Why a billionaire set out to topple the heads of America’s top schools

The hedge-fund billionaire has allied with right-wing activists and Republicans in Congress to pressure universities, but some students and faculty say he’s gone too far, Josh Marcus reports

Tuesday 12 December 2023 19:22 GMT
Hedge Fund billionaire Bill Ackman has been a leading critic of university leaders over their handling of campus antisemitism
Hedge Fund billionaire Bill Ackman has been a leading critic of university leaders over their handling of campus antisemitism (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

On Tuesday, university leadership at Harvard affirmed its support for college president Dr Claudine Gay, who has come under fire for how she handled a high-profile congressional hearing over campus antisemitism amid the Israel-Hamas war.

“Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing,” the Harvard Corporation said in a statement on Tuesday.

“In this tumultuous and difficult time, we unanimously stand in support of President Gay,” the university leadership body added. “At Harvard, we champion open discourse and academic freedom, and we are united in our strong belief that calls for violence against our students and disruptions of the classroom experience will not be tolerated. “

President Gay’s position may be secure for now, but if high-profile investor Bill Ackman has his way, that won’t be for long.

The hedge fund billionaire and Harvard alumnus has been one of the nation’s most vocal critics of how university leaders are responding to cultural tensions surrounding the Israel-Hamas war, and his campaign has already made serious waves on campus.

He helped make a national scandal out of a controversial letter from Harvard students that blamed Israeli policy towards Palestinians for setting the stage for the 7 October Hamas attacks, fueling calls to blacklist the student-activists involved.

His public pressure, particularly on his X feed, where legislators and activists mingle and share the chatter, probably helped lead to the resignation of M Elizabeth Magill, the University of Pennsylvania president, who announced her resignation on Saturday.

And his commentary helped raise the House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on antisemitism last week into the centre of the political discussion, after the presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT all gave awkward, legalistic answers when asked about how their bullying policies would handle hypothetical calls for Jewish genocide. (The leaders all condemned antisemitism and calls for violence during the hearing.)

It’s not surprise then, that by Sunday, the investor felt like he held all the cards in his hands.

“Let’s make a deal,” he wrote on X in a message to MIT.  “If you promptly terminate President [Sally] Kornbluth, I promise I won’t write you a letter.”

Congress grills university leaders over antisemitism

The hedge funder manager is known for making big bets — he made billions during the pandemic in credit hedges — but will his continued campaign the force out the presidents of America’s Ivy League schools pay off?

Some have celebrated Ackman’s pressure campaign, while others, including some faculty and students at the universities on his radar, have expressed dismay about the considerable influence he and other well-connected outsiders are exerting over educational institutions.

Mr Ackman hasn’t been alone in his efforts, and fellow travellers have sounded a similar valedictory note in recent days.

“One down. Two to go,” US Rep Elise Stefanik, the Harvard graduate whose questioning of university presidents at the committee hearing went viral, wrote on X over the weekend. “This is only the very beginning of addressing the pervasive rot of antisemitism that has destroyed the most ‘prestigious’ higher education institutions in America. This forced resignation of the President of @Penn is the bare minimum of what is required.”

More than 70, mostly Republican, members of Congress have joined in calls for all the university presidents who testified to get the axe.

Chris Rufo, a conservative activist who spearheaded a right-wing campaign against critical race theory in elementary schools, has celebrated Mr Ackman’s effort because it boosts his contention that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts on campus mean the “death to merit, accomplishment, and the American spirit.”

“Bill Ackman is a man of strength and courage. He’s demonstrated the power of speaking the truth while so many of our elites remain silent,” Mr Rufo wrote on X on Sunday. “Through his actions, he exposes them for what they are: cowards. Abolish DEI — now, and forever.”

Mr Ackman, in turn, has promoted an article from Mr Rufo that claims Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard, plagiarised parts of her thesis.

The article alleges four instances of supposed plagiarism, though two include Ms Gay noting the source material of her claims.

In its statement, the Harvard Corporation said President Gay was aware of the allegations and asked for an independent review of her work, which concluded there were “a few instances of inadequate citation,” but nothing violating Harvard’s research standards. President Gay has requested corrections in two articles, the statement added.

Mr Ackman has also suggested in recent days that Ms Gay, a former professor at Harvard and Stanford and a former dean of social science at Harvard — and who is the first Black president of Harvard in the institution’s nearly 400-year history — was chosen because of her race.

Taken together, Mr Ackman’s high-profile actions and alliance with right-wing figures has alarmed some on campus.

On Monday, as university administrators met at Harvard, over 650 faculty members signed a letter of support in favour of President Gay.

“The critical work of defending a culture of free inquiry in our diverse community cannot proceed if we let its shape be dictated by outside forces,” one faculty letter reads.

“The suggestion that she would not stand boldly against manifestations of antisemitism and any suggestion that her selection as president was the result of a process that elevated an unqualified person based on considerations of race and gender are specious and politically motivated,” reads another letter, from Black faculty at Harvard.

On the campus on the University of Pennsylvania, where Mr Ackman’s influence has already been felt, students voiced a mix of approval over their president’s resignation and concern over free speech implications.

“We were really excited to see that there was some accountability being taken,” student and vice-president of Penn’s Jewish Heritage Programs Joe Hochberg told The Daily Pennsylvanian student paper. “Time and time again, [President] [Magill] was just letting us down and not doing enough or doing completely the wrong thing.”

“I am alarmed at the implications for free speech and academic freedom as the far right uses this resignation as licence to start policing calls for peace, ceasefire, and Palestinian rights,” student Lily Brenner, a member of the progressive Jewish group Penn Chavurah, said in an interview with the paper.

On the opinion pages, the editorial board of the Pennsylvanian noted that many of the figures leading the charge against Penn, such as Rep Stefanik, “have not been physically here.”

“They have not stepped on campus and engaged with students, faculty, and the Penn community at large the way that we have and we continue to do everyday,” an editorial from Sunday reads.

Other commentators, like the progressive writer Peter Beinart, have warned that the kind of potential rules about campus speech that may result from this moment of outside pressure regarding antisemitism could end up silencing Jewish leaders themselves.

In a Saturday post on X, Mr Beinart argued that a potential Penn business school resolution that would punish those using hate speech or celebrating murder or genocide could be used to keep prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel off campus because of a November speech about the war in which the Israeli leader invoked the Biblical story of Amalek, a rival nation to Israel, whom God commands King Saul to wipe out, including killing men, women, children, and animals.

“Curious what @BillAckman will say when people use these prohibitions on calling for genocide to try to ban Bibi from speaking at Penn because of his comments about Amalek,” Mr Beinart wrote.

MIT, the final part of the Ivy trio under the spotlight, has continued to express its confidence in President Kornbluth.

“The MIT Corporation chose Sally to be our president for her excellent academic leadership, her judgment, her integrity, her moral compass, and her ability to unite our community around MIT’s core values,” university leaders wrote last week after the hearing. “She has done excellent work in leading our community, including in addressing antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate, all of which we reject utterly at MIT. She has our full and unreserved support.”

It’s clear the fight is far from over.

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