Alumni Respond to University Leaders for Failing to Condemn Antisemitism

On December 5, 2023, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing entitled “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism.” Legislators grilled the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about their response to a dramatic rise in antisemitism on campuses following the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas that killed 1,200 Israelis. In her opening statement, Chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) said that while universities have “stoked the flames” about anti-racism in recent years, it is now “clear that Jews are at the bottom of the totem pole and without protection under this critical theory framework.”  

While lawmakers look for ways to protect Jewish students on campus and hold university leaders accountable, university alumni and board members have been demanding action for months. As Philanthropy Roundtable wrote recently, some philanthropic donors are withholding their donations to colleges and universities to show administrators that antisemitism will not be tolerated at the institutions they support.  

Below are examples of several prominent universities that are facing scrutiny from donors.  

Columbia University 

Columbia University is one of seven colleges and universities now facing federal inquiries over allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia. While few details about the investigation are available, they follow a string of incidents, including one professor describing the brutal Hamas terror attack as a “stunning victory,” and according to police, an Israeli student who was beaten with a stick.  

An open letter signed by 160 Columbia and Bernard College faculty also backed the school’s Palestine Solidarity Groups after that group was accused of antisemitism and the identities of some of its members were disclosed publicly. As scrutiny from alumni rose, Columbia University suspended Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) through the end of the fall term for violating campus policy by organizing a walkout and protests that included threatening rhetoric and intimidation toward Jewish students on campus. Columbia also announced a Task Force on Antisemitism, but many argue it is not enough.  

One notable donor who has been vocal in his opposition to growing antisemitism on campus is Columbia alumnus and billionaire hedge fund manager Leon Cooperman. Earlier this fall, he said he would no longer donate unless Columbia took swift and severe action to combat antisemitism. Over his lifetime, Cooperman estimated he has given Columbia $50 million in total donations. 

Harvard University 

Editor’s note: On January 2, 2024, Claudine Gay announced her resignation as Harvard University president.

The October 7 events were met with praise by 33 student groups at Harvard who signed a letter written by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee, which said Israel is “entirely responsible” for the attacks and the war unfolding in the region. Over 500 Harvard students also organized a walk out and “stop the genocide in Gaza” demonstration, which resulted in incidents of violence and arrests.  

It was not until Tuesday, three days after the student group’s letter was first posted, that Harvard President Claudine Gay addressed the matter directly with a short statement condemning the attacks by Hamas. Many, including senior chairman of Goldman Sachs and Harvard donor Lloyd Blankfein, argued the statement was too late and not strong enough, as it failed to condemn the students who signed the letter or promised any action. In response to intense criticism, Gay released a plan on November 9 to combat antisemitism on campus by forming an Antisemitism Advisory Group. Subsequently, an open letter signed by 101 Harvard faculty members condemned Gay for speaking out against the pro-Palestine slogan “from the river to the sea.”  

In 2022, philanthropy accounted for 45% of the university’s $5.8 billion in income. But the landscape for donors is different this year, as some are threatening to pull their funding, including a group of 1,600 Jewish alumni.   

In October, Leslie Wexner, founder and chairman of L-Brands, along with his wife Abigail Wexner of the Wexner Foundation, wrote a letter to the Harvard Board of Overseers ending their financial relationship over Harvard’s initial response to the attack. They wrote, “We are stunned and sickened at the dismal failure of Harvard’s leadership to take a clear and unequivocal stand against the barbaric murders of innocent Israeli civilians by terrorists last Saturday, the Sabbath and a festival day.”  

On November 4, Harvard alumnus, donor and billionaire hedge fund CEO Bill Ackman wrote an open letter saying Harvard’s tolerance of antisemitism has “emboldened this antisemitic subset of the community to escalate their antisemitic actions.” In the letter, he urged Gay to do more to protect Jewish students and hold Hamas sympathizers accountable. “As Harvard’s leader, your words and actions are followed closely,” he wrote. “As a result, the steps you take to address antisemitism at Harvard will be recognized around the world, and can contribute greatly as an example to other institutions seeking to eliminate antisemitism in all of its forms.” Ackman was a vocal supporter of releasing the names of students who signed the letter praising Hamas in an effort to warn potential employers.   

Legendary investor, co-founder of the hedge fund Baupost Group and Harvard alumnus and donor Seth Klarman co-wrote an open letter condemning Harvard’s initial silence as “expressions of hate and vitriol against Jews” on campus raged. “Despite these serious concerns, university leadership shockingly has been paralyzed,” the letter, with over 900 signatures, stated. Other authors of the letter included alumni Sen. Mitt Romney, venture capitalist Bill Helman, former Bain Capital managing director Mark Nunnelly and philanthropist Joanna Jacobson. 

University of Pennsylvania  

In September 2023, the University of Pennsylvania hosted a multi-day Palestine Writes Literature Festival featuring speakers who had “a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism.” Many donors and alumni have been quick to say UPenn eventually condemned antisemitism on its campus in the wake of the October 7 Hamas attack, but not the festival or its speakers. Since then, some donors have called for the resignations of university president Liz Magill and chairman of the school’s board of trustees, Scott Bok. Magill eventually resigned, following her much criticized testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Apollo CEO Marc Rowan, one of the university’s biggest benefactors, is one of those donors. He has pulled financial support of the university and has called on others to “Close their Checkbooks” until Magill and Bok resign. As more donors join Rowan, the New York Post estimates UPenn could lose $1 billion in funding. In a recent interview with Bloomberg Television, Rowan said, “The underlying culture that permitted this to happen is so strong,” In 2018, Rowan gave the school its single largest gift ever with a $50 million dollar donation.   

Another notable UPenn donor calling for Magill’s resignation is venture capital firm HighSage Ventures founder Jonathon Jacobson. Jacobson wrote a letter to Magill saying he would donate only $1 a year to the school instead of his typical “multi-seven figure” donation unless she resigned.  

Co-founder and managing partner of Differential Ventures and alumnus David Magerman also wrote a letter to Magill, stating, “My only conclusion, from your fierce support for the Hamas-affiliated speakers at the Palestine Writes festival, followed by your equivocating statements about the heinous acts of barbarism perpetrated by the same Hamas you allowed these speakers to promote, from your failure to call out evil, is that you are ambivalent to the unprecedented evil their acts represent.” He has pulled his funding, saying he is “deeply ashamed” by his alma mater, and he hopes “all self-respecting Jews” disassociate themselves from the university. 

Alumnus and billionaire Ronald Lauder also pulled his funding from the university, saying in a statement, “I have spent the past 40 years of my life fighting antisemitism around the world and I never, in my wildest imagination, thought I would have to fight it at my university, my alma mater and my family’s alma mater.” Similarly, former Utah governor, U.S. ambassador to China and Russia and UPenn alumnus Jon Huntsman wrote a letter to Magill stating his foundation is halting donations and calling the university “unrecognizable.”  

In response to Magill’s testimony before Congress, Ross Stevens, founder and CEO of Stone Ridge Asset Management, UPenn alumni and donor pulled a gift in the form of limited partnership units in Stone Ridge estimated around $100 million. A letter from Stevens’ lawyers says he will not reconsider his stance until a new president is in place. His attorneys also write: “[The university’s] permissive approach to hate speech calling for violence against Jews and laissez faire attitude toward harassment and discrimination against Jewish students would violate any policies or rules that prohibit harassment and discrimination based on religion, including those of Stone Ridge.” 

Cliff Asness, UPenn alumnus and founder of AQR Capital Management, said in his letter to Magill, “I do not like making something like this about money — but it appears to be one of the only paths that has any hope of mattering, and it has become clear that is the only voice some of us have.”  

The hearing in front of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce has done little to allay the concerns of donors about the state of America’s higher-education institutions. “The presidents’ answers reflect the profound educational, moral and ethical failures that pervade certain of our elite educational institutions due in large part to their failed leadership,” Ackman wrote on X (previously Twitter). “They must all resign in disgrace.” Higher education leaders must learn from their mistakes, and quickly. Donors will not be backing down from this issue any time soon. 

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