One Billionaire Made It His Mission to Oust Harvard’s President. He Had Ulterior Motives.

Claudine Gay speaks confidently into a microphone and is wearing a white suit and chunky black square glasses.

If you’d like to diagnose a particularly acute case of Main-Character Syndrome as it pertains to the latest college-campus handwringing, might I suggest Bill Ackman? The controversial 57-year-old hedge fund manager has injected himself into the outrage over a messy congressional hearing on antisemitism in universities this month, most notably by becoming the leading voice of an all-out pressure campaign to force Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, to resign.

After a clipped video of three university presidents testifying before Congress appeared to show them waffling when asked how their schools address hypothetical calls for a Jewish genocide, Ackman cheered the resignation of University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill, and made public threats to go after MIT President Sally Kornbluth.  But it was the president of Harvard, Ackman’s alma mater, who became the target of his extreme and unadulterated ire.

In the past month, he has amplified misinformation around Gay’s career; shared a petition calling for a no-confidence vote on her leadership; boosted a tweet baselessly framing a letter that Gay wrote in 2020—calling for expanded “teaching and research on racial and ethnic inequality”—as a nefarious “agenda”; and tweeted myriad ridiculous and offensive statements about Gay, over and over. (They include accusing Harvard of only hiring Gay, a Black woman, to satisfy a diversity, equity, and inclusion requirement, as well as fatuous declarations about how “the DEI movement” has brought about “the McCarthy era Part II.”)

You don’t have to defend all parts of the presidents’ testimony—indeed, Gay herself apologized to the Harvard Crimson for getting “caught up” in “policies and procedures” in her responses—to recognize that bad-faith calls for these presidents to resign have been just a touch too loud.

There’s undoubtedly been an uptick in open antisemitic rhetoric and violence in the United States since Oct. 7, when Hamas forces killed, assaulted, and kidnapped hundreds of Israeli citizens. A small number of the many U.S. protests against Israel’s retaliatory offensive in the Gaza Strip—which has now killed about 18,000 Palestinian civilians—have featured some antisemitic elements or some whitewashing of Hamas’ barbarity. All of this warrants unequivocal condemnation.

What it does not warrant, however, is a response that equates activists who are justly concerned over the mass displacement and death of Palestinian Arabs with neo-Nazis calling for Jewish genocide. Critiques of the state of Israel are not attacks on all Jewish people, but—surprise, surprise—right-wingers are not interested in navigating arguments about that in good faith. Instead, they have pounced on a tantalizing opportunity to attack “diversity” and the left through ham-fisted rage-bait.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, the Republican chair of the House committee that oversaw the university hearing, has herself gleefully trafficked in antisemitic conspiracies about immigration and George Soros, while excusing fellow Republicans (including Donald Trump) who’ve done the same. But she was able, through the hearing, to conflate vague, context-dependent slogans like “globalize the intifada” with automatic calls for a Jewish genocide, using the confusion to berate the university presidents for any equivocation about whether this speech violated their school codes of conduct. Questions with important free speech implications were reduced to social media soundbites, and Magill resigned four days later.

The outrage has not abated, however, and few have been as outraged as Ackman. But his reactions are somewhat selective. The financier is pals with Elon Musk, who publicly kowtows to white supremacists and amplifies hateful rhetoric around Jewish figures; he even restored Kanye West’s Twitter account just a year after booting the rapper off the platform for his vile, unmistakable antisemitism. Ackman has consistently brushed off such inconvenient facts; he defended Robert F. Kennedy Jr. after the presidential candidate implied that COVID was “ethnically targeted” to spare Ashkenazi Jews and doesn’t seem to care that another candidate he likes, Vivek Ramaswamy, has baldly endorsed the antisemitic Great Replacement Theory. No—Ackman’s saved his invective to lambaste perceived wrongdoings at Harvard, instead.

In October, he demanded a hiring blacklist to penalize Harvard students who were part of organizations that co-signed a letter claiming Israel bears responsibility for the Hamas attack. (Talk about McCarthyism.) In November, about a month before the congressional hearings, he penned a social media open letter to President Gay that accused Harvard’s DEI office specifically of discriminating against Jewish, white, and Asian students (a common and unfounded talking point among the conservative Silicon Valley set). He claimed there had been little to no trouble with antisemitism at Harvard in recent years prior to Oct. 7 (an absolutely bizarre thing to say), and implied that the mere presence of pro-Palestine student rallies is no different from violence against Jewish students. On Dec. 3, just before the hearings, Ackman posted another letter reiterating the same points.

Following the hearings, Ackman doubled down—quadrupled down—in tweets that implied that Gay only got her job because she’s a Black woman and calculated the probabilities of future resignations. He also penned a letter to Harvard’s governing boards reading, in part: “Claudine Gay has done more damage to the reputation of Harvard University than any individual in our nearly 500-year history.” (Quite a way to whitewash the history of Harvard-employed slaveholders, not to mention its past discrimination against Jewish applicants!)

Indeed, Ackman wanted so badly to be the alum responsible for ousting President Gay that he whined about not being “polled” by the Harvard Alumni Association before it expressed its support for her. He then boosted dubious “reporting” from far-right activist Christopher Rufo that accused Gay of plagiarism in her past academic work, charges that Harvard’s governing board had previously reviewed and determined to be “a few instances of inadequate citation” that merited “no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct.” (Rufo, it should be mentioned, recently held a Twitter Space where a participant advocated for electing white nationalists as allies in power against the left.)

In one sense, it all worked: Ackman’s name has certainly been featured in plenty of coverage of the hullabaloo—the Wall Street Journal spotlighted his “ruthless quest to oust college presidents.” In another sense, though, Ackman’s campaign to push himself as representative of real Harvard values was belied not just by the alumni association, but also by hundreds of its professors, hundreds of Black alumni, and by the Harvard Crimson’s editorial board, all of whom stood by Gay.

Ackman certainly seems to believe his campaign backfired: When the Harvard board officially announced Monday night that Gay would not be leaving, Ackman cited anonymous reports that the board was “concerned it would look like they were kowtowing to me.” Elon Musk, whose social network is rife with actual antisemitism, echoed former Trump aide Stephen Miller’s reply to Ackman that Harvard should be defunded.

Bizarre as all of this is, Ackman’s self-promotion has obscured a perhaps far baser motivation for attacking Harvard. A New York Times report published Tuesday noted that “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.” These include his ideas for a testing lab to get students back to campus during the peak of the COVID pandemic, and his ultimately empty threat to withhold donations from Harvard fundraisers “because they hadn’t heeded his advice on how to invest an earlier donation.”

The donation, Ackman expounded in a tweet, consisted of $10 million of stock in a private company, Coupang, that Ackman gave to the school in 2017 under the agreement that “if and when the company went public in a few years, if the stock was worth more than $15m, I would have the right to allocate the excess realized value above $15m to the Harvard-related initiative of my choosing.” Harvard’s endowment managers sold this stock in March 2020, and Ackman only learned of that when Coupang readied for an IPO in 2021. Ackman contends that the “the premise of the [Times] story is false” but he “continue[s] to have a serious issue with Harvard” over l’affair Coupang.

What’s the point of all this? I have no doubt Ackman is at least somewhat sincere in his public mission to rout out campus antisemitism; he has often spoken of his upbringing in a Jewish family and about finding a welcome home in Harvard’s Jewish communities. But because I’ve been familiar with Ackman and his punditry for a while now—including his characterization of Kyle Rittenhouse as a “patriot,” his interest in RFK Jr.’s COVID vaccine skepticism, and his 2022 funding of an anti-social-justice financial firm launched by Vivek Ramaswamy, long before the latter’s candidacy—I suspect there’s also something else at play here.

It’s no secret that the famed tech oligarchs of Silicon Valley are miffed by the yearslong “techlash” that’s downgraded them from visionary innovators to profit-seeking manipulators in the eyes of the public, the press, the government, and their own employees. It’s also no secret that, as part of their backlash to that backlash, many of those tech figures have denounced all four of these pillars of society in turn—assuming a reactionary posture where only they deserve to be the overlords of a world gone mad, marking a stark pivot in their political strategies.

Countless absurd, troubling examples of this may be gleaned from just the past few years alone: the persistent support for Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, which has been celebrated by white nationalists as helping to extend the reach of white nationalist messaging; concerted efforts to influence urban politics, starting with attacks on criminal justice reformers in San Francisco and extending to efforts to build techie-utopian cities; and the self-fashioning of these investors and coders into all-around pundits who weigh in on everything from geopolitical conflicts to constitutional law to human health, no matter their (lack of) expertise in the subject matter.

Increasingly, elite Big Tech players are allied with far-right influencers against the Big Tech–skeptical left: A.I. enthusiasts are making common cause with eugenicist philosophers; Silicon Valley is embracing disreputablereporters” like Bari Weiss and Michael Shellenberger; and Musk is actively encouraging antisemitic conspiracy-mongers like Tucker Carlson, Alex Jones, and Kanye West. Now Ackman, too, is boosting his clout and power with the assists of Rufo, Musk, and white nationalist Stephen Miller. That trend, frankly, is far worse for Jewish Americans—including those on Harvard’s campus—than anything President Gay has said or written.