Elite NY school debates ‘Pharma Bro’ Shkreli’s $1-million gift

The drug entrepreneur's arrest last Thursday for securities fraud adds to some alums' discomfort with Martin Shkreli's historic gift to the school he attended for six years without graduating. 

Craig Ruttle/Reuters/File
Carrying an image of Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli in a makeshift cat litter pan, AIDS activists and others are asked to leave the lobby during a protest highlighting pharmaceutical drug pricing, Oct. 1. Mr. Shkreli, the former hedge fund manager under fire for buying a pharmaceutical company and ratcheting up the price of a life-saving drug, is in custody following a securities probe, Thursday.

"I really cleaned up in the business world. I have to give thanks," Martin Shkreli told the New York Daily News last March, explaining his $1-million gift to the city's elite Hunter College High School. 

But Mr. Shkreli's arrest last Thursday, on securities fraud charges at his former hedge fund, strengthened the conviction of many Hunter alums that Shkreli had never really "cleaned up" after high school. (He has since been released on $5 million bail, and denies the charges.)

Many are pushing their alma mater, which Shkreli attended for six years but was asked to leave before graduating, to return his donation, the largest in the elite public school's 101-year history.

If Hunter does return the funds, the school will join a diverse club of those who have distanced themselves from Shkreli, age 32, whose penchant for bragging won him notoriety well before September, when his company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, raised the price of a rare medicine from $13.50 per pill to $750.

Once the backlash hit – including criticism from presidential contenders from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump – Shkreli promised to lower the price, but he later reneged; instead, he said, hospitals would be given significant discounts, and the uninsured could get the drug, Daraprim, for $1. But his defiance also comes from a core doctrine of the biotech industry: progress takes money.

"I’m like Robin Hood," he told Vanity Fair's Bethany McLean. "I’m taking Walmart’s money and doing research for diseases no one cares about." Shkreli insists that Turing spends far more on new drug development than its major rivals.

So far, representatives from Hunter have not commented on the donation, which was intended to strengthen programs in technology, science, and career counseling. But students, past and present, have been riveted as the Shkreli saga plays out in mainstream media and social media, where he tried to cultivate an image of luxury and eccentricity, sometimes live-streaming sessions of himself analyzing stocks, musing on his reputation, poring over women's dating profiles, and chatting online with current Hunter students. 

For some, contempt for Shkreli reached its zenith with the disclosure that he had purchased "Once Upon a Time in Shaolin," a one-copy-only album from legendary New York rap group the Wu-Tang Clan. Many of the band's members hail from Brooklyn, as does Shkreli: the son of Albanian immigrants who worked janitorial jobs, he grew up in Sheepshead Bay.

Shkreli's $2-million bid for the album was arranged before his "business practices came to light," the musicians said in a statement to Bloomberg News. "We decided to give a significant portion of the proceeds to charity."

The decision did not sit well with Shkreli, who lashed out in an interview with HipHopDX. "If I hand you $2 million, [expletive] show me some respect. At least have the decency to say nothing or 'no comment,'" he complained.

"No comment" was not employed by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, either, whom Shkreli had favored in spite of their disagreement over healthcare issues. The politician, who prides himself on not taking corporate donations, sent $2,700 from Shkreli — the maximum amount his campaign accepts from donors — to a health clinic after realizing who had given it, and refused Shkreli's bid for an in-person meeting

Although his donation to Hunter would appear a more obvious spending choice, Shkreli's former teachers and classmates have expressed bemusement over the gift. Despite giving warm praise at the time of the donation, Shkreli has elsewhere criticized the school for its "conformity" and high-pressure atmosphere.

A habit of under-performing, or just plain skipping class, earned him a request to leave the school, and he wound up graduating through an alternative program that placed kids at internships: in Shkreli's case, Wall Street hedge fund Cramer, Berkowitz & Company.

"Let them do it. Whatever," he told The New York Times in response to the Hunter alumni Facebook page, where many former students were calling on the administration to return the donation, and offering to raise a new $1 million instead. "But can they raise $5 million?"

Those willing to keep the gift may be reflecting that, although particularly infamous, Shkreli is just one player in a frequently criticized industry.

Making profits "is actually what I’ve been hired to do," Skhreli told Bloomberg after taking criticism from both the Wu-Tang Clan and Sen. Sanders. "It’s like someone criticizing a basketball player for scoring too many points."

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