After Capitol Riots, Billionaire’s ‘Students’ Confront Their Benefactor

Private equity billionaire Stephen A. Schwarzman has spent many years funding educational programs, from his old high school to the Ivy League.

But the Blackstone chairman’s great success didn’t always come at the price of goodwill: there was swift opposition to his proposal to give his name to Abington Senior High School in Pennsylvania, and his close ties with former President Donald J. Trump added to the opposition against his will by name on a campus center he financed at Yale.

And now some of the participants in the Schwarzman Scholarship Program – a Masters course he set up at Tsinghua University in Beijing as a Chinese analogue of the Rhodes Scholarships – are speaking out against their benefactor.

You say Mr Schwarzman is not living up to his own values ​​and is damaging the reputation of the program by not cutting money off lawmakers who opposed confirming President Biden’s election victory.

In a February 10 letter to Mr. Schwarzman, 161 current and past Schwarzman scholars and two program professors urged Mr. Schwarzman to cut these politicians and groups off. “You stood up for integrity, honesty and courage,” they wrote. “Now we ask you to demonstrate these values ​​by refusing to financially support those who would overturn the results of a free and fair election to their own political advantage.”

About an hour later, Mr Schwarzman, who along with his wife was the third largest donor to the offending legislature, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, turned it down.

Although the electoral certification vote would be “one of the main factors” in deciding who to support in the future, Mr Schwarzman wrote, “I appreciate my constitutional right to carefully determine who I vote and support.”

The rift focuses on one of Mr. Schwarzman’s finest accomplishments. A one-year graduate program began with a donation of $ 100 million from him and was supplemented with $ 450 million raised from others. Up to 200 students attend each year and live and study in a building designed by Robert AM Stern Architects – Schwarzman College – with courses focused on Chinese history, leadership, and global affairs.

However, some of the letter’s signatories have begun to wonder if having “Schwarzman Scholar” on their résumé is both a risk and an advantage.

“I feel like I cannot in good conscience allow my name to be associated with someone who refuses not to donate to such people,” said Alistair Kitchen, a program alumnus who is supporting the Co-organized the letter.

Mr. Kitchen, 29, an Australian who works in New York for Collective Impact, a strategy firm focused on progressive causes, said some scientists felt their association with the program could harm them, even if it did Browned inheritance from Mr. Schwarzman that Mr. The Kitchen called a shape a “Ruf wash”.

For Ashlie Koehn, who worked her way through the University of Kansas and joined the Kansas Air National Guard before becoming a Schwarzman Fellow, the program was a revelation – the first time she had been able to focus on academics, not costs . But she said Mr. Schwarzman didn’t seem to understand the extent of his influence.

“He has this sense of himself as the average American citizen that he is in some ways,” said Ms. Koehn, 30, who works in the state government. “But I think it ignores the fact that he has this oversized capital and his donations give him an oversized impact.”

A quarter of the more than 600 students who have participated in the program since 2016 have signed the letter, including 18 anonymously. Some scholars supported the letter, organizers said, but feared it would impact their professional lives if they signed.

Others had other reasons for the decline. Charles Vitry, a London-based alumnus of the program’s 2018 class, did not sign, despite saying he “respected and valued the principles” of those who did. He said he also saw the need for “wider common space to discuss challenging topics”.

A spokesperson for Mr. Schwarzman noted that the 2013 program began “well before the 2016 elections” and that Mr. Schwarzman had been full of support for the 2019 Republicans in Congress. “The majority of the candidates Steve donated voted for the program’s results certification – as Steve has repeatedly requested,” said spokesman Matt Anderson.

A Schwarzman Scholars program spokeswoman Ellie Gottdenker said in a statement that the program “remains true to its global mission and reputation as a world-class bridge for mutual understanding between China and the rest of the world.”

This is not the first time Mr. Schwarzman has taken a foray into educational philanthropy and faced opposition from those who benefit. Nor is it the first time that the opposition has emerged from his political positions.

After Mr Schwarzman donated $ 150 million to Yale, his alma mater, in 2015 to build a building for events and informal gatherings called the Schwarzman Center, some professors and students complained about Blackstone’s business practices and its connections too Mr. Trump.

In 2018, he pledged $ 350 million to build a new computer science center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which was also named after him and aroused opposition for similar reasons.

That same year, he pledged $ 25 million to upgrade the high school he attended in suburban Philadelphia and agreed to add his name to his own. The proposal sparked an immediate backlash, and Mr Schwarzman and the school quickly switched courses, just to name a new science and technology building after him.

The friction with the Schwarzman Scholars began almost immediately after the program welcomed its first grade in 2016.

Shortly after the election, Mr. Schwarzman agreed to head a corporate advisory board that made him one of Mr. Trump’s most prominent employees. After Mr. Trump introduced a travel and immigration ban for people from predominantly Muslim countries, Mr. Schwarzman received sharp questions from scholars on a video chat, according to one participant. He argued that it was important to have a broad perspective and focus on similarities rather than differences, the person recalled.

Then came the 2020 election, and Mr Schwarzman’s reaction to the outcome felt ambiguous to some program members.

Calling executives while votes were still being counted in battlefield states, Schwarzman said he was okay with voters who were skeptical of the counts. Later in the month he said the result was “very certain” and that Mr. Biden had his full support.

When rioters stormed the Capitol, Mr. Schwarzman issued a statement to Blackstone staff and scholars condemning their actions as “insurrection” and “an affront to the democratic values ​​we hold dear”.

However, when a number of companies and trade organizations announced that they would withdraw financial support from those who opposed the confirmation of the election, at least two alumni wrote to Mr Schwarzman, expressing concerns about his financial support to the objectors. They said he didn’t answer.

Frustrated scholars discussed a group letter. Mr. Kitchen and his former classmate Ricky Altieri, a 28-year-old law student from Yale, distributed drafts through WeChat, Text, and Signal, and eventually settled on a five-paragraph note. It called on Mr Schwarzman to pledge never to donate to any politician or political group that “supports Trump’s offer to reject the results of the 2020 US presidential election.”

“We believe that donations to such candidates would violate the most basic principles of Schwarzman scholars and damage their reputations,” the letter said.

In his response, which immediately caught on among current and former scholars, Mr. Schwarzman pushed back and wrote that he had publicly supported the confirmation of Mr. Biden’s victory. Although the large number of objectors left him disappointed and confused, they “acted legally under the Constitution”.

He added: “In a democracy, it is important to continue to rely on our constitutional system and not voluntarily agree to be silenced.”

Some of the scientists seemed to agree – citing the influence of the program as one of the reasons.

Jacko Walz, 25, a New York-based strategy advisor who focuses on international development in Latin America, said the program raised his awareness of the world around him and taught him about leadership and moral courage.

“I think these topics are really taught authentically there,” said Walz. “And now that I’ve graduated, I hope to practice it all the time.”

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