Stephen Schwarzman: who is the US billionaire who donated £150 million to Oxford University?

Bonnie Christian

A US billionaire has gifted £150 million to Oxford University in what is believed to be its largest donation "since the Renaissance".

The donation by Stephen Schwarzman will see the university's humanities subjects housed together for the first time in the Schwarzman Centre.

It will also be home to Oxford's new Institute for Ethics in AI, and the building will include performing arts and exhibition venues.

Professor Louise Richardson, vice chancellor at the university, said: "This generous donation from Stephen A. Schwarzman marks a significant endorsement of the value of the Humanities in the 21st century and in Oxford University as the world leader in the field."

Here’s everything you need to know about Mr Schwarzman.

Stephen Schwarzman has advised Republican presidents including Donald Trump. (Getty Images)

Who is Stephen Schwarzman?

Mr Schwarzman is one of America’s best known billionaires and the founder and chief executive of the Blackstone financial group.

He formed the private equity firm in 1985 with former chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers and US Secretary of Commerce Pete Peterson.

Mr Schwarzman’s personal fortune was estimated to be $12.4 billion as of December 2018.

He has advised Republican presidents - including Donald Trump but did not endorse him in the election.

Asked about his connections with President Trump and those who may be uncomfortable with taking his money, vice chancellor Ms Richardson told the BBC’s Today programme: "I'd imagine there would be very few people who feel that way.

"Do you really think we should turn down the biggest gift in modern times, which will enable hundreds of academics, thousands of students to do cutting-edge work in the humanities? By which I mean history, literature, the arts. All the things that give joy and meaning to our lives."

She said universities are "all about" engaging with those who hold different points of views or politics, adding that the gift will be "transformative for many generations".

In the past Mr Schwarzman’s lavish Wall Street lifestyle attracted criticism but he has since become known for his major donations to education. In 2018, he gave $350 million to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to establish a centre for computing and artificial intelligence.

An aerial view of Oxford University. (Sidharth Bhatia/Unsplash)

Why has he donated to Oxford?

Unlike previous mega-donors, Mr Schwarzman is not a former student of the university.

The billionaire told The Guardian his memories of visiting the university as a teenager in 1963 and being approached by attracted him to make the donation.

“I visited Oxford as a 15-year-old on what we used to call ‘teen tours’ in the US, where you travelled around Europe and hopefully became more civilised. I vividly remember going to Oxford because I’d never seen anything like it,” Mr Schwarzman said.

“The beauty and the ancient characters of the buildings made a huge impression on me, so that was one factor. Sometimes life works out in odd ways – if I hadn’t gone to visit as a 15-year-old maybe I wouldn’t have been so interested.

“But the second thing was the excellence of the areas that this project is involved with, and the fit between what Oxford is doing and the values that they have been part of developing for western civilisation and the need to apply those core values to this rapidly growing area of technology.”

Stephen A. Schwarzman is a known for his major donations to education. (AFP/Getty Images)

How much has he donated?

Mr Schwarzman has donated £150 million to the university after being approached by Ms Richardson 18 months ago.

His donation surpasses the cash gift of £100 million by British businessman David Harding to the University of Cambridge in February this year.

It is believed that Mr Schwarzman’s donation is the biggest cash gift in Oxford’s near 1,000-year history. Historians are confident it is the largest donation since the Renaissance, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Chichele, gifted land to establish All Soul’s College in 1438.

Mr Schwarzman is known for being a major philanthropist towards education, donating significant sums to universities and institutions.

He donated $100 million to the New York Public Library as well as larger sums to found a scholarship scheme at Tsinghua University in China modelled on Oxford’s Rhodes scholarship

Vice-Chancellor of University of Oxford Louise Richardson. (Getty Images)

Where will the money go?

The Schwarzman Centre will be a new institute that will explore the ethics of artificial intelligence.

The centre will see university's English, history, linguistics, philology and phonetics, medieval and modern languages, music, philosophy, and theology and religion programmes housed together for the first time and is expected to open in 2024.

Mr Schwarzman told the BBC's Today programme: "AI is going to be the fourth revolution, and it is going to impact jobs, excellence, efficiency and it is a force for amazing good and also a potential force for not good.

"And what is important about it isn't just what it can do, but making sure it is introduced in a way unlike the Internet.

"The Internet was invented by a bunch of computer scientists and they threw it out there because they thought it was cool.

"And parts of it were cool - interconnectedness, globally the ability to communicate, it is pretty amazing. What they forgot were all the negatives, this inability to control cyber bullying, lack of freedom of speech - all kinds of negative things."

He said that ethics and AI is "one of the major issues of our age", adding: "Because AI is going to come, it is really unstoppable, it is not just AI it is robotics and all kinds of other computer science innovations."

The new building will also create a concert hall and other public spaces.