In a move that is part of a surge of challenges to universities around the country about hate speech spurred by the Israel-Hamas conflict, over 1,600 alumni of Harvard University have declared that they would withhold payments to the university unless Harvard takes immediate steps to combat antisemitism on campus.
Not only have prominent billionaire alums such as Bill Ackman, the founder of Pershing Square, and Leslie Wexner, the former CEO of Victoria’s Secret, warned that Harvard may lose its donor base if it doesn’t address the issue, but now the greatest number of alumni, the majority of whom are not billionaires, are threatening to stop giving.
“We never thought that, at Harvard College, we would have to argue the point that terrorism against civilians demands immediate and unequivocal condemnation,” wrote members of the Harvard College Jewish Alumni Association (HCJAA) in an open letter to President Claudine Gay and Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana. “We never thought we would have to argue for recognition of our own humanity.”
Following the school’s reaction to the assaults on Israel on October 7, the HCJAA was established last month. It is the first Jewish alumni group in the university’s existence, according to the organizers.
The organization is requesting that Harvard formally embrace the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, provide specific measures to guarantee the safety of Jewish students on campus, and acknowledge their alumni association as a recognized special interest group.
“We now have a movement of over 1,600 alumni who are calling for meaningful reforms on campus to ensure that every student is safe.” Rebecca Claire Brooks, a co-founder of the HCJAA, told CNN.
“This is a broad and growing intergenerational movement of alumni from many different sectors and industries. Yes, some of them are very influential donors and some of them are sort of more normal-sized donors. But we’re speaking in one unified voice in response to this moment,” she added.
Harvard President Gay wrote a letter to the larger Harvard community addressing the controversy on Thursday.
“Harvard rejects all forms of hate, and we are committed to addressing them,” she wrote. “Let me reiterate what I and other Harvard leaders have said previously: Antisemitism has no place at Harvard.”
The school, she said, has “started the process of examining how antisemitism manifests within our community” and will “implement a robust program of education and training for students, faculty, and staff on antisemitism broadly and at Harvard specifically.” The school is also “seeking to identify external partnerships that will allow Harvard to learn from and work with others on our strategy,” she added.
At Harvard, philanthropy is the single greatest source of money, contributing 45% of the university’s $5.8 billion in revenue in the previous year. 9% of the university’s operational budget and 36% of its $51 billion endowment, which has been accumulated over decades, came from philanthropic contributions last year.
According to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), modest contributions from alumni are becoming a more significant source of support for higher education, even while major gifts account for a significant portion of university donations. In 2022, institutions received gifts totaling less than $5,000 in around 95% of cases.