Bill Ackman calls for comprehensive reform at Harvard University, citing deep concerns over DEI

'I ultimately concluded that antisemitism was not the core of the problem, it was simply a troubling warning sign – it was the 'canary in the coal mine' – despite how destructive it was in impacting student life and learning on campus,' Ackman wrote.

Bill Ackman calls for comprehensive reform at Harvard University, citing deep concerns over DEI
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Pershing Square CEO and billionaire investor Bill Ackman has publicly articulated his profound disquiet about the prevailing ideological and leadership crises at Harvard University, a stance that culminated in advocating for the resignation of its President, Claudine Gay. Ackman's apprehensions, detailed in a series of posts on X, emerged sharply in response to actions from Harvard's student organizations and the university's administrative responses.

Ackman's journey from concern to activism began when 34 Harvard student organizations swiftly declared public support for Hamas, immediately following the October 7 attack on Israel. This unexpected endorsement by such a significant portion of the student body left Ackman pondering the ideological landscape of Harvard, a place where such radical beliefs seemed to flourish unchecked.

In a revealing post, Ackman recounted his initial shock: “I first became concerned about Harvard when 34 Harvard student organizations, early on the morning of October 8th before Israel had taken any military actions in Gaza, came out publicly in support of Hamas... How could this be?" This rhetorical question marked the start of his deeper investigation into the ideological underpinnings permeating Harvard's culture.

As Ackman delved into the unfolding events at Harvard, he observed a disturbing trend of anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiments on campus. Protests that began as pro-Palestine swiftly transitioned into anti-Israel movements, subsequently morphing into outright antisemitism. Ackman noted how such sentiments were not just fringe elements but were becoming increasingly mainstream, disrupting the lives and studies of Jewish and Israeli students and the broader student body. This, in his view, was exacerbated by the administration's tepid response to the violations of Harvard's codes of conduct, further emboldening the protesters.

"I ultimately concluded that antisemitism was not the core of the problem, it was simply a troubling warning sign – it was the 'canary in the coal mine' – despite how destructive it was in impacting student life and learning on campus," Ackman wrote.

Turning his critique towards the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives at Harvard, Ackman expressed his disillusionment with what he initially believed to be a positive force. His understanding evolved as he observed DEI in practice, noting it to be a political advocacy movement with a reductive oppressor-oppressed worldview. This framework, as Ackman interpreted, inherently categorized individuals based on race, gender, and sexuality, often sidelining the broader, more inclusive notion of diversity that encompasses a range of experiences, viewpoints, and backgrounds.

"I came to learn that the root cause of antisemitism at Harvard was an ideology that had been promulgated on campus, an oppressor/oppressed framework, that provided the intellectual bulwark behind the protests, helping to generate anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hate speech and harassment," he stated. "Then I did more research. The more I learned, the more concerned I became, and the more ignorant I realized I had been about DEI, a powerful movement that has not only pervaded Harvard, but the educational system at large. I came to understand that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion was not what I had naively thought these words meant."

Ackman's criticism extended to the broader implications of DEI, which he argued, has permeated educational, corporate, and governmental institutions with its divisive ideology. He expressed concern over the movement's binary view of racism, the labeling of virtually all systemic structures as inherently racist based on outcome disparities, and the chilling effect on free speech and thought diversity this engenders.

"Under DEI, one’s degree of oppression is determined based upon where one resides on a so-called intersectional pyramid of oppression where whites, Jews, and Asians are deemed oppressors, and a subset of people of color, LGBTQ people, and/or women are deemed to be oppressed. Under this ideology which is the philosophical underpinning of DEI as advanced by Ibram X. Kendi and others, one is either an anti-racist or a racist. There is no such thing as being 'not racist,'" he added.

In his extensive commentary, Ackman reflected on his personal commitment to diversity and philanthropy, underscoring his life-long dedication to supporting disadvantaged communities through substantial financial contributions and advocacy. He argued for a merit-based system that genuinely uplifts rather than imposes equality of outcomes, which he views as fundamentally flawed and detrimental to the societal fabric.

The billionaire investor also provided a critique of Harvard's leadership, particularly focusing on the selection of President Claudine Gay. He questioned the criteria and process, suggesting a broader and more inclusive approach to selecting university leadership, one that goes beyond the academic sphere to include individuals with diverse business and management experiences.

"This appears to have been the case with former President Gay’s selection. She did not possess the leadership skills to serve as Harvard’s president, putting aside any questions about her academic credentials. This became apparent shortly after October 7th, but there were many signs before then when she was Dean of the faculty," wrote Ackman. "The result was a disaster for Harvard and for Claudine Gay."

Ackman concluded his exhaustive commentary with a call for significant reforms at Harvard. He advocated for the closure of the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging, a return to a meritocratic ethos, the adoption of comprehensive constitutional reforms akin to those proposed by the University of Pennsylvania faculty, and a commitment to true academic freedom and diversity of thought.

Ackman wrote:

So what should happen?

The Corporation Board should not remain in their seats protected by the unusual governance structure which enabled them to obtain their seats.

The Board Chair, Penny Pritzker, should resign along with the other members of the board who led the campaign to keep Claudine Gay, orchestrated the strategy to threaten the media, bypassed the process for evaluating plagiarism, and otherwise greatly contributed to the damage that has been done. Then new Corporation board members should be identified who bring true diversity, viewpoint and otherwise, to the board.

The Board should not be principally comprised of individuals who share the same politics and views about DEI. The new board members should be chosen in a transparent process with the assistance of the 30-person Board of Overseers. There is no reason the Harvard board of 12 independent trustees cannot be comprised of the most impressive, high integrity, intellectually and politically diverse members of our country and globe. We have plenty of remarkable people to choose from, and the job of being a director just got much more interesting and important. It is no longer, nor should it ever have been, an honorary and highly political sinecure.

The ODEIB should be shut down, and the staff should be terminated. The ODEIB has already taken down much of the ideology and strategies that were on its website when I and others raised concerns about how the office operates and who it does and does not represent. Taking down portions of the website does not address the fundamentally flawed and racist ideology of this office, and calls into further question the ODEIB’s legitimacy.

Why would the ODEIB take down portions of its website when an alum questioned its legitimacy unless the office was doing something fundamentally wrong or indefensible?

Harvard must once again become a meritocratic institution which does not discriminate for or against faculty or students based on their skin color, and where diversity is understood in its broadest form so that students can learn in an environment which welcomes diverse viewpoints from faculty and students from truly diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Harvard must create an academic environment with real academic freedom and free speech, where self-censoring, speech codes, and cancel culture are forever banished from campus.

Harvard should become an environment where all students of all persuasions feel comfortable expressing their views and being themselves. In the business world, we call this creating a great corporate culture, which begins with new leadership and the right tone at the top. It does not require the creation of a massive administrative bureaucracy.

These are the minimum changes necessary to begin to repair the damage that has been done.

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