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Why this U.S. billionaire chose Oxford University for record $188 million gift

Blackstone chief Stephen Schwarzman’s donation is the largest gift the university has received since the Renaissance.
Stephen Schwarzman CEO of Blackstone, at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22, 2019.
Stephen Schwarzman CEO of Blackstone, at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22, 2019.Markus Schreiber / AP file

American hedge fund billionaire Stephen Schwarzman chose Oxford University as the recipient of a record-setting $188 million gift this week.

The donation will go toward the study of humanities and the "ethical implications of artificial intelligence and other new computing technologies,” according to Oxford's website. It also noted that Schwarzman's gift represents the largest single donation the university has received “since the Renaissance."

While many wealthy donors have focused their philanthropy on the universities they attended or have family ties to, Schwarzman did not have any notable connections to Oxford University.

He said he chose the university, which was founded in 1096, because it has a history of shaping discourse around some of the world’s most important issues. In previous interviews, Schwarzman has discussed how the “ethics behind AI must be developed hand-in-hand with the science.”

He hopes his gift will help lead the way for creating an ethical framework for applying AI.

“For nearly 1,000 years, the study of the Humanities at Oxford has been core to Western civilization and scholarship,” Schwarzman said in a statement. “We need to ensure that its insights and principles can be adapted to today’s dynamic world. Oxford’s longstanding global leadership in the Humanities uniquely positions it to achieve this important objective.”

The gift will fund the Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities. The new venue will include a 500-seat concert hall, 250-seat auditorium, and several public gathering spaces that will allow the public to engage with Oxford’s research.

The central location will allow faculty and students from across disciplines to work together to tackle some of the most important questions in 2019, from technology ethics to climate change. The gift will also establish the Institute for Ethics in AI, which will study the impact of AI on society.

Schwarzman, who heads the private equity firm Blackstone — and is a close confidant of President Donald Trump — has an estimated net worth of $15.6 billion, according to Forbes, and certainly isn’t the first billionaire to express the need for more ethics around emerging technology.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has called for a ban on autonomous killing machines. However, he’s also said that humans need to learn how to work with machines now, or risk becoming irrelevant in the future with the rise of AI.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web, said in a tweet that he believes Schwarzman’s gift will be “valuable” and “will hopefully help ensure that technology and society advance in a coordinated way, one which benefits humanity.”

Schwarzman already has his name attached to a few buildings. Last year, he donated $350 million to establish the Schwarzman College of Computing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2015, he pledged $150 million to his alma mater, Yale University, to create the Schwarzman Center, a hub for student activity at the Ivy League school. He also founded a scholarship program at China’s Tsinghua University.

While Schwarzman’s latest gift has earned praise, its potential impact was met with some skepticism.

The massive gift comes as another billionaire family’s philanthropy has fallen under scrutiny. At least 44 states are suing Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family, alleging they used deceptive marketing practices for OxyContin that ultimately fueled the nation’s opioid crisis.

Last month, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art said it will no longer accept donations from the billionaire family, after accepting their philanthropy for more than 50 years. Several other cultural institutions, including the Guggenheim in New York and the Tate in London, said they would also cut ties with the family.