Why Are We Intrigued by David Rubenstein's Latest Gift to Duke University?

Tracking big-time philanthropists is a lot like keeping an eye on your favorite movie director or novelist. What will they do next? What genres will they explore? What causes will they embrace?

It's an intriguing parlor game, and it's especially intriguing when the philanthropist being tracked is multi-billionaire David Rubenstein, co-founder of the financial services firm the Carlyle Group and also known as the "Patriotic Philanthropist" for his massive gifts supporting national monuments and documents—$22 million for a copy of the Magna Carta!—and other artifacts reflecting our collective civic heritage.

Rubenstein has received a lot of digital ink here at IP, and it's easy to see why. He's carved out a niche as a philanthropist with a distinctive brand and has no shortage of compelling opinions, whether it's his embrace of Bill Gates' and Warren Buffett's Giving Pledge or his contention that "philanthropy won't solve inequality."

Back in August, Rubenstein was one of eight recipients of a 2015 Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy, given to individuals who "embody the spirit of Andrew Carnegie by dedicating their private wealth to the public good." The award underscores the fact that the folks at Carnegie, having grasped the full spectrum of Rubenstein's philanthropy, realized that the nickname the "Patriotic Philanthropist," while rooted in truth and elegantly alliterative, masks a far broader range of priorities. (For a more thorough rendering of said priorities, check out our funder profile on Rubenstein here.)

One huge priority is his alma mater, Duke University, where Rubenstein has served as the chairman of the board since 2013. Which brings us to news that Rubenstein recently gave a $25 million gift to Duke that will be split to fund arts programming and a new arts building. With a projected cost of $50 million, the building will include a dance studio, a performance theater, and a film theater, as well as classrooms and other facilities. Additional financing for the building comes from university sources and private donors.

We'll say one thing for Rubenstein. He's consistent. He has given close to $100 million to Duke since his graduation in 1970. Previous gifts include:

  • $1.9 million to expand programming and fund renovations of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life in 2014.
  • $10 million to fund graduate fellowships and undergraduate internships at the Sanford School of Public Policy in 2013. (He has given approximately $21 million to the school through three donations to date.)
  • $15 million to support Duke's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative in 2012.
  • $10 million to support Duke athletics, also in 2012.
  • $13.6 million to the Duke University Libraries in 2011 in support of renovating its special collections section, which was named the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
  • $5 million to Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy in 2002, after which Rubenstein Hall was named for him.

Taken in total, this most recent gift is one of his largest, if not the largest, gift to his alma mater to date. And beyond eclipsing these gifts, it also neatly maps to Rubenstein's philanthropy philosophy. "You don't tend to make a gigantic bet without having made smaller bets in the area before," he once said. It's a philosophy consistent with his history of giving to Duke, as well as—ironically enough—the risk-saturated world of financial investment, where he made his billions.