Billionaire Bill Ackman argues his antisemitism crusade against Harvard is totally unrelated to his ‘unfortunate experience as a donor’

Bill Ackman denied that his weeks-long crusade against Harvard University and its president was driven by resentment toward his alma mater, but acknowledged a “serious” dispute with the school over a donation he made in 2017.

“To be extremely clear, my advocacy on behalf of antisemitism, free speech on campus, and my concerns with DEI at Harvard have absolutely nothing to do with my unfortunate experience as a donor to the university,” Ackman wrote in a post on X Tuesday night.

The billionaire founder of Pershing Square Capital Management was responding to a New York Times article that detailed his relationship with Harvard. It’s the latest in a series of lengthy posts to his almost 1 million followers about the school, in which he’s accused the institution of double standards over free speech, criticized its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and demanded the ousting of President Claudine Gay.

The university’s board said Tuesday that it unanimously backed Gay after weeks of escalating criticism, which intensified after her widely derided testimony in a congressional hearing last week about antisemitism at elite US universities. More than 700 faculty signed a petition objecting to external pressures on the university to force out Gay, the school’s first Black president. 

A Harvard spokesman declined to comment on Ackman or make Gay available for an interview. 

No Liquidity

Ackman, who attended Harvard as an undergraduate and also completed a degree from the business school, explained in his latest post that years ago he’d funded $25 million to recruit “the best behavioral economists in the world.” In 2017, he was told that superstar Stanford University economist Raj Chetty had been hired but Harvard needed money for the chair.

Ackman, whose fortune is now estimated at $2.4 billion by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, said the timing was far from ideal. His fund had lost money, investors were redeeming and he was in the middle of a divorce. 

“The problem was that I had no liquidity as my divorce consumed more than all of it (I had to borrow a lot of money) and my business was in a bad place,” Ackman revealed. 

Ackman’s solution was to give Harvard stock in Coupang Inc., at the time a speculative private venture-backed company.

The stock he was giving was valued at $10 million, but Ackman said he agreed with Harvard that if the value went below $10 million he would make up the difference. But if the company went public and the stock was worth more than $15 million, he would have the right “to allocate the excess realized value” above that amount to any Harvard-related initiative of his choice.

In January 2021, Ackman said he found out Coupang was going public at a $50 billion valuation. That price would mean the stock he’d given Harvard was worth $85 million, funds that Ackman said would have gone to helping develop a Norman Foster-designed building to house Chetty and his team. 

But then he was informed that Harvard Management Co., which oversees the $51 billion endowment, had sold the stock back to Coupang in a private transaction in March 2020. Ackman said no one from Harvard Management or the administration contacted him at the time to ask if he wanted to buy back the stock or to apologize after the fact for missing out on $75 million of potential gains.  

By contrast, the Pershing Square Foundation and a donor-advised fund to which Ackman had given Coupang stock received almost $1 billion from share sales.

Ackman said he was told that Gay, who became Harvard’s president in July, would address the issue, but it still hasn’t been resolved. 

Campus Protests

Relations between Ackman and the university administration have deteriorated in the wake of Oct. 7 when Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union, attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking hundreds hostage. Ackman has joined others, including former Harvard President Larry Summers, in slamming Gay’s initial failure to strongly condemn the attack and the school’s silence after more than 30 student groups wrote a letter blaming Israel solely for the violence. 

Gay has since made multiple statements denouncing both the attack and antisemitism. But the campus continues to be divided amid Israel’s response in Gaza, which according to the Hamas-run health ministry has killed more than 18,000 people. 

Protests against Israel are held frequently and while Ackman acknowledges that’s acceptable, he’s highlighted how some have included the chant “Intifada! Intifada! Intifada! From the River to the Sea, Palestine Shall Be Free.” The phrase has been widely interpreted as calling for the expulsion of Jews from Israel and the dismantling of the Jewish state. Ackman has said failure to confront a small group of students and faculty has emboldened antisemites. 

“People can be critical of Israel, the Israeli government. But, sadly, there are kids who have been spat on or been roughed up, or have been harassed, or antisemitic statements have been put on Slack message boards on campus,” Ackman has said. 

Ackman stepped up his campaign after the Dec. 5 Congressional hearing when Gay, University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth provided narrow legal responses over whether calling for the genocide of Jews is against school policy. Magill resigned over the weekend, while Kornbluth has kept the backing of MIT Corp. 

Ackman posted a letter on X on Sunday that he sent to Harvard’s governing boards claiming that during Gay’s “short tenure” as president, Gay “has done more damage to the reputation of Harvard University than any individual in our nearly 500-year history.”

He also raised questions over her academic work and how she was selected to lead the institution, while also accusing her of suppressing speech she disfavors — words that some viewed as going too far. 

“Mr. Ackman and others are right to call attention to issues of antisemitism at his alma mater,” wrote David Thomas, president of Morehouse College and Ackman’s former professor at Harvard Business School. “To turn the question to the legitimacy of President Gay’s selection because she is a Black woman is a dog whistle we have heard before: Black and female equal not qualified. We must call it out.” 

Ackman said in his X post that he has no resentment toward Harvard and that the incident over the donation is a sideshow to the concerns he has over Harvard’s leadership. He’s also said that his criticism of Gay would be unchanged “if her gender, race, and/or LGBTQ+ status were different.”

He declined further comment through a spokesman.

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