Pickens Reins in His Risky Philanthropy

It's tough to make bad investments after you're dead. Maybe that's why T. Boone Pickens this month wrote a $20 million gift for Wilmer Eye Institute of Johns Hopkins University into his will. This is great news. Pickens's harebrained fiscal steering ended his last major charitable liaison at Oklahoma State University (OSU) in catastrophe.

In the early 2000s, Pickens gave OSU $165 million to make over its underdog football team. Cowboy Athletics, the endowment in charge of managing the gift, put it into BP Capital Management, a hedge fund Pickens chairs. And it did so on advice from his attorney.

Pickens also persuaded the endowment to invest in the insurance plans of elderly OSU alumni. He thus configured his hedge fund to make money on alumni deaths. Those profits would then subsidize OSU's athletics building.

Some faculty considered the arrangement "gruesome," according to the Wall Street Journal.

It also failed, mostly because of the 2008 recession. The involved insurance firm sued both BP Capital and OSU, and won. Pickens is now paying millions in financial disaster control out-of-pocket. As of 2012, tumbleweeds crisscrossed the property OSU had cleared for the project.

Pickens's personal and foundation giving fell off after the recession. If this month's $20 million to Hopkins does indicate a renewed charitable interest, support at Hopkins is still a geographical fluke. Pickens suffers macular degeneration and has received treatment for it at the hospital for more than two decades. Overall, however, his giving to universities has historically focused on the states of Oklahoma and Texas.