$15 Million Donation Boosts Harvard’s African-American Studies Dept

While the African-American Studies program at Harvard University has a lot to thank private equity mogul Glenn Hutchins for, Hutchins believes all the gratitude should be reserved for one of the program’s leading lights, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. After all, it was a chance encounter with Gates at Martha’s Vineyard that first made Hutchins consider the program as the beneficiary of the donation he was seeking to make on the 25th anniversary of his graduation from the school.

That was ten years ago, and the relationship between Gates and Hutchins has only strengthened since then – especially now as Harvard is on the eve of announcing the creation of the Hutchins Center for African and Africa-American Research thanks to a $15 million donation – that will solidify the program atop its field.

The gift — part of a previously announced $30 million donation to the university whose uses had not all been specified — also bespeaks a friendship between two men unlike each other in many respects. One is a wealthy white financier whose firm, Silver Lake, is on the verge of taking over the computer maker Dell with its founder,Michael S. Dell; the other is a celebrated black professor who helped popularize African-American studies as an academic field and social phenomenon.

But the two men also have close ties to Harvard — Mr. Hutchins graduated from the university’s college, business school and law school — as well as a penchant for schmoozing and ties to President Obama.

Perhaps the encounter between the two wasn’t entirely by chance. According to Michael J. De La Merced of The New York Times’ DealBook, Hutchins had long admired Gates, which is why he decided to attend the symposium hosted by the professor during that long-ago vacation. Hutchins made his first donation – $1 million – to Harvard on the spot.

Since then, the social bond between the two has grown. They call each other close friends, but their relationship has a professional side as well.

Perhaps most important, Professor Gates and Mr. Hutchins have consulted closely on the direction of the Harvard program, with the aim of simplifying what they described as a Russian nesting doll of institutes within institutes.

Now their work and Mr. Hutchins’s money will create the Hutchins Center, named at the insistence of Professor Gates. It will unite nine entities, including the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute and the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art.