Theodore Brita

In a recent column, I discussed the need for closer ties between everyone in the Binghamton University community. The division that Binghamton experienced last fall was not a unique phenomenon in American higher education. Harvard University’s first Black president, Claudine Gay, was forced to resign after facing enormous pressure from alumni regarding her handling of campus divisions that emerged after Oct. 7, 2023. These concerns soon snowballed into claims by conservative educational activist Christopher Rufo that Gay had committed nearly 50 instances of plagiarism in her academic writings, which was ostensibly the reason she resigned. Another of the loudest voices who echoed Rufo’s claims was Harvard alum Bill Ackman, who founded and runs the Pershing Square Capital Management hedge fund and has a net worth of $4.2 billion. Ackman is fully entitled to his opinions about Gay and her leadership, but his use of his influence to force her to resign sets a dangerous precedent for American higher education and broader society.

Ackman himself said that other than “the torch stuff” that occurred during Donald Trump’s time as president, he did not think much about antisemitism before October 2023. But after a letter signed by numerous Harvard student groups blaming the Israeli government for the violence that took place on Oct. 7 was published, Ackman and numerous other alumni were highly upset. The next day, Ackman posted on X to demand that the names of the signatories be made public. Perhaps the student organizations at Harvard should have worded their letter in a more conciliatory fashion. While this is true, it is also certainly true that a billionaire should not be using his massive platform in a Kevin McCarthy-esque manner in an attempt to dox undergraduate students. Other activists saw Ackman’s outrage as an opportunity. The aforementioned anti-Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) crusader Rufo used Ackman’s financial leverage, his findings that Gay may have plagiarized and political pressure from conservative members of Congress to begin a campaign to force Gay out of Harvard. In Rufo’s own words, he engaged in tactics of “shaming and bullying [his] colleagues on the left” to cover Gay’s alleged plagiarism. Although Rufo certainly played a large part, it is also highly unlikely that Gay would have faced the pressure she did without Ackman endorsing Rufo’s message to his over 1 million followers on social media. What happened next is only further indicative of the way Ackman sees the world.

Shortly after Bill Ackman amplified the accusations of plagiarism against Claudine Gay, Business Insider (BI) published an article that detailed how Ackman’s wife Neri Oxman stole work from various sources in her academic writings. Their analysis of Oxman’s work found that her plagiarism may actually have been more serious than Gay’s. Instead of simply accepting the accusations, Ackman threatened Business Insider with predictions that it would “go bankrupt and be liquidated” and later stated his intention to sue the publication for defamation. While Ackman has not yet gone through with a lawsuit, Business Insider’s parent company Axel Springer did review the article before ultimately standing by BI’s reporting. Ackman could have acknowledged the article and not have had any sort of response to it. Instead, he sought to bully a publication for accurate and fair reporting simply because he did not like its contents. The fact that he even managed to get Axel Springer to review the article is highly unusual and not a positive harbinger for the future.

Bill Ackman is perfectly entitled to his opinions about his alma mater, DEI and plagiarism. But he should not be able to act this strongly against people who disagree with him. Ackman’s recent theatrics have set the stage for any billionaire with enough financial or social clout to essentially blacklist people they disagree with. American institutions such as universities and newspapers must stand up to those billionaires who try to bully them into submission to their goals and ideas. Money can buy a lot of things. It should not be able to buy outside influence on issues billionaires pick and choose to care about.

Theodore Brita is a senior majoring in political science.

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