Just over 10 years ago, the private equity mogul Glenn Hutchins was on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. With his 25th Harvard College reunion near, he was thinking about how to put some of his wealth to good use.
One afternoon, clad in a T-shirt and board shorts, he stopped at an old whaling chapel, where Henry Louis Gates Jr., the prominent professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard, was leading a symposium.
That encounter gave Mr. Hutchins his cause.
Since then, Mr. Hutchins has strengthened his connection to Mr. Gates and the Harvard program. Their bond will become stronger on Wednesday, when Mr. Hutchins is expected to announce a gift of more than $ 15 million to create the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research, solidifying Harvard’s program as one of the top in its field.
“It creates an infrastructure for the department and a solid foundation on which they can thrive,” Mr. Hutchins said in an interview this month.
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.
Mr. Hutchins said he had long admired the professor’s work from a distance, and Mr. Gates’s reputation had inspired him to seek out the symposium. Professor Gates said he remembered little about the encounter until two weeks later, when Harvard’s development office called asking how he had managed to collect $ 1 million in donations in one shot. That donation was the first by Mr. Hutchins to Harvard.
Since that encounter, the two have become friends, going out together on fishing trips and having lunch at the Four Seasons in Midtown Manhattan. At Silver Lakes’ offices in Manhattan, members of the staff refer to Professor Gates by his nickname, Skip, and, when he arrives, get him water and fruit. At the professor’s offices in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. Hutchins is regularly greeted with a cup of fresh cappuccino.
Together at Silver Lake’s offices this month, the two constantly joshed each other and spoke glowingly of the Harvard program’s accomplishments. At one point, Mr. Hutchins pointed out the view across Central Park, his arm draped over the professor’s shoulder.
The men took Mr. Hutchins’s nonagenarian mother to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last month. Afterward, Professor Gates took Mr. Hutchins’s younger son to a meeting with President Obama. The financier’s older son took a class with the professor last school year, though the son concluded that while Professor Gates was “entertaining,” the course’s other leader, Professor Lawrence D. Bobo, was “really smart.”
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.
All will be housed in a building on Harvard Square with a street front facade designed by David Adjaye, the prominent Ghanian-British architect, chosen at Professor Gates’s urging.
“We both love ideas,” Professor Gates said. “We both love to build things.”
The new institute will hold a ceremony next month honoring individuals for their contributions to African and African-American studies, including Steven Spielberg, the director; Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court justice; Representative John Lewis, the civil rights veteran; and David Stern, the departing commissioner of the National Basketball Association. (It helps that Mr. Hutchins is a part owner of the Boston Celtics.)
Mr. Hutchins said his initial donation was always meant as “hello money,” the start of what he called an intellectual partnership as well as a friendship. Mr. Hutchins and Professor Gates have collaborated on making the Harvard program “the unmatched juggernaut of African-American studies,” Mr. Hutchins said. Mr. Hutchins helped form an advisory board for the Du Bois Institute and introduced an array of potential donors to Professor Gates.
Harvard’s program is already among the most prominent in the country. And since coming to the university in 1991, Professor Gates has become one of the most recognizable academics around, one who regularly is the host of series on PBS and who has received dozens of honorary degrees.
He also gained some attention for his dust-up with a Cambridge police officer and arrest in 2009, culminating in a “beer summit” with the two men and President Obama.
As a scholar of African-American studies, his pre-eminence is rivaled only by two former colleagues — Cornel West, now at Union Theological Seminary, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, at Princeton. Now, the Harvard program will receive what Professor Gates and Mr. Hutchins estimate is the biggest donation to African- American studies.
“Skip is responsible for what I’ll call the quattrocento of African-American studies,” Mr. Hutchins said, referring to the period that led to the Renaissance from the Medieval period.
To Professor Gates, however, the formation of the Hutchins Center ensures that his work will carry on. After all, he has a patient financial backer who has attracted other donors, and he will soon have streetfront space.
“As long as there’s a Harvard, the study of people of African descent will have a place,” he said. “This is a perpetual part of Harvard. We have created something that has permanence.”