Why This Hedge Fund Billionaire Just Gave Harvard Its Biggest Gift Ever

Legend has it that Kenneth Griffin first started trading stock options from his dorm room in Harvard, and now he wants to make good by giving $150 million to his alma mater. But who exactly is he, and what does he do with his substantial hedge fund wealth? 

The billionaire investor just pledged the largest donation in Harvard's history, which will mostly go toward the college’s financial aid program. The donor behind the gift has a diverse, nuanced and controversial set of opinions and interests.  

Despite the love for his Cambridge college of choice, Griffin is a devoted Chicagoan, involved in city politics and the arts and education scenes. His wealth comes from the Citadel Group, a hedge fund management firm that had a disastrous run after the 2008 financial crisis, but has since bounced back and then some, building Griffin’s wealth to $4.4 billion at age 45. He’s married to another hedge fund investor Anne Dias Griffin. They have two kids and a bouncing baby foundation, the Kenneth and Anne Griffin Foundation.

Griffin’s philanthropy flows through a combination of the couple’s foundation, his own Citadel Foundation, and personal donations. His biggest interests hands down are the arts and, as you may have guessed, education. Aside from Harvard, he’s been a big backer of the University of Chicago, Northwestern, and Chicago Public Schools (with an interest in early education).

The couple have backed several Chicago arts institutions over the years, including support for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and one $19 million donation to the Art Institute of Chicago to establish a modern art wing. And the investor has a wing of his own, a formidable impressionist and modern art collection with notable works from Cezanne and Jasper Johns ($80 million). The Cezanne and a Degas sculpture Griffin owns are on display at the Art Institute. 

But it’s not all schools, symphonies and sculptures. While previously keeping a low profile, in the past five years or so Griffin has become more vocal with his opinions and increasingly active in politics. Not surprisingly, he has a staunchly conservative outlook on government regulation and subsidies, especially in financial markets. He drew anger from many when, at the height of the Occupy Movement, he told the Tribune that the ultra wealthy have “insufficient influence” on politics. He’s said the government under President Obama is way too involved in the financial markets and that his industry is “hyper-regulated.” He was also a major backer of Mitt Romney, and has given more than $2 million to conservative Super PACs

But Griffin isn’t a completely dyed-in-the-wool conservative. For example, he’s a supporter of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and has backed other Democrats in the past. His strategy is “country over party,” and he calls himself a Reagan Republican, which is usually code for not wanting to be associated with the current GOP. He’s also voiced support for regulation of environmental polluters and corporations that affect the health of the public. 

His massive Harvard donation certainly isn’t the most libertarian of moves. As the Tribune pointed out, you’d think someone who believes subsidies distort economic outcomes would oppose increasing financial aid. As Griffin explained, “I really believe that our country needs to fight for equality of opportunity. And in my own small way, in making this gift, I’m part of that fight.” 

A crusader for equality at the richest university in the country? A friend to both the Kochs and Rahm? Quite an interesting fellow.

Read more IP coverage about him here.