BIll Ackman has never met a fight he shied away from. He’s just usually kept them focused on Wall Street.
Now, the billionaire hedge-fund manager behind Pershing Square Capital Management has recreated himself as a kind of public advocate, waging wars against plagiarism, the leadership of Harvard University, the impugning of his wife’s reputation and antisemitism on American college campuses — all issues far more central to the country’s continuing culture wars than to making money.
Ackman says taking on such crusades is fine, because “with success also comes responsibility.”
“If I see something that is a problem in society, I want to do something about it,” Ackman said late last week in a CNBC interview. “A lot of people with a lot of money and a lot of resources — they can sit on their yacht, and that is fine. They can live their life, and no one is going to criticize them.”
“I want to look back and be able to say that I helped solve a number of problems,” he continued. “If you can’t tell by now, I’m a fixer.”
How these issues should be addressed and whether a hedge-fund billionaire is the right person to take on the task of fixing them are questions up for debate — and Ackman has attracted his fair share of critics.
Some have accused him of racism over his efforts that led to the resignation of Harvard’s first Black president, Claudine Gay, partly due to accusations of plagiarism. Others have said he is a hypocrite for calling similar allegations leveled against his wife, former Massachusetts Institute of Technology design professor Neri Oxman, unfair.
Ackman has denied being motivated by racism in his campaign against Gay, but has said he believes that diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in workplaces and at schools — which he argues are the only reason she had the job — discriminate against white people.
Whether or not all this is eating into Ackman’s time making investment decisions, his hedge fund has performed well in recent years, including 2023, when his Pershing Square Holdings returned 26.7% net of fees, slightly better than the S&P 500
His spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
These are the five crusades that Ackman is currently taking on:
Ackman, a graduate of both Harvard and its business school and a significant donor, began his quest to change the leadership of the storied Ivy League institution shortly after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel that left 1,200 Israelis dead. He said that protests at Harvard and other universities in support of Palestinians were antisemitic in tone and that the schools weren’t doing enough to make Jewish students feel safe.
Following testimony before Congress by Gay and the heads of the University of Pennsylvania and MIT that critics said provided weak responses to the question of whether calling for the genocide of Jews should be allowed on campus, Ackman ramped up his campaign.
When conservative activists — including Christopher Rufo, who previously has steered the effort to expose a mass audience to the academic term critical race theory — combed through Gay’s academic work and found alleged instances of plagiarism, Ackman vocally joined their calls for her removal. The institution’s trustees stood behind her, yet Gay abruptly announced her resignation on Jan. 3.
Now Ackman has directed his fight against Harvard’s board, backing a write-in slate of four dissident members — a move taken straight out of his activist-investor playbook.
Shortly after Gay’s resignation, the news website Business Insider published several reports detailing instances of alleged plagiarism by Ackman’s wife in her MIT dissertation and other scholarly writing.
In a very public fight on X, the social-media platform formerly known as Twitter, Ackman accused Business Insider of engaging in an anti-Zionist smear campaign, and said his Israeli-born wife wasn’t a fair target because she wasn’t involved in his efforts to oust Gay or in his business.
He alleged that the publication hadn’t allowed him and his wife enough time to respond to the charges before publishing them online. While Oxman has said that she made a few errors of attribution in her academic work and apologized, Ackman has argued those errors do not rise to the level of plagiarism. (Gay and her supporters have defended her work in similar ways.) He also said he had called several top managers at Business Insider and its parent company, German media conglomerate Axel Springer SE, to complain. In addition, he invoked KKR
the private-equity investor that is the biggest stakeholder in Axel Springer.
Ackman’s noisy objection triggered an unusual statement from Axel Springer that the company had asked Business Insider to review how the stories came together, and Business Insider said it was standing by its stories. Several days after initiating the review, Axel Springer said it had concluded that there was no issue with how the stories were handled.
Ackman has strongly suggested that he and his wife may sue the site, saying, “Business Insider is toast.”
“We will respond in a formal complaint which will take a few weeks to prepare,” Ackman posted on X on Sunday. “By complaint I mean lawsuit, to be clear.”
Similar to his effort to force Gay out at Harvard, Ackman has leveled his fire against MIT President Sally Kornbluth.
His calls for her removal followed her performance alongside Gay and University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill before Congress in early December. Magill resigned soon afterward, followed by Gay a month later, leaving Kornbluth as the last university president among the three standing.
“Et tu, Sally?” Ackman wrote on X shortly after Gay resigned earlier this month.
Ackman has also called for Kornbluth’s academic work — she holds a doctorate in molecular oncology from Rockefeller University — to be run through plagiarism-checking software.
President Joe Biden
Ackman raised eyebrows last week when he gave $1 million to a political-action committee working with Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat, in his longshot campaign against President Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Ackman said he believed Biden wasn’t up to beating Donald Trump, should the former president secure the Republican nomination, and that he liked Phillips’s moderate stances. Ackman said Friday that Phillips, at the age of 54, is much better suited to be president than Biden, who is 81 and “past his prime.”
Phillips has floated a possible cabinet post for Ackman if he were to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
Plagiarism writ large
In keeping with his fight to remove Gay from Harvard and the allegations of plagiarism against his wife, Ackman has vowed to run the work of many academics at Ivy League schools through plagiarism-detecting software.