Buddy Fletcher: Financial Genius — or a Fake?
Young, African American, and rich, Buddy Fletcher was a dream alumnus for Harvard—a Wall Street philanthropist who gave millions to endow professors and support civil rights. And then his whole world came tumbling down.
FLETCHER’S ASCENT COULDN’T HAVE come at a better time for Neil Rudenstine, Harvard’s president from 1991 to 2001. Perhaps the most liberal president in school history, Rudenstine was determined to improve race relations on campus, partly by pouring money into Harvard’s neglected African American Studies department. Rudenstine wanted a black donor to fund a university professorship — the most prestigious academic position that exists at Harvard — for black scholars. But Harvard didn’t have a lot of black alumni, and many of the ones it did have didn’t look back fondly on their time in Cambridge. Fletcher was different. He was wealthy, and he wanted to align himself with the university.
In April 1996 Rudenstine announced that Fletcher had given Harvard more than $3 million to fund the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professorship. “This was an important gift for Neil,” says one former Harvard official. And for Fletcher, the official says, endowing a professorship meant associating his name with the Harvard brand. Surely there would be more and larger donations to come. “Buddy was being groomed,” another high-level Harvard official recalls.
Fletcher would later serve not only on the Committee on University Resources — the powerful group of donors that helps shape Harvard policy — but also on the New York Major Gifts Committee and as a director of the Harvard Alumni Association. His money gave him clout: When Cornel West — the first scholar to hold the Fletcher chair — exited Harvard in 2002 after a falling-out with then-president Larry Summers, Fletcher served as an intermediary between Summers and black alumni, working to rebuild bridges. Harvard officials were pleased, but some wondered whether Buddy Fletcher was too good to be true. “The unbroken string of profitable quarters was already an object of some puzzlement,” says a Harvard official. “I remember people being impressed, but puzzled.”
Fletcher didn’t limit his generosity to Harvard. In May 2004, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Fletcher announced that he would give $50 million to people and organizations working to promote civil rights. As part of that pledge, he would establish the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. Fellowships, $50,000 grants to be awarded to civil rights–minded scholars, artists, and writers. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., soon to become Harvard’s second Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor, would be the primary director of the grant-giving.
The details were largely unspecified, but no matter: The Times compared Fletcher to Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey, and quoted a philanthropy expert who called the pledge “one of the largest individual gifts ever made by an African-American.”
In 2005, the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus approached Fletcher to discuss giving him its annual Civil Rights Award. “The grapevine had made it known that he was in an intimate relationship with a man, so he seemed to qualify,” says Warren Goldfarb, a Harvard philosophy professor who is one of HGLC’s founders. “But we weren’t at all sure whether he would want to be public.” After an initial reluctance, Fletcher decided to accept the award at a dinner in June of that year. Shortly after, he made a $100,000 contribution to the group.