It has been more than two months since the initial October 7th terrorist attack on Israel by Hamas. Since then, the intensity of public reactions has increased as the war has become a source of controversy, sparking arguments online and in-person protests both in support and opposition to Israel's actions. This divide has extended to college campuses, and as it has become more heated, it has shifted from debate to overt antisemitism and threats. As a response, donors at multiple colleges have pulled their financial support, citing the reason to be the school's inability to fully condemn the Hamas attack and draw clear lines between reasonable discourse and antisemitic hate speech within their student body. However, the withdrawal of these donors is not as positive as it may initially appear as it may lead to universities putting even more weight on their donors' preferences.
At Harvard, the catalyst was an anonymous letter from a coalition of 34 student organizations placing sole blame on Israel for the Hamas attacks. Harvard received significant backlash especially after its President Claudine Gay and senior leadership did not address the letter in their public statement. This led to numerous alumni criticizing Harvard leadership’s failure to respond. In a letter to the school, Senator Mitt Romney, hedge fund manager Seth Klarman, and three other Harvard business school alumni criticized the school for allowing Jewish students to be harassed. The Wexner Foundation has stopped their donations, and Former Governor Larry Hogan announced Monday that he will no longer partner with Harvard’s Kennedy School and the Chan School of Public Health. Additionally, Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer and his wife resigned from the executive board. Also, the founder of Billionaire Citadel Ken Griffin, CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management Bill Ackerman, and CEO of Sweetgreen Jonathan Neman, all demanded to know which students signed the letter so that their company would never hire them. After Griffin called on President Gay for a more supportive statement on the crisis, she issued a stronger condemnation of the terror attacks, but still refused to name the students.
The University of Pennsylvania was already facing criticism weeks before the Hamas attack, for hosting speakers at the Palestinian Writes Literature festival that openly expressed antisemitic beliefs. Alumni then became increasingly angry with the school after their delayed response, which they believed did not express enough support for Israel. Marc Rowan, the chief of Apollo Global Management halted his donations after claiming that Penn was overlooking the concerns of the Jewish community, and called for alumni to cut their donations down to one dollar and join his demand for the resignation of President Liz Magill and the chairman of the board of trustees, Scott L. Bok. Since then, many of Penn’s benefactors have pulled their support including philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf, cofounder of Differential Ventures David Magerman, founder of HighSage Venture Jonathan Jacobson, founder of EMU Health Daniel Lowy, and founder of AQR Capital Clifford Asness. In response to this backlash, the university released another statement referring to Hamas' violence as a "terrorist" attack for the first time, emphasizing that the university does not share the opinion of speakers at the festival, and reaffirming their stand against antisemitism.
The withdrawal of support from these universities by donors carries significant implications as these funds contribute to the financing of facilities, faculty research, student aid programs, and various other essential aspects of the university. This financial backing holds particular importance for universities, for example, at Harvard, where philanthropy is the single largest contributor to revenue. These donors absolutely have the right to retract their financial support and disassociate from the universities if they believe them to not represent their values. In some ways, this is positive, as it holds the schools accountable for their actions. However, the concern arises when schools alter their public stances on issues under the influence of their financial backers, which isn't always in the best interest of academic integrity.