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Donor pressures mount on US private universities over support for Israel amidst Israel-Hamas conflict

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Amidst the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, private universities in the United States find themselves under pressure from wealthy donors to demonstrate stronger support for Israel while balancing the need to respect protesters’ rights to free expression.

Several affluent American donors have threatened to withdraw their financial support from prestigious institutions like Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.

The Wexner Foundation, an organization focused on nurturing young Jewish leaders in North America and Israel, took the drastic step of ending its partnership with Harvard’s Kennedy School. They cited Harvard’s failure to take a clear and unwavering stance against what they described as “barbaric murders of innocent Israeli civilians by terrorists.” The Wexner family, known for founding the Bath & Body Works chain, formally severed their ties with the school.

Meanwhile, Marc Rowan, the CEO of Apollo Global Management and a significant donor to the University of Pennsylvania, demanded the resignation of the school’s president, Elizabeth Magill. He criticized the university for hosting a festival of Palestinian literature, which he claimed included individuals with anti-Semitic views.

Prominent donors like Kenneth Griffin, CEO of the Citadel investment fund and a major contributor to Harvard, and Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics group and another UPenn donor, have also expressed their displeasure, according to American media reports.

University leaders are facing increasing pressure to take a side, and the complexity of global issues has made it challenging to establish an institutional position. Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU), stated that “Leaders are criticized for not speaking out quickly or forcefully enough. They’re being forced to choose sides. And yet there are many who say that given a diversity of perspectives on campus, there can’t be an institutional position on such complex global issues.”

Harvard’s President Claudine Gay did condemn the Hamas attacks, but critics argued that her response was too timid and delayed. Leaders of Stanford University and Columbia University have also been urged to distance themselves from pro-Palestinian student groups that accuse Israel of “genocide.”

Amid these tensions, a group of Harvard professors has called for an end to the online harassment of students who supposedly signed an incendiary letter against Israel. There have been incidents of backlash, such as a vehicle displaying names and photos labeled “Harvard’s leading anti-Semites.”

Similar concerns have arisen at Columbia University. Kristen Shahverdian, who works on education issues at PEN America, expressed that some students are feeling nervous to express their opinions and protest.

In the United States, freedom of expression is highly protected, and several universities invoke the Kalven Committee report of 1967, which emphasizes promoting a diversity of opinions rather than taking positions on contentious issues. However, the pressure from donors is undermining the core purpose of American higher education, which is “to promote the unfettered pursuit of the truth and the free exchange of ideas,” according to Pasquerella.

Shahverdian emphasized that donors should recognize that freedom of expression is an integral part of higher education, even when it involves speech they strongly disagree with.

These donor pressures are also linked to decreased public investment in higher education, making institutions more reliant on private donations and leaving professors and administrators feeling coerced due to the fear of losing financial support. Harvard, with a substantial endowment of nearly $51 billion, derives a significant portion of its operating revenue from gifts.

All of this occurs against the backdrop of increasing polarization in American society, with a Gallup poll revealing a decline in confidence in higher education from 57 percent in 2015 to 36 percent in the present year.

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