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Columbia University’s Low Library in 1926. (Photo by Irving Browning/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)

Can a Donor Revolt Save American Universities?

After universities both-sides the mass slaughter of Jews, Bill Ackman, Jon Huntsman, and others are saying ‘the buck stops here.’

Since the beginning of The Free Press, we have paid particular attention to the story of institutional capture—specifically, to the story of how America’s great institutions of higher education, charged with educating the country’s future leaders, have been taken hostage by an illiberal ideology that has replaced the pursuit of truth with moral confusion and knee-jerk social justice activism. 

 In the days since Hamas began its war on Israel, we have seen that ideology in full blossom as students have cheered for terrorists on the quad and administrators have tried, for the first time, to stay out of it.

The reaction has alarmed university donors. One of them is Marc Rowan, who sits on the Wharton School’s board of overseers. He made news in our pages earlier this week when he announced he was closing his checkbook—and urged other people of conscience to do the same. Some, as you will read below, have followed suit. 

Who will be next? And has the woke bill finally come due? — BW

For years, even though the far left never had real political power, social and cultural power were all theirs. Fortune 500 CEOs bent the knee—literally, during the summer of 2020. NPR aired breathless segments with academics who defended looting, or argued for the destruction of the nuclear family. The more extreme you were, the more attention you got. 

So when Hamas brutally murdered babies, raped women, and took the disabled as hostages, it was business as usual, at least on America’s college campuses. Silence from the universities; cruel and maximalist rhetoric from left-wing student groups.

But then something weird happened. People started to say no. 

It began with Bill Ackman, the hedge fund billionaire, who had been doomscrolling since news of the attacks first broke. On Tuesday, he came across an open letter, signed by over thirty student groups from Harvard—his alma mater—which blamed Israelis for their own murders.

“We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” the Harvard statement read. “The apartheid regime is the only one to blame.” 

Ackman and his friends exchanged incredulous texts. 

“I have been asked by a number of CEOs if @harvard would release a list of the members of each of the Harvard organizations that have issued the letter assigning sole responsibility for Hamas’ heinous acts to Israel, so as to insure that none of us inadvertently hire any of their members,” Ackman tweeted. “If, in fact, their members support the letter they have released, the names of the signatories should be made public so their views are publicly known.”

A dozen CEOs quickly joined Ackman.

A few hours later, Ryna Workman, the president of NYU’s Student Bar Association, learned that Winston & Strawn, the corporate law firm that had offered her a six-figure job, rescinded its offer. Not long after, the Bar Association removed her as president.

This was the new cost of publicly supporting Hamas, as Workman had done in an email sent to the entire law school: “Hi y’all,” Workman wrote, in a newsletter that should have been about study breaks and internship opportunities. “I want to express, first and foremost, my unwavering and absolute solidarity with Palestinians.” Workman went on to say that “Israel bears full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life.” This before the charred bodies were even in the ground.

While schools like Northwestern and Stanford may not have had the moral clarity to condemn Hamas, Playboy cut ties with the porn star Mia Khalifa for cheerleading the massacres in Israel.

Journalists—yes, journalists—who wouldn’t have dared cross the party line suddenly broke hard. Even TMZ got in on the game. 

NPR hosts and Los Angeles Times reporters (Misha Euceph and Adam Elmahrek, say their names), who assumed they would always be on the right side of history, were relegated to hysterical arguments about whether murdered babies were or were not decapitated. 

Normies came out of the woodwork—from my favorite jewelry store owner to Sopranos fan sites to artists and comedians to any number of household names. LeBron James. The Rock. Reese Witherspoon.

Back at Harvard, all those students who hadn’t thought twice about putting their names on a pro-murder statement were in a blind panic. Some tried to explain away their participation. Before long, not a single public signatory to the original statement remained.

There’s more than a little schadenfreude in watching would-be corporate lawyers realize that they do not, in fact, enjoy the Mandate of Heaven. All it took was a single rescinded job offer to reveal America’s pitchfork-wielding socialists as the careerist weasels they always were. 

Ryna Workman walked into a wall so they could all run away.

For years now, liberals and centrists have been mutely seething. “Discussions about these issues have been happening quietly,” Ackman told me. “Problems related to the woke movement, the impact on college campuses, have been bemoaned but not acted upon. People didn’t speak out publicly.” 

We all know the feeling. The hushed whispers as two liberal acquaintances suss each other out, discovering that neither quite believes that natal men should compete in athletics against women, that not all cops are bad.

“You’d see some ridiculous statement, and you’d laugh it off,” Ackman explained. “But people are dying. People are being raped. People are being mass murdered.”

Liberals and centrists seem to have paid attention to conservative boycotts of Bud Light and Target. Then came the scandal surrounding Ibram Kendi’s antiracism center at Boston University. Having burned through over $20 million, he now faces an inquiry from the university. Kendi’s disgrace cracked the window—and the horrific responses to the Hamas attacks opened the door. 

And yet it is only now—after all the histrionic and outraged statements about #MeToo and BLM and Ukraine and Roe v. Wade—that universities are discovering the virtue of institutional neutrality.

“Our university embraces a commitment to free expression,” Harvard president Claudine Gay said of the pro-Hamas protests on campus. “That commitment extends even to views that many of us find objectionable, even outrageous.” This is, to put it gently, a newfound commitment. Just four years ago, the institution she runs sided with the illiberal mob, and opened an investigation into a law school dean after he joined Harvey Weinstein’s legal defense. 

“I do not foresee that I will be issuing statements on political, geopolitical, or social issues that do not directly impact the core mission of our University,” Northwestern President Michael Schill wrote in a public message to senior university leadership. 

“In recent years, many universities have gotten into the habit of issuing frequent statements about news events,” read Stanford’s long-delayed statement. “This creates a number of difficulties. . . . It can enmesh universities in politics and create a sense of institutional orthodoxy that chills academic freedom.”

What strange timing.

For years, the woke left has incessantly appealed to these sorts of authorities to take strident positions on the Current Thing and to squelch dissent of anyone who disagreed. The same people who denounced you as a conspiracy theorist for thinking that Covid might have come from a lab, who have framed and memed every issue, no matter how tangential, through the lens of racial essentialism (including murdered Israeli civilians, as “settler-colonialists,” can never be innocent), are claiming they are the victims now.

Don’t let them. 

Because when the furor dies down, Ryna Workman and her fellow travelers will, no doubt, find suitably remunerative positions. Already the so-called blacklist is being walked back. 

As perhaps it should be. We need neutral institutions. And the silence of Harvard or Northwestern or Stanford matters only insofar as how vocal they’ve been about other issues. In what world should a student body president—or a university administrator or an HR lady or a PR flack—set the terms of our political discourse? 

Maybe, just maybe, a new equilibrium can be reached. Maybe we can agree that political litmus tests for employment are bad, that requiring DEI statements is bad, that not every organization and every individual needs to comment on every political issue.

Until then, Penn offers an example of what a turning point might look like. 

Marc Rowan, the chair of the board of overseers at Wharton who, in 2018, donated $50 million to the business school, called in these pages for donors to close their checkbooks until the university’s leadership changes.

Just yesterday, Vahan Gureghian, a member of Penn’s board of trustees, resigned. He cited the school’s “broken moral compass.” 

The Huntsman family, for whom the main building at Wharton is named, described their alma mater as “unrecognizable” and announced they would “close its checkbook on all future giving to Penn.”

“The University’s silence in the face of reprehensible and historic Hamas evil against the people of Israel (when the only response should be outright condemnation) is a new low,” the family said in a statement.

“None of these institutions are solvent without the support of their alumni,” Ackman said of the brewing donor revolt. “Perhaps this is the beginning of a catalyst for change.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article linked to an email from a 2021 graduate of Harvard who had contacted a former professor to discuss her fear, as she was being accused of signing the Harvard statement. She did not, in fact, sign the statement. The Free Press regrets the error.

Jacob Savage is a writer living in Los Angeles. 

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