Republican megadonor Kenneth C. Griffin ’89 broke with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis by opposing a new Florida law that expands a ban on teaching sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools.
Griffin, whose recent $300 million donation to Harvard renamed the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in his honor, has come under fire from Harvard students and affiliates for his support of DeSantis.
DeSantis launched his campaign for president on Wednesday, ending months of speculation that he would enter the race.
Griffin expressed support for DeSantis’ original law prohibiting gender identity and sexual orientation education through third grade, telling Forbes last spring he felt it was “a really important point of view” held by the governor.
DeSantis signed the original ban into law in March 2022, which critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill as it threatens Florida educators with losing their credentials for teaching lessons on the topics of gender identity and sexuality.
But Jaquelyn M. Scharnick ’06, a spokesperson for Griffin and a former Crimson News editor, wrote in an emailed statement that Griffin opposed an expansion of the ban to all grade levels, including high school, which DeSantis signed into law earlier this month.
“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 still supports the original version of the law, which remains in effect.
Griffin made national news in November 2022 when he announced his support for DeSantis. Griffin, a longtime Republican donor, gave almost $60 million to Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections. But in April, the New York Times reported that Griffin’s support for the Florida governor is not set in stone.
When asked whether Griffin still expects to support DeSantis in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, Griffin spokesperson Zia Ahmed wrote in an emailed statement that “Ken continues to assess the field.”
A DeSantis spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
The move comes amid controversy among Harvard affiliates about Griffin’s donation and the GSAS renaming. Several GSAS student leaders said they were particularly upset about a requirement in Griffin’s gift agreement that all formal and informal references to GSAS include Griffin’s name, including the names of student organizations.
Student leaders in the queer community at GSAS maintain that Griffin’s split with DeSantis over the expanded policy is a moot point.
Ashley Cavanagh, a Ph.D. candidate in Applied Physics and a co-president of the Harvard LGBTQ@GSAS Association, said Griffin’s opposition to the law expanding the ban on teaching sexual orientation and gender identity through the 12th grade did not change her views on Griffin.
“It’s not that he’s opposed to some oppression, it’s more that he’s encouraging some oppression,” she said. “He still supports a degree of oppression.”
Ahmed wrote that Griffin’s views are based in the values of liberty and equal opportunity, and that criticism would not change his stances.
“Ken engages deeply on the important policy issues of our era, and encourages thoughtful debate of these topics by all Americans,” he wrote. “His views are driven by his longstanding commitment to free speech, individual rights, and ensuring opportunity in our country, not by the reactions of others.”
Cavanagh also said she thought Griffin’s opposition to the new law on the grounds that it violates academic freedom misses the point.
“At its core, the motivation of this ban is not to discourage academic discourse,” she said. “It’s to harm LGBTQ+ folks.”
Siobhan M. Kelly, a Ph.D. candidate in Religion, Gender, and Culture who used to run the GSAS Gender and Sexuality Workshop, said Griffin’s position on the expanded law “doesn’t change a damn thing.”
Citing DeSantis’ recent policies surrounding higher education in Florida, including limits on tenure at public state universities and a conservative takeover of New College of Florida, they said it was difficult to reconcile Griffin’s support of the governor with “the putative position that Harvard takes on academic freedom.”
“These are politicians that he supports, that he funds, who are diametrically opposed to the mission of equitable higher education,” Kelly said. “Which again, I would imagine would be important to Harvard, though it doesn’t seem so important that they would turn down money.”
Jason A. Newton, a Harvard spokesperson, and Rachael Dane, a spokesperson for the FAS, did not respond to a request for comment.
Top University officials — including outgoing President Lawrence S. Bacow and Penny S. Pritzker ’81, the senior fellow of Harvard’s highest governing body, the Harvard Corporation — have defended Griffin’s donation.
In an interview last month, Bacow told The Crimson that he does not believe Harvard should have “political tests” for donations.
“We don’t hold individuals responsible for the actions of their countries,” Bacow said. “We also should not hold individuals responsible for every action, every opinion of every candidate that they support.”
Other students and faculty have also emphasized the generosity of Griffin’s donation over his political views. Zad Chin ’24 said in an April interview she was “glad” for the gift and that Griffin’s politics should be “independent” of it.
Pritzker similarly dismissed political concerns over Griffin’s donation in an interview earlier this month, calling the donation “a heck of a vote of confidence.”
“He’s philanthropically very generous,” Pritzker added. “His politics are his politics.”
—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at email@example.com.