In the two-month battle over the fate of Harvard's president, billionaire investor William A. Ackman has cast himself as a protector of Jewish students and a standard-bearer for people who believe universities have fostered a hostile atmosphere for critics of the liberal orthodoxy.
But behind their anger are personal grievances that predate the uproar that has engulfed universities since Hamas's Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza. Ackman, by his own admission and by others around him, is bothered that officials at his alma mater, to which he has donated tens of millions of dollars, and its president, Claudine Gay, have not followed his advice on a variety of issues. topics. .
More recently, this includes how to respond to complaints of anti-Semitism and the specter of violence against Israel supporters on campus.
“It would have been smart for her to listen, or at least pick up the phone,” Ackman said in an interview, describing a recent communication with Dr. Gay that was part of a series of calls, text messages and letters to university officials.
On Tuesday, Harvard's board of trustees announced that Dr. Gay, its first black president, would remain in office despite calls for his dismissal. Although Ackman's campaign, which included the accusation that she was hired in part because of her race and gender, failed to unseat her, it did succeed in shaping the debate over anti-Semitism on campuses and raising questions about the power of major donors to dictate the direction of elite institutions. She said she wants to be a “positive force” at school.
Those sensitive to the perception that a wealthy alumnus could exert such influence over the school mounted a campaign to support Dr. Gay. Ackman maintains support from some corners of campus, including Jewish groups that feel the university was too slow to strongly condemn the Hamas attack and has since been wrong about threats of violence against Jewish students. Ackman noted that he met with 230 Jewish students at a town hall on a recent trip to campus.
“When the history of this moment is written, Bill will be a part of it,” said Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi of Harvard Chabad, who also hosted Ackman on campus.
Ackman, who posts frequently on social media to nearly a million followers, is virtually alone among Harvard's high-profile donors in becoming a public adversary of the school. Other wealthy Harvard donors such as financier Kenneth Griffin have pressured their prospects only behind the scenes.
The president of the University of Pennsylvania, M. Elizabeth Magill, resigned this weekend amid an organized backlash from the school's high-profile alumni. Magill, Dr. Gay and Sally Kornbluth, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sparked a furor at a congressional hearing last week when seemed to evade the questions over whether students should be disciplined if they called for the genocide of the Jews.
“I don't think we would have seen anything close to the level of backlash against these institutions if it hadn't been for Bill Ackman,” said Chris Rufo, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, an outspoken critic of university diversity programs. and topics such as critical race theory. Rufo praised the hedge fund manager as an “elite dropout,” a sentiment shared by a half-dozen Harvard donors who said they supported Ackman’s goals but were reluctant to speak publicly and damage his relationship with the school. .
There are others who disagree. Ben Eidelson, a professor at Harvard Law School, described Ackman as “an outsider.” “We can't function as a university if we're answerable to random rich guys and the mobs they mobilize on Twitter,” he said.
Ackman, 57, has a fortune estimated at $3.8 billion, according to Forbes, and a history of donating to Democrats. He founded the hedge fund Pershing Square Capital and for years fought long, high-profile battles against companies he believes are poorly managed. He lost a billion-dollar bet against nutritional food supplement company Herbalife, which he described as total fraud, accusations that were never proven. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, he made $2.6 billion betting that the stock market would fall.
In recent years, Ackman has also frequently weighed in on hot-button public issues, including the pandemic, Russia's attack on Ukraine, cryptocurrency exchange FTX, the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s presidential campaign. and the various events that happen around Elon Musk.
The key to the Pershing Square playbook, which Ackman appears to have adopted in his battle against Harvard, is a commitment to doing everything possible to pressure companies to bend to his will.
He has donated tens of millions of dollars over the years to Harvard, but is not among the top donors to a school that has received numerous nine-figure donations. His largest gift dates back to 2014, when he and his ex-wife announced a $25 million gift to expand the economics department and endow three professorships.
More recently, he gave a smaller sum to the rowing team, a team he joined as a student.
But interviews with him and ten associates revealed a gradual degradation of the relationship with his alma mater.
In Monday's interview, Ackman recalled that just over a year ago, Dr. Gay, who at the time was dean of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, visited his waterfront office in Manhattan. Topics of discussion included Mr. Ackman's plans to donate more money.
The 45-minute talk was enjoyable, he recalled, and so he hoped she would be receptive to his comments about two months ago, when he called her to discuss his concerns about the danger to Jewish students after the deadly Oct. 7 attack in Israel. and his disappointment in the university's official response.
Dr. Gay sent his message to Penny Pritzker, the leader of Harvard's board of trustees, who engaged with Mr. Ackman in what she described as “a completely disappointing conversation.” Pritzker did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Ackman has worked privately at Harvard for at least the past three years, say several people who have discussed the issue with him, in part after the university administration dismissed his suggestions about setting up a testing lab for allowing students and staff to return to campus during the pandemic.
Two years ago, in a previously unreported incident, Ackman told members of Harvard's fundraising team that he might not give a cent more because they had not followed his advice on how to invest an earlier donation, two people with knowledge of the matter said. knowledge of exchanges. Ackman sent a series of fiery letters to Harvard administrators questioning his financial acumen. He ended up donating more money anyway.
When asked about that episode, Ackman said it was “a distraction from other things” and declined to answer questions about it. A Harvard spokesperson declined to comment on the school's interactions with Ackman.
Ackman compared the university's lack of engagement with him to the companies he targeted in his early days as an activist investor pushing for change. Then he would call the CEOs and they wouldn't return his calls. Now, he said, it's more common for corporate boards to invite him.
On November 4, he wrote a four-page letter to Dr. Gay, outlining his concerns about anti-Semitism on campus and what he called double standards on campus for different racial and ethnic groups. He offered a detailed list of actions he wanted the university to take.
After sending that letter, he said he had minimal contact with Harvard. She continued to raise questions about Dr. Gay on social media and in public forums, including promoting claims that Dr. Gay had plagiarized academic research.
The Harvard board said that Dr. Gay had not violated the school's standards for research misconduct, but that it would retroactively add additional citations to previous research.
Another billionaire financier fighting for turnaround at an elite university, private equity magnate Marc Rowan, tried a different tactic. Rowan, who headed the board of advisors at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, had been publicly calling for the ouster of the university's president, but last week told associates that he was stepping back, concerned that he could do more harm than good by associating the effort with a wealthy Wall Street investor, people briefed on the talks said.
Even some of Ackman's supporters said in interviews that they wish he had followed the same advice, although they did not want to be named for fear of becoming Ackman's target themselves. Ackman said a more demure approach was not an option, since he had no formal role on any Harvard board of directors. “They didn't let me in,” he said.
Ackman, who came under fire after he tried to identify students in groups that blamed Israel for the Hamas attack, said he doesn't think much of his detractors.
“For every email I got saying, 'You're racist.' I've gotten 1,000 people to say, 'What you're saying is what I believe,'” he said. “I got calls from some of the most prominent people in the world who said, 'I wish I could say what you're saying.'”
He said he will continue to share his concerns with the Harvard administration and other members of the school. He also predicted that others would continue to mine Dr. Gay's academic record. “I don't see a scenario in which she survives in the long or medium term,” he said Monday.
He declined to comment Tuesday on the news that Dr. Gay would keep her job.
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