Harvard University will rename its graduate school of arts and sciences after billionaire hedge fund executive and Republican megadonor Kenneth Griffin, the institution announced on Tuesday, after a new $300m contribution brought Griffin’s total support of his alma mater to more than half a billion dollars.
Griffin, 54, is the founder and chief executive of Citadel, a $59bn hedge fund, and Citadel Securities, which trades securities. He is the 35th richest person in the world, with a net worth of $34.9bn, according to the Bloomberg billionaires index.
Griffin will be just the fourth individual to have a school at Harvard named after him in exchange for a donation, according to the Harvard Crimson student newspaper. His name will carry controversy thanks to Griffin’s stature as a major political donor to rightwing politicians and his company’s investments in firearm and ammunition manufacturers.
Griffin’s companies held investments in gun and ammunition manufacturers worth more than $139m as of March 2022, according to Chicago NPR affiliate WBEZ. These included shares in US gun manufacturers Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger, as well as US ammunition makers Olin Corp, Vista Outdoor, and Ammo Inc.
The investments became a matter of public debate in 2022 when Griffin poured millions into a Republican candidate for the governorship of Illinois. Griffin accused sitting Democrat governor JB Pritzker of failing to combat crime in Chicago, where Griffin’s companies were based. He subsequently moved his companies’ headquarters to Miami.
A WBEZ analysis of firearms recovered by Chicago police from violent crime incidents over five years found that nearly one in four were produced by companies in which Citadel invests.
At the time, Citadel disputed the importance of the investments, telling WBEZ that they made up “less than .01% of our portfolio” and arguing that a connection to gun violence was “quite a stretch”.
Griffin rejected a call by the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper for his companies to divest from gun and ammunition makers, writing in a letter to the editor that “40% of American households own a gun” and that “the violence destroying our city is not the result of … legal gun purchases, but rather a failure to prosecute criminals, a lack of support for police, and progressive left legislation that prioritizes criminals ahead of law-abiding citizens”.
He added: “I will not embrace today’s cancel culture nor engage in amateurish virtue-signaling based on blind ideology.”
Griffin is also a major political donor and one of the most prominent backers of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, whom he has urged to run for president in 2024. A one-time fundraiser for Barack Obama, Griffin gave nearly $60m to Republican candidates for federal positions in 2022, according to Politico.
Griffin’s close association with DeSantis is another potential reputational issue for Harvard. The Florida governor has staked out extreme positions on education and LGBTQ rights, including by signing the so-called “don’t say gay” bill that restricts Florida teachers from discussing topics related to sexuality and gender identity and banning the state’s public high schools from teaching a new advanced placement course in African American studies.
This year, DeSantis unveiled a legislative proposal to remake Florida’s public colleges and universities that included banning critical race theory – an academic theory developed by Black scholars at Harvard Law School – and diversity and inclusion programs and drastically reducing the protections afforded by academic tenure.
Asked to comment about Griffin’s association with DeSantis and his policies, a spokesperson for Citadel said: “Ken respects and employs people of all backgrounds.”
Griffin’s gift to Harvard was unrestricted, the school said, and will go to the faculty of arts and sciences, which includes the undergraduate college and PhD programs. In 2014, Griffin made a $150m donation to the elite private university, primarily to fund financial aid. At the time, it was the largest single donation in the institution’s history.
“Ken’s exceptional generosity and steadfast devotion enable excellence and opportunity at Harvard,” said Harvard president Larry Bacow in a statement. “I am deeply and personally appreciative of the confidence he has placed in us – and in our mission – to do good in the world.”
Harvard did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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