Donors are withdrawing millions of dollars in planned funding to punish US universities for their responses to Hamas’ attack on Israel, in a stand-off over free speech, higher education funding and academic leaders’ public responsibilities.
Billionaire benefactors including Apollo Global Management’s Marc Rowan and Limited Brands founder Leslie Wexner have called for stronger condemnation of Hamas and antisemitism by universities, and tougher action against students protesting against Israel. Law and investment firms have threatened to rescind job offers they had made to students, or not hire protesters when they graduate.
The pressure has left universities including Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford struggling to contain a growing crisis, with some revising earlier statements to be more outspoken.
Others — including free speech advocates and the University of North Carolina Wilmington — have defended principles developed in the 1967 Kalven report for the University of Chicago and since used more widely that colleges should commit to academic freedom and insist on “institutional neutrality on political and social issues”.
On Tuesday, Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, said: “Penn stands emphatically against the terrorist attacks by Hamas in Israel and against antisemitism,” but acknowledged “we should have communicated faster and more broadly about where we stand”.
Her declaration came too late for donors, including Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics heir, who criticised a recent Palestinian literature festival held on campus and said he would pull funding. Others withdrawing support included venture capitalists David Magerman and Jonathon Jacobson, and Jon Huntsman, the former US ambassador to China and ex-governor of Utah, who said he was “closing his checkbook”.
While Apollo’s Rowan called for Magill’s resignation, Blackstone president Jonathan Gray told Bloomberg that she had “made some mistakes” but he would continue donations. Colleagues had raised legitimate concerns about “hate speech masquerading as free speech”, he said, adding: “I think it’s important that university leaders really stand up.”
Wexner, who has a building named after him at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said in an email to the university’s board of overseers that his foundation was “formally ending its financial and programmatic relationships” in view of its “dismal failure . . . to take a clear and unequivocal stand against the barbaric murders of Israeli citizens”.
Last Friday Idan Ofer, the Israeli billionaire who also has a building at the Kennedy School, told CNN he was stepping down from its executive board because of “the lack of clear evidence of support from the University’s leadership for the people of Israel . . . coupled with their apparent unwillingness to recognise Hamas for what it is, a terrorist organisation”.
Such actions have highlighted the influence of donors, who last year contributed $60bn to US universities, and the magnifying pressure from social media on sensitive issues.
Bill Ackman, the hedge fund billionaire, divided opinion online when he called last week on X, formerly Twitter, for Harvard to identify students behind a statement from societies on campus that held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence”. The move was needed “so as to insure that none of us inadvertently hire any of their members”, he argued.
Davis Polk, the law firm, told the Financial Times it had withdrawn job offers to three Harvard and Columbia law school graduates linked to pro-Palestinian statements that expressed views “in direct contravention of our firm’s value system”.
“The student leaders responsible for signing on to these statements are no longer welcome in our firm,” it said.
Liora Rez, executive director of the campaigning group StopAntisemitism, said she was aware of many other donors planning to cut funding. “There will be big hits to endowments. The dominoes are starting to fall. We encourage every single Jewish alum and their allies that until universities stop allowing pro-Hamas demonstrations, close your cheque books.”
She argued that universities remaining silent “had no problems making statements when we saw horrific incidents surrounding the George Floyd murder, with support for African American students during Black Lives Matter [protests]. The only problem they seem to have is when their Jewish students are involved and vilified.”
However, Ken Roth, the former head of Human Rights Watch, defended Chicago’s Kalven principles. The Kennedy school offered and then in January this year withdrew a fellowship for Roth, in a decision he believed the dean took in response to concerns over his criticism of Israel. The dean has since reversed the decision, apologised and announced his plan to step down.
“The bottom line is that university administrations should not get into the business of issuing statements about events in the world,” Roth said. “They just open themselves up to donor pressure. Their job should be to defend academic freedom on their campuses.”
“They should ensure their students are safe from violence, intimidation and harassment, but not from difficult ideas,” he added. “I look to universities to prepare students how to meet difficult ideas and argue against them. Not to close their eyes and ears.”
Lynn Pasquerella, head of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, said: “There’s a demand for people to pick sides. I’ve talked to many [college] presidents saying we knew we would anger some, but the vitriol is extreme. Doxxing students to never hire them, and threatening to withdraw money because of a viewpoint is antithetical to American higher education which is grounded in the unfettered pursuit of truth and the free exchange of ideas.”
Bill George, a former chief executive of medical device group Medtronic and an executive fellow at Harvard Business School, drew a parallel between the reaction to the war between Israel and Hamas and the widespread corporate statements condemning Floyd’s murder in 2020.
“I think it’s incumbent on leaders to make a statement, based on their organisation’s mission, purpose and values. If they don’t speak out, others will and cause more chaos. One can condemn Hamas without condemning Palestinians . . . Timing is essential, and some people have waited too long. Some clarity is important.”
However, he said he had no plans to dissociate himself from his own alma mater, and praised a revised statement by Harvard president Claudine Gay this week, which “drew a nice line between condemning terrorism and supporting freedom of speech, and supporting their students”.
University administrators under the current intense pressures are finding that defending free speech comes at a price. As Josh Wolfe, a venture capitalist pressing his alma mater to be more outspoken in condemning antisemitism, posted on X: “Freedom of speech . . . also means freedom for me — Cornell alum — to close my wallet.”