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Billionaire investor Bill Ackman is taking on higher education

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Several of the oldest and most prestigious colleges and universities in the country are defending themselves against critics who are trying to remake the institutions. One of the most aggressive campaigns comes from billionaire Bill Ackman. His goal is to transform higher education, and now he's also targeting the media. NPR's David Gura is following this saga. Hey, David.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about Bill Ackman and what his goal is.

GURA: Well, Bill Ackman is a hedge fund manager with two degrees from Harvard. He is notorious for having these long, drawn-out fights with companies and other high-profile investors. He has a reputation for being really ruthless. Well, now Ackman is taking a playbook he has developed over decades fighting tooth and nail in corporate boardrooms to this new war he is waging on college campuses. Ackman wants to stop what he calls the ideological takeover of his alma mater. He said that today on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, where Ackman has more than a million followers. It's clear he's outraged at Harvard and its emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion, what's better known as DEI. He says that policy framework is racist, and Ackman argues it's inherently inconsistent with basic American values. Now he wants to bring that fight, Ari, against DEI to other schools around the country.

SHAPIRO: How has he waged this campaign?

GURA: Well, it began as a much more narrowly focused effort to oust the presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT because of how they struggled to respond to Hamas' attack on Israel on October the 7. Ackman and others believe that reflected a double standard at colleges and universities of what speech is permissible and protected. He and others say administrators have tolerated antisemitism. Well, in recent weeks, we've seen other deep-pocketed donors weaponize their philanthropy in response. They have cut their giving, and some have cut ties with colleges and universities altogether. That pressure campaign, Ari, has led to the resignations of Penn's president, Liz Magill, and Harvard's president, Claudine Gay. Her tenure ended as a chorus of voices amplified plagiarism allegations against her. Well, Ackman has now made that his main cause, but unfortunately for Ackman, it has brought some negative attention to his own family. The news organization Business Insider reported Ackman's wife plagiarized some of her academic work.

SHAPIRO: And what has Ackman's reaction been to the Business Insider reporting?

GURA: Well, that article has made Bill Ackman livid. And I should say he has repeatedly declined my requests for an interview. Business Insider's editor-in-chief says the site stands by its reporting. Ackman's wife, Neri Oxman, who used to be a professor of design at MIT, has apologized. But Ackman says he and Oxman plan to dispute, quote, "a substantial number of facts in that story." And with his wife now in the spotlight, Ackman is doubling down even more. He has promised to use the power of artificial intelligence to scour each and every Business Insider article for plagiarism. That seems to be his new crusade. And he said he's willing to invest in an AI company to identify plagiarists in media and in higher education. AI's ability to do that, he says, makes it like a tactical nuke. And Ari, this is a weapon he seems to have no compunction using in what's become really a no-holds-barred campaign.

SHAPIRO: This seems like a huge cultural fight. How likely is Ackman to succeed?

GURA: Well, there are lots of questions about how this would work in practice. I said Ackman is ruthless. He is also relentless. Ackman's past fights have dragged on for years, some at great personal expense. You know, stepping back, Ari, what we're seeing here is another example of the role big money is playing in the culture wars. On the one side, you've got a donor with very deep pockets who wants to change institutions. Of course, many of those institutions are also very wealthy, and they're going to fight back.

SHAPIRO: NPR's David Gura, thank you.

GURA: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHYGIRL SONG, "HEAVEN (FT. TINASHE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.
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