Bill Ackman’s Campaign Against Harvard Followed Years of Resentment

In the two-month battle over the fate of Harvard’s president, the billionaire investor William A. Ackman has cast himself as a protector of Jewish students and the standard-bearer for people who believe colleges have fostered a hostile atmosphere for critics of liberal orthodoxy.

But behind his anger are 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.

Most recently, this includes how to respond to complaints of antisemitism and the specter of 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.

Those sensitive to the perception that a wealthy alumnus could exert such influence over the school mounted a campaign to back Dr. Gay. Mr. Ackman maintains support from some corners of campus, including Jewish groups who feel that the university was too slow to forcefully condemn the Hamas attack and has since equivocated on threatened violence against Jewish students. Mr. Ackman noted that he met with 230 Jewish students in a town hall on a recent trip to campus.

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