Culture Wars On Campus Are Raging, and Megadonors Are Key Figures on the Battlefield

Harvard university. Jon Bilous/shutterstock

It’s been roughly three months since powerful billionaire donors first pledged to withhold financial support at their Ivy League alma maters in response to administrators’ actions or inaction in the aftermath of Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel. And while it’s always risky to position developments at a handful of affluent schools as the canaries in the higher ed coal mine, the saga has revealed the extent of the cultural and political conflict unfolding on college campuses — and the unprecedented ways in which wealthy donors are channeling their discontent.

Most notably, we’ve never seen alumni speak out against university leadership to such a public and charged extent, much less succeed in pushing out two presidents — Harvard’s Claudine Gay and the University of Pennsylvania’s Elizabeth Magill. In the case of Gay, alumni like hedge fund manager Bill Ackman found common cause with conservative activists who wielded a finely tuned playbook to stir outrage among the general public, divide and conquer left-leaning stakeholders, and lean on sympathetic politicians to amplify the messaging.

While we’ve seen similar, smaller-scale episodes flaring up for a long time, with mixed results, the “anti-woke” counter-movement in higher ed lacked a spokesperson to articulate long-simmering frustrations among a segment of the alumni community. They have their man with the “ruthless” and “relentless” Ackman, who after leading the charge to oust Gay, has pledged to dive head first into the higher ed culture wars. 

Ackman was not alone in the post-October 7 alumni revolt, but he is emblematic of donor influence on campus shifting from hushed phone calls to open demands, with little apparent concern over backlash. It’s a unique case, but one that’s been building for some time. His and other donors’ recent actions are capitalizing on several currents of anti-academic outrage, shifting higher ed funding dynamics, and decades of much quieter campus-related philanthropy, to make this round of donor backlash successful in a way we’ve never seen before. 

If Ackman and other donors do, in fact, up the ante, this brand of increasingly activist behavior on an array of issues like diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and on campus speech may embolden alumni elsewhere to take a more muscular approach in aligning their alma maters with their values, even if those conversations don’t spill onto the pages of the New York Times

Only time will tell, but there’s now a good amount of evidence pointing to a real shift in the way powerful donors interact with universities, taking a larger role in culture wars underway in many American institutions.  

“More than a billion dollars of terminated donations”

For the first time we can recall, donors contributed to a successful campaign to oust university presidents. On December 9, Penn President Magill and Board of Trustees Chairman Scott Bok, both of whom faced a donation boycott led by billionaire alumnus Marc Rowan, stepped down following the school’s handling of antisemitism before and after the Hamas attack, as well as Magill’s halting congressional testimony on December 5, where, like Gay, she failed to state forcefully that calls for genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy.

On December 10, Ackman sent a letter to Harvard’s governing board of directors, published on X. Among his many criticisms, he excoriated Gay for her response to Hamas’ attack on Israel, congressional testimony and role in establishing the school’s Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB), which, he claimed, “made some members of the Harvard community feel included at the expense of others that are excluded.”

Ackman then reached for the figurative dagger. “President Gay’s failures have led to billions of dollars of cancelled, paused and withdrawn donations to the university,” he wrote. “I am personally aware of more than a billion dollars of terminated donations from a small group of Harvard’s most generous Jewish and non-Jewish alumni.”

Also on December 10, conservative activist Christopher Rufo published a piece on his Substack claiming Gay plagiarized portions of her Ph.D. dissertation and other academic works. The controversy intensified as more apparent missteps came to light in the ensuing weeks. Several academics pointed out that these were relatively mild transgressions within Gay’s important body of work on race and politics, but on January 2, Gay — the first Black president of the 388-year-old university — stepped down, acknowledging mistakes but calling out the relentless attacks she endured amid a broader war on American institutions. Rufo, in his victory lap on X, wrote, “This is the beginning of the end for DEI in America’s institutions.”

We’ll never know how much the threat of withheld donations played in the decision-making process at Penn or Harvard. In the case of Harvard — and if we take Ackman at his word — “billions of dollars” is a lot of money. Sure, the school’s $50 billion-and-change endowment eclipses many countries’ GDPs, but the controversy came at a time when individuals affiliated with the university — including Ackman — have taken administrators to task for its below-market-average returns during what he called “one of the greatest bull markets in history.” In the rarified world of the Ivies where an endowment serves as a benchmark for a school’s prestige, “billions of dollars” in withdrawn donations is a figure that trustees can’t wave away.

To further drive this point home, on January 17, the Wall Street Journal reported that Harvard leaders became worried that the venture capital investors who manage money for the school could sever ties due to the turmoil surrounding Gay. In response, the school’s endowment executives flew out to Silicon Valley to smooth things over. “Gay’s resignation,” the article stated, “has eased the concerns of some managers.”

“A team effort”

Another big takeaway gleaned from recent developments is how Gay and Magill’s resignations, while building on long-simmering trends in higher ed, aren’t culminating events as much as the opening salvos in what promises to be a protracted and intense debate over issues like DEI and on campus speech. Alumni donors are likely to be key players in that debate. 

Speaking to Politico, Rufo, who’s constructed an equally formidable network attacking critical race theory (CRT), called Gay’s resignation “a team effort that involved three primary points of leverage.”  That included narrative leverage coming from himself and other conservative writers, financial leverage coming from Ackman and others donors, and political leverage, “led by Congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s masterful performance with Claudine Gay at her hearings.” Rufo, in essence, took a decades-old playbook in which well-funded conservative think tanks, donors and activists have pushed back against left-leaning views on campus, adapted it for the social media age, and turned up the temperature. Having succeeded in “scalping” Gay — his words — Rufo has pledged to replicate his three-pronged strategy in future battles.

It’s worth remembering that Harvard publicly expressed support for Gay after her congressional testimony. However, that support began to dissipate as Rufo, Ackman and others doubled down on the plagiarism accusations and, perhaps even more consequentially, what they considered to be the malignant influence of DEI.

Part of the reason Rufo’s campaign against Gay succeeded, writes Politico’s Michael Schaffer, is that he was able to exploit fissures between the school’s left and center-left stakeholders like Ackman, a prodigious Democratic donor, on the DEI issue. “The older white guys who aren’t all-in for DEI policies still have some power even in elite progressive outfits,” Shaffer wrote. “Like any coalition, the constellation of folks who make up a university community — or a political party — are not ever going to be on the same page.” 

In other words, when given the right opening, wealthy and powerful moderates who find themselves uneasy with campus diversity efforts and/or certain left-leaning views within academic institutions can wield considerable influence in conference rooms and phone calls without formally aligning themselves with conservative activists. It isn’t a huge leap to envision this dynamic playing out at other schools if — and it’s a big if — DEI is roiling the alumni donor community.

“Broader concerns about higher education generally”

While it’s easy to bemoan the outsized power of megadonors, it’s also worth considering that we could actually be overestimating the influence of givers to shape an issue like diversity and speech on campus. These high-profile resignations may have been mere flukes resulting from a unique series of events, and donor activists seeing blood in the water may have a hard time recruiting enough supporters as they try to escalate their victories into a full-scale war on concepts like DEI and CRT. 

Again, billionaire donors Leslie Wexner, Seth Klarman, Ken Griffin and Len Blavatnik pledged to suspend donations to Harvard due to administrators’ response to Hamas’ attack on Israel. When it comes to DEI, Ackman remains a voice in the wilderness among a billionaire class that usually has zero interest in rocking the boat on hot-button social issues. Moreover, when megadonors do publicly opine on issues like diversity and equity, it’s often in support of efforts to promote inclusion. For example, in 2020, Blavatnik seeded a $100 million fund supporting “charitable causes related to the music industry, social justice and campaigns against violence and racism.” There’s a reason why Ackman hasn’t launched a donor boycott (that we know of) to eliminate DEI at Harvard.

This isn’t to say donors don’t oppose DEI and CRT. We know that some do. But even if a segment of the donor community is sufficiently appalled by either practice to withhold support, I suspect a coordinated campaign would have a limited financial impact. What is likely, however, is that donors will continue to be important chess pieces as these fights play out in the various halls of power. 

In fact, legislators’ zealotry has become so acute that they’ve dragged unwitting donors into the fight. Last year, Wisconsin state representatives tied funding for a new engineering building at the University of Wisconsin — in which donors planned to contribute $150 million — on the condition the system eliminate positions devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion. Donors who believed that UW should upgrade its facilities to attract students and provide local businesses with qualified employees discovered that their gift was, in effect, a bargaining chip. As efforts to dismantle DEI and CRT at state universities intensify — not to mention legal battles resulting from the Supreme Court decisions outlawing affirmative action — the horse trading taking place in Wisconsin may be a harbinger of things to come in states with Republican leadership.

Speaking of harbingers, after Gay stepped aside, Ackman again took to X and called on Harvard’s board to resign. He railed against plagiarism concerns, Harvard’s high tuition, low enrollment levels and paltry endowment returns. And he demanded the dissolution of the school’s DEIB office and the firing of its staff. In a January 12 chat with Aaron Ross Sorkin on CNBC, Ackman said that while he was initially compelled to speak out on antisemitism on campus, he’s now pivoting to “broader concerns about higher education generally.”

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that alumni donors are rapturously awaiting marching orders from Ackman. We still haven’t seen donor boycotts pop up in non-Ivy schools, and if anything, one could argue it’s Ackman who’s late to the party. After giving tens of millions of dollars to Harvard, he’s belatedly joined a movement where alumni have spent years complaining to advancement officers about universities’ leftward shift with little discernible effect on aggregate fundraising returns.

That being said, the mood in the room does feel different. Ackman’s heightened public profile and his “all of the above” critique of higher ed could embolden alumni to take a more forceful tone in their conversations (negotiations?) with advancement officers. Donors have always had a voice in shaping a university’s mission, but with Ackman and his allies in the conservative movement now setting their sights on DEI, campus speech and other contentious issues, that voice may become more confrontational, blatantly transactional and disruptive to the status quo.

In his January 12 interview with Sorkin, Ackman said he’ll be “standing up an organization very shortly” to focus on issues like free speech, DEI, higher ed governance and plagiarism. “It’s going to be an [sic] activist,” he said. “And we’re going to study these issues. And we’re going to come up with solutions to problems and we’re going to implement.”