened in 1639 after a donation by Reverend John Harvard changed the College’s name, and it would be another 375 years before the University renamed another school following a donation.
But in the past decade, top Harvard officials have shown a renewed willingness to exchange the naming rights of schools for nine-figure donations — decisions that have raised questions and eyebrows.
Just last month, GSAS was renamed following a $300 million unrestricted donation from Griffin to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The gift prompted heavy criticism, with affiliates questioning the University’s choice to publicly honor a donor with a record of supporting controversial political figures.
But the donation also raised further questions about Harvard’s donor practices in general, with many wondering exactly how, why, and for how much Harvard sells the naming rights to its major schools and institutions.
In the fall of 2013, when Gerald L. Chan called William F. Lee ’72 — then the newly-appointed senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body — renaming the Harvard School of Public Health was just an idea. But one year and $350 million later, it became a reality as the University announced the renamed T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The next year, hedge fund magnate John A. Paulson donated $400 million to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and saw his name emblazoned on the school. This time, the negotiations lasted two years.
But talks for Griffin’s donation lasted more than twice as long.
Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81 has served on the University’s highest governing body since 2018, but said she was not a member of the Corporation during the negotiations for the Griffin donation.
Michael D. Smith confirmed in an emailed statement that he helped negotiate the gift during his tenure as dean of the FAS, which lasted from 2007 to 2018. Then-University President Drew G. Faust was also kept informed of the ongoing talks.
Roy Y. Chan, a higher education expert, said gifts of this size typically require just three to six months to finalize, a figure that raises questions about the half-decade gap between the negotiation and announcement of Griffin’s donation.
During his time as dean, Smith negotiated the terms of the agreement with Griffin, including that the gift would be unrestricted to the FAS and that Griffin would be recognized through the renaming of GSAS.
Griffin’s donation sparked intense backlash from Harvard affiliates over the billionaire’s public support of Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who Griffin is expected to back in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Negotiations for his donation to the FAS, however, began before DeSantis’ election to his first term as governor.
At the beginning of negotiations, Smith and Griffin also agreed that the money from the gift would be transferred to the University before any public announcement was made.
In a Friday interview with The Crimson, outgoing FAS Dean Claudine Gay declined to comment on the details of the negotiations or her involvement.
Faust also declined to comment on Griffin’s donation.
Nine-figure donations to colleges and universities “have been common for quite a while now,” said Maria Di Mento, a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
But Di Mento said at top schools with large endowments, renaming institutions after donors is not as common, noting that Harvard routinely receives large donations. She said renaming for donors “has been far more common” at smaller schools.
“They’re probably going to be a lot more cautious about putting somebody’s name on a building because they’ll probably get another nine-figure gift the following year,” she said of wealthy schools.
Hansjörg Wyss, a Swiss billionaire who has given more than $700 million to the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering since its establishment in 2009, said his donation negotiations began with then-Provost Steven E. Hyman.
That the institute would bear his name was a foregone conclusion, Wyss said. The whole project, bringing together different disciplines, scholars, and ideas together, was his idea.
“It had to be named in my name,” he said.
Paul A. Buttenwieser ’60, a longtime Harvard donor who is the namesake for a University professorship — Harvard’s highest faculty rank — said the University can either solicit its donors and tell them how much it would cost to endow a professorship, or the donor can give Harvard a certain sum and let the University decide how it wants to recognize the gift.
Buttenwieser pointed to his recent gift to the Harvard Art Museums as an instance in which naming rights were agreed upon after the donation was finalized.
“I decided what amount of my gift to Harvard should go to the Art Museum, and then they came back much later and said, ‘For a gift of that size, we’d like to recognize you by naming a gallery after you,’” Buttenwieser said.
“So it might be that I would have said, ‘How much does a gallery cost?’” he added. “Which, I can assure you, a lot of people do.”
Harvard megadonors Pritzker and Griffin stand on opposing sides of the political spectrum.
Hailing from a family of Chicago political titans, Pritzker served in a Democratic cabinet as the United States Secretary of Commerce under Barack Obama. Her brother, Democratic Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, also has a well-publicized feud with Griffin, a Republican who gave nearly $60 million to GOP candidates in the 2022 midterm elections.
Griffin has also given to Democratic candidates, including $500,000 to President Joe Biden’s inaugural committee.
Despite their political differences, Pritzker said in a phone interview earlier this month she was “grateful” for Griffin’s financial support of the University.
“He’s given us over $500 million. That’s a heck of a vote of confidence, which I think is great,” she said.
Pritzker praised Griffin’s fundraising efforts for Harvard’s financial aid program, highlighting the more than $600 million he’s raised in support of undergraduate education. Griffin himself donated $150 million to support financial aid at the College, prompting Harvard to rename its undergraduate financial aid office in his honor.
Pritzker, however, declined to comment on Griffin’s politics.
“He’s philanthropically very generous,” she said. “His politics are his politics.”
But concern among affiliates over Griffin’s political leanings extends beyond his contentious relationship with the Pritzkers. Critics point to Griffin’s public support for DeSantis for president, noting that the controversial governor has passed anti-gay legislation and spoken out against gender-affirming healthcare for transgender people.
“Ken is a passionate supporter of individual rights and freedoms and ensuring that future generations have access to the American Dream,” Jaquelyn M. Scharnick ’06, a spokesperson for Griffin and a former Crimson News editor, wrote. “Ken has supported candidates from both parties whom he believes advances these important values and has both publicly and privately engaged with politicians from both parties who undermine them.”
In a follow-up statement Thursday, Scharnick wrote that Griffin does not support Florida’s new law expanding the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” instructional restrictions through the 12th grade.
“Like the vast majority of Americans, Ken believes that discussions on gender identity and sexual orientation should be led by parents with their children at home, rather than by teachers in elementary schools,” Scharnick wrote. “However, as a steadfast supporter of open discourse, academic freedom, and free speech, Ken disagrees with Florida’s recent rule extending the prohibition of classroom instruction on these topics through 12th grade.”
Griffin, however, has publicly supported restrictions on the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation through the third grade.
Former Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine, who led Harvard’s first University-wide capital campaign, highlighted the importance of maintaining a balance between the school’s reputation and its need for financial support.
“It’s a moral judgment,” Rudenstine said. “You have to make that moral judgment, I think, in order to keep the University’s reputation and its integrity intact.”
“You have to be willing to turn down things — you really do,” he added.
Outgoing University President Lawrence S. Bacow — who did not assume the presidency until 2018 but served on the Harvard Corporation during the negotiation of the Griffin donation — defended the University’s acceptance of the gift in an April interview.
“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 widespread criticisms that renaming GSAS in Griffin’s honor would create a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ affiliates, Bacow insisted on the differentiation between Griffin’s own political views and those of the candidates he financially supports.
“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.”
Faculty members, too, have said the political views of donors should not influence whether or not Harvard accepts money from them.
“I don’t think it makes sense to screen out donors based on their politics any more than it makes sense to screen out students or faculty members based on their politics,” said Flynn J. Cratty, a lecturer in the History Department.
Harry R. Lewis ’68, a former Harvard College Dean, pointed to the unrestricted nature of Griffin’s donation.
“He’s not giving to support a particular political agenda or political program,” he said in an April interview. “I don’t believe Harvard should be picking and choosing its donors that way.”
On the day of the announcement, many noted the speed at which the flag that flies outside Lehman Hall, the GSAS student center, was replaced with one that bore Griffin’s name.
But as more details about the name change emerged, amusement was replaced with unease for some GSAS student leaders over what they viewed as highly stringent requirements on the use of the school’s name. The renaming, as it turned out, applies to all formal and informal references to GSAS.
According to outgoing GSAS Student Council president Zachary Lim, this means that names of all institutions that include “GSAS” — from offices and programs to student organizations and potentially the student center — will also be required to include a reference to Griffin.
During a Thursday meeting with GSAS student leadership, GSAS administrators “told us that the contract is ironclad, and that they made it such that only two names were permissible: either the full name, which is ‘the Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences,’ or ‘Harvard Griffin GSAS,’” Lim said.
When GSAS student groups go through a renewal process in October, “all student groups are going to have to repropose a new name that it is in realignment with these standards, otherwise it will not be reapproved,” Lim said. “This includes the student council.”
Lim noted that Paulson’s name is generally omitted from colloquial references to SEAS and the names of student organizations, including the SEAS Graduate Council. SEAS spokesperson Paul Karoff said that he was “not aware of any such mandate to that effect” for Paulson’s name in SEAS student organizations.
Ashley Cavanagh, a Ph.D. candidate in Applied Physics and the president of the Harvard LGBTQ@GSAS Association, said the prospect of having to change the group’s name to include a mention of Griffin was “hurtful,” citing Griffin’s support of DeSantis, who has signed and proposed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.
Griffin’s name “cannot be attached to an LGBTQ+ students group,” Cavanagh said. “That is not okay with me. So if there’s not wiggle room, I’m hoping to be able to fight it.”
Scharnick, the Griffin spokesperson, declined to comment on criticism of student group name restrictions or specifics of the gift agreement. GSAS spokesperson Ann Hall did not comment for this article. FAS spokesperson Anna G. Cowenhoven declined to comment on the details of the negotiations.
Many GSAS affiliates have also called for Griffin’s funds, which came as an unrestricted gift to the FAS, to be spent in part to support graduate students or graduate education.
Lim said he hopes to see some of the gift go toward GSAS projects, such as a long-awaited renovation of the student center, but said he and other students were “discouraged” about that coming to fruition.
Gay did not confirm whether any of Griffin’s gift would go toward GSAS. Instead, she said graduate education was an “enduring priority” of the FAS and that she could not give a “line item accounting” of the gift’s allocation during Friday’s interview.
“Ken is proud to support the research and scholarship of this great institution in debating ideas on their merits in the pursuit of truth,” Scharnick wrote of the FAS.
“There was a $300 million unrestricted gift, but it was unclear to us if we would ever see any of that money,” Lim said. “We spoke to our deans. Our deans said that our budget lines have not changed and there’s no projection that it will change.”
“It didn’t come with any victories for us,” Lim added. “It’s like, ‘Here, have a new name that came with a lot of money, but you’re not going to see any of it.’”
—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at email@example.com.