Donor Exodus From Ivy League Gathering Pace Amid Accusations of ‘Moral Failure’ Over Hamas Attack

‘I do not like making something like this about money,’ writes billionaire Clifford Asness, ‘but it appears to be one of the only paths that has any hope of mattering.’

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for IRC
The co-founder of AQR Capital Management, Cliff Asness, left, on November 5, 2014 at New York City. Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for IRC

The exodus of big money donors to universities over their failure to adequately condemn Hamas’ terror attacks on October 7 is gathering pace, as the University of Pennsylvania emerges at the center of the fray. 

In the latest developments, the Sun has learned that Daniel Lowy, founder of EMU health and a Wharton alum, is ceasing all donations to Penn because of antisemitism on campus. Another billionaire, Clifford Asness of AQR Capital, says he will be ending his donations to Penn because of the university’s “hosting an antisemitic Burning Man festival.”

That is an allusion to the Palestine Writes Literature Festival held at Penn in September. Mr. Asness’s statement follows the decision to halt funding of Penn by a “multi-seven figure” donor, Jonathan Jacobson of a private investment firm called High Sage Ventures, who calls Penn “virtually unrecognizable today.”

“I’ve recently finished a large five-year pledge to Penn and will not be considering another until such meaningful change is evident,” Mr. Asness writes in a letter to Penn’s president, Elizabeth 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.”

These moves come in the wake of billionaire Marc Rowan halting his funding, to be followed by the foundation of the family of Jon Huntsman Jr., a major political figure and former American ambassador to China and Russia. Both Messrs. Rowan and Huntsman have made enormous contributions to Penn over the years.

It’s hard to estimate what impact these gestures are making. So far the donations being withheld are a tiny percentage of Penn’s endowment of $21 billion. The gestures are being met — judging by the public statements from the school — with more than indifference but without changes, at least so far, in the university’s leadership.

It is not hard, though, to note the newsworthiness of what is happening. This is the first time anything of this scale has been launched by major donors over the problem of antisemitism in the Ivy League. 

“Imagine Penn’s action if that event was as anti-anyone else other than Jews!? Hiding behind ‘free speech’ when it is a right only embraced for antisemites and other fellow travelers is not ok,” Mr. Asness writes in a letter to Penn’s president, Elizabeth Magill. “I’ve recently finished a large five-year pledge to Penn and will not be considering another until such meaningful change is evident.” 

The Penn administration, Mr. Jacobson writes, “has shown no leadership, moral courage or an ability to distinguish between what is clearly right and clearly wrong.” Mr. Jacobson also slams UPenn’s president for her slow response in condemning Hamas’s brutal terrorist attacks and for her “inept handling” of a Palestinian Writers’ Festival on campus with known antisemitic speakers.

“Enclosed is a check for $1 which represent the first installment of a multi-year pledge which we will renew until you find employment elsewhere and the Board of Trustees grows the backbone to fulfill its mission,” the letter says.

This sarcasm comes just days after the chairman of the Wharton School at UPenn’s Board of Advisors, billionaire Marc Rowan, started the donors’ revolt by publishing an op-ed in the Philly Voice calling on alumni donors to only give $1 to the university instead of their usual gifts. Mr. Rowan has donated $50 million to UPenn.

“It took less than two weeks to go from the Palestinian Writes Literary Festival on UPenn’s campus to the barbaric slaughter and kidnapping of Israelis,” Mr. Rowan writes. “In our viral, online world, it is especially dangerous when once-fringe ideologies receive a stamp of legitimacy and a cultural justification that allows hate-filled ideas to spread as acceptable alternatives.”

Ms. Magill released a statement ahead of the Palestinian Writers’ Festival condemning antisemitism but saying the right to free speech prevails. Over the weekend, facing backlash from alumni and top donors, Ms. Magill released another statement acknowledging the university “should have moved faster” to condemn the festival.

“I know how painful the presence of these speakers on Penn’s campus was for the Jewish community,” Ms. Magill wrote. “I, and this University, are horrified by and condemn Hamas’s terrorist assault on Israel and their violent atrocities against civilians.”

Mr. Jacobson, though, calls this about-face “too little, too late.” He writes that “the cynic in me suggests that the prospect of losing your job, not some newfound bout of moral clarity, was the driving factor behind this 180-degree pivot.”

Billionaire Ronald Lauder, a cosmetics tycoon and president of the World Jewish Congress, is also threatening to pull funding to the University of Pennsylvania. This could be a substantial loss for Penn. The Lauder family has donated to the university for more than four decades and founded the school’s Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management & International Studies.

In a letter obtained by the Sun, Mr. Lauder writes that hosting the Palestinian Writers’ Festival “has put a deep stain on Penn’s reputation that will take a long time to repair.”

“You are forcing me to reexamine my financial support absent satisfactory measures to address antisemitism at the university,” Mr. Lauder writes.

A former American ambassador to China and graduate in 1987 of Penn, Jon Huntsman, says the Huntsman Foundation “will close its checkbook on all future giving to Penn.” Mr. Huntsman has been such a prolific donor to the university in the past that a main building at Wharton is named after him. 

“Moral relativism has fueled the university’s race to the bottom and sadly now has reached a point where remaining impartial is no longer an option,” Mr. Huntsman writes in a letter to Ms. Magill.  

David Magerman, who helped build the trading systems of Renaissance Technologies, is also closing his wallet to UPenn. In a letter to Ms. Magill and the university’s board chairman, Scott Bok, Mr. Magerman writes that he is “deeply ashamed” of his association with UPenn. 

The founder of EMU health, a Wharton alumnus, and a scion of the billionaire Lowy family, Daniel Lowy is also ceasing all donations to UPenn. In a letter to President Magill obtained by the Sun, Mr. Lowy decries the “broken culture at Penn” that has “allowed anti-Semites to foment hatred on campus and to fool administration into hiding behind the banner of free speech.”

“Our family had often discussed how we wished to grow our support for Penn and Wharton, with the ultimate goal of making the university the center of our philanthropic and civic efforts,” the letter says, announcing that he will instead “stop supporting Penn.”

Harvard is also facing the wrath of its top-dollar donors. This comes after more than 30 Harvard student groups signed a joint letter blaming Israel for the atrocities committed by Hamas. The university’s slow response to condemn the letter sparked outrage from many alumni and from Harvard’s former president, Larry Summers.

The Victoria’s Secret founder, Lex Wexner, is the latest billionaire to announce he will no longer be donating to the university. Mr. Wexner and his wife Abigail founded the Wexner Foundation, which has donated generously to Harvard’s Kennedy School for 34 years and sponsors 10 students annually to complete a fellowship to “provide Israel’s next generation of public leaders.”

In a letter Monday to Harvard’s Board of Overseers, the Wexner Foundation criticizes the university’s president, Claudine Gay, for her “tiptoeing, equivocating” response to the attacks by Hamas and the student group letter. It says the foundation is terminating the Wexner fellowship and all future donations.

“We are stunned and sickened by the dismal failure of Harvard’s leadership to take a clear and unequivocal stance against the barbaric murders of innocent Israeli civilians,” the letter says. “In the absence of this clear moral stand, we have determined that the Harvard Kennedy School and the Wexner Foundation are no longer compatible partners.”

On Friday, Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer announced that he and his wife are resigning from Harvard’s Kennedy School executive board in protest of the university’s response to the October 7 attacks. “Unfortunately, our faith in the university’s leadership has been broken and we cannot in good faith continue to support Harvard and its committees,” the couple said in a statement to CNN.

The billionaire chief executive at Citadel, Ken Griffin, the New York Times reports, spoke with the senior fellow on Harvard’s board, Penny Pritzker, to pressure the school to take a stronger stance against the terrorist attacks by Hamas. Mr. Griffin has either donated, or pledged to give, some $500 million to the university, including a pledge of $300 million this year alone. Harvard did not immediately return the Sun’s request for comment.

Billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman is also pressuring the university to release the names of members of the student groups that signed the letter blaming Israel for the attacks. Mr. Ackman and other chief executives are pledging not to hire these students.

While both Harvard and UPenn have large endowments, the prospect of losing some of their biggest donors could spark change, or at least change in university leadership.

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use