Saturday, May 25, 2024

In the two-month saga concerning the future of Harvard’s president, billionaire investor William A. Ackman has positioned himself as a defender of Jewish students and a champion for those who believe universities have fostered a hostile environment for critics of liberal orthodoxy. However, his personal grievances that predate the uproar that has engulfed campuses since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza. Mr. Ackman, by his own admission and according to others around him, resents that officials at his alma mater, to which he’s donated tens of millions of dollars, and its president, Claudine Gay, have not heeded his advice on a variety of topics, including how to address complaints of antisemitism and violence against supporters of Israel on campus.

“It would have been smart for her to listen, or to at least pick up the phone,” Mr. Ackman said in an interview, describing a recent outreach to Dr. Gay that was part of a stream of calls, texts, and letters to university officials.

On Tuesday, Harvard’s board announced that Dr. Gay, its first Black president, would stay in her post despite calls for her removal. Though Mr. Ackman’s campaign, which has included the accusation that she was hired in part because of her race and gender, failed to unseat her, he succeeded in shaping the debate about antisemitism at universities and showcasing questions about the power of major donors to dictate the direction of elite institutions. He said he wants to be a “positive force” at the school.

Mr. Ackman, who posts frequently on social media platform to nearly one million followers, stands virtually alone among high-profile donors to Harvard in making himself a public adversary of the school. Other wealthy Harvard donors like the financier Kenneth Griffin have pressed their perspectives only behind the scenes.

“When the history of this moment is written, Bill will be a part of it,” said Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi of Harvard Chabad, who hosted Mr. Ackman on campus.

Mr. Ackman, 57, has an estimated fortune of $3.8 billion, according to Forbes. He founded the hedge fund Pershing Square Capital and for years waged high-profile, drawn-out battles against companies he believes to be mismanaged. He lost a billion-dollar bet against the nutritional food supplement company Herbalife, which he called an outright fraud, but allegations that have never been proven. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, he made $2.6 billion wagering that the stock market would drop.

In recent years, Mr. Ackman has also frequently weighed in on hot-button public issues, including the pandemic, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the various goings-on around Elon Musk.

Key to Pershing Square’s playbook is a commitment to go to great lengths to pressure companies to bend to his will.

He has given tens of millions of dollars over the years to Harvard, but does not rank among the top donors at a school that has landed numerous nine-figure donations. His largest gift dates to 2014, when he and his former wife announced a $25 million donation to expand the economics department and endow three professorships.

But interviews with him and 10 associates revealed a gradual degradation of the relationship with his alma mater. He has privately become angry at Harvard over at least the past three years, in part after the university’s administration brushed off his suggestions for how to set up a testing lab to get students and staff back to campus during the pandemic. And around two years ago, he told members of Harvard’s fund-raising team he might not give another dime because they hadn’t heeded his advice on how to invest an earlier donation. Mr. Ackman sent off a series of fiery letters to Harvard administrators questioning their financial acumen, but ultimately donated more money anyway.

Mr. Ackman compared the university’s lack of engagement with him to companies he targeted in his early days as an activist investor, then he would call chief executives and wouldn’t get his calls returned. Now, it’s more common for corporate boards to invite him in.

On Nov. 4, he wrote a four-page letter to Dr. Gay, outlining his concerns about antisemitism on campus, what he called double standards on campus for different racial and ethnic groups, and offering a detailed list of actions he wanted the university to take. After sending that letter, he said he had minimal contact with Harvard. He continued to raise questions about Dr. Gay on social media and in public forums, including by promoting claims that Dr. Gay had plagiarized academic research.

Harvard’s board said that Dr. Gay had not violated the school’s standards for research misconduct, but that she would retroactively add additional citations and quotations to earlier research.

Another billionaire financier agitating for change at an elite university, the private-equity mogul Marc Rowan, tried a different tack. Mr. Rowan, who headed the board of advisers 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, worried it could do more harm than good.

Even some of Mr. Ackman’s supporters said in interviews that they wished he had heeded the same advice. Mr. Ackman said that a more demure approach wasn’t an option, as he had no formal role on any Harvard boards.

He said that he wants to be a “positive force” at the school.

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