“Really personal”: Billionaire targets MIT after Harvard plagiarism crusade backfires on his wife

"It certainly appears that the focus was never really about antisemitism and protecting students," scholar says

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published January 13, 2024 5:45AM (EST)

CEO and Portfolio Manager Pershing Square Capital Management L.P. William Ackman speaks at The New York Times DealBook Conference at Jazz at Lincoln Center on November 10, 2016 in New York City. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The New York Times)
CEO and Portfolio Manager Pershing Square Capital Management L.P. William Ackman speaks at The New York Times DealBook Conference at Jazz at Lincoln Center on November 10, 2016 in New York City. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The New York Times)

After former Harvard President Claudine Gay's resignation last week, Harvard alum Bill Ackman, one of the leading voices calling for the former college leader's firing, set his crosshairs on MIT President Sally Kornbluth, announcing his intention to carry out an informal investigation into the cell biologist and other MIT faculty's work in search of plagiarism.

"It's a war about white anxiety that's happening in academia, and that's happening in other parts of the country."

The billionaire hedge fund manager announced the move in a post to X last Friday in response to back-to-back reports from Business Insider that accused his wife, Neri Oxman, a former MIT professor, of plagiarizing parts of her 2010 dissertation, Bloomberg reported

“We will share our findings in the public domain as they are completed in the spirit of transparency,” Ackman wrote, adding that “it is unfortunate that my actions to address problems in higher education have led to these attacks on my family.”

Calls for Kornbluth's removal have circulated since Dec. 5, 2023, when she, along with Gay and former University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, provided responses that, though legally correct, were regarded by many as inadequate to a question about whether calling for the genocide of Jews violated university policy during a congressional hearing. 

Gay's resignation almost a month after Magill's had initially redirected the backlash onto Kornbluth, who has largely evaded the brunt of the outrage, kept her job and remained relatively silent amid the calls for her ouster. But as the focus of the online outrage now trains on Business Insider, the calls for the presidents' firings — once primarily fueled by concerns over antisemitism on campus — are shifting to a broader campaign against diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at U.S. colleges and then detouring into seemingly tit-for-tat plagiarism probes. The shift appears to reveal that the initial uproar was never really about protecting Jewish students, scholars told Salon.

"Given how quickly the focus of the people claiming to be concerned about antisemitism on our campuses shifted to academic dishonesty, it certainly appears that the focus was never really about antisemitism and protecting students," Irene Mulvey, the president of the American Association of University Presidents told Salon. "It's part of a long-running, well-funded effort to create a false narrative for the public that higher education is broken."

Mulvey argued that the month-long pressure campaign carried out by Republican lawmakers and conservative social media pundits is just part of another strategy to discredit the institution of higher education and "quash academic freedom."

"The next step is for these bad actors to say, 'Well, now we need to fix it. Now that we've explained to you that it's broken. We need to fix it.' And the so-called fixes are things that will mold higher education to their benefit," she predicted, pointing to undermining tenure, censoring content and reversing efforts to diversify campuses as potential outcomes.

"Now we're off on this road of weaponizing repeated language detectors until that no longer works. And while we're on this road, we're distracting from the real issues we should be working on," Mulvey added, highlighting college affordability as an example. 

All three university presidents faced intense backlash for what critics have called their moral failure to protect Jewish students and refusal to plainly answer "yes" to Rep. Elise Stefanik's, R-N.Y., question about whether calls for the genocide of Jews — as well as chants of intifada during on-campus Palestinian solidarity protests — count as violations of their university policies. 

Gay and McGill's responses garnered greater pushback with both women testifying that the answer depended on the context and that their universities would take action against the speech if it rose to the level of conduct. According to Bloomberg, Kornbluth, who is Jewish, delivered a relatively stronger response, stating that the alleged calls would be investigated as harassment "if pervasive and severe." 

But some of the outcry over Jewish student safety on campus neglected to establish a key distinction between being physically unsafe and feeling vulnerable in the aftermath of Hamas' deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel, argued Rabbi Shaul Magid, a visiting professor of modern Judaism at Harvard.

"There are certain students that will say that they feel vulnerable if they see a bunch of students wearing a keffiyeh in the library, or they walk past a pro-Palestinian rally, but those students are not unsafe. They just feel unsafe," Magid, who is also a professor of Jewish Studies for Dartmouth, told Salon, speaking to the Harvard experience and noting that the university, along with Penn, saw far more Palestinian solidarity rallies than MIT. 

"I think that the idea that any student, any person has to feel totally safe everywhere they walk, in everywhere they go, is just unrealistic," he added, pointing to the experiences of his students of color who told him they regularly feel vulnerable "because that's just what it is to be a minority in America."

Still, the outcry about their testimonies prompted Magill, who had already been under fire for allowing Penn to host a Palestinian literature festival in September, to resign days after the hearing. After Gay stepped down last week, Kornbluth became the conservative pressure campaign's next natural target. Ackman called her out by name, writing "Et tu Sally?" in a Jan. 2 post to X, while Stefanik settled for a count — "Two down. One to go" — before later demanding Kornbluth's immediate firing. 

Stefanik's comment, Magid argued, revealed right-wing lawmakers' and activists' aim of using the concerns around antisemitism arising from pro-Palestinian, on-campus protests to make their case against DEI initiatives, which has become a frequent target of the ultra-conservative in recent years.

"If they can get rid of these three people, they see this as a kind of trifecta victory against what they consider to be the war on wokeness or DEI," Magid said, noting he doesn't believe Stefanik, who has espoused antisemitic theories in calls against immigration, really cares much about antisemitism. "So I think that [Kornbluth]'s being targeted now because she's the only one left standing. And she's being targeted because Ackman is blaming her and others at MIT for outing his wife. So now it's become really personal."

A spokesperson for Stefanik did not respond to Salon's request for comment.

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Though Jewish students and alumni have lambasted the cell biologist with calls for an apology, which her counterparts from the hearing did give, and more targeted initiatives to address their concerns, some, notably have not pushed for her resignation. 

"We're not, at this time, calling for her to step down for two reasons: One, we're still hoping to work with the administration. And number two, given how much of this problem seems to be not just with Dr. Kornbluth but really the broader administration, we're not looking for a symbolic scalp at this time," Matt Handel, a 1991 graduate and member of the MIT Jewish Alumni Alliance's executive committee, told Salon, adding that "we have to separate" the national conversation from that of the on-the-ground groups still pursuing concrete actions to address Jewish safety concerns at MIT. 

Kornbluth has maintained her silence about the charges against her and MIT's governing board has continued to rally behind her, giving no indication that she will step down. 

"Our leaders remain focused on ensuring the vital work of the people of MIT continues, work that is essential to the nation’s security, prosperity and quality of life," Kimberly Allen, an MIT spokeswoman, told Salon via email, pointing to Kornbluth's recently outlined steps to address antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus in the new year. 

Ackman's criticism of Gay, first for her approach to addressing antisemitism fears on Harvard's campus, then for her alleged lack of qualifications — a notion he advanced with suggestions that Gay was a diversity hire elevated to the role solely because of her work in the DEI sphere — brought widespread attention to the right-wing media-pushed plagiarism allegations against the ex-Harvard president. He shone a spotlight on the claims that eventually became part of their proof of Gay's alleged deficit — and of the failures of DEI, according to Magid.

But the act backfired for the financier, whose involvement in the controversy had brought him his fair share of criticism according to Bloomberg, last Thursday after Business Insider released reports accusing Oxman of failing to cite and copying passages from other authors without proper citation in her 2010 MIT dissertation, claims The New Republic notes are similar to those thrown at Gay. While Oxman acknowledged some of the claims and apologized for errors in a post to X, the outlet published a second report the day after alleging at least 15 new instances of plagiarism in her dissertation, including segments claimed to be directly lifted from Wikipedia. 

With the ire aimed at his spouse, Ackman's strong-minded stance against plagiarism in all forms suddenly became more nuanced, with the billionaire arguing in a post to X that charges of plagiarism in academia should be more context-reliant and weigh intentionality. The Business Insider reports prompted Ackman to expand his campaign against higher education to the journalism industry, with the Pershing Square CEO announcing his plans to launch an AI-powered dig for potential plagiarism in the outlet's work. 

"I think we're entering into like a really strange moment because [with] the level of sophistication of these AI databases that are used if you're going to subject people's work to that level of detail, you're going to find out that a lot of people are going to be accused of plagiarism," Magid told Salon, adding, "I don't know why [Ackman] doesn't see that the fact that he's now going to subject all these professors to this AI database to show that actually what his wife did was not so extraordinary, is undermining the whole claim that he's making about Claudine Gay."

A spokesman for Ackman did not respond to Salon's request for comment.

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In the same post in which he detailed a strict stance on plagiarism, Ackman also gave voice to a conservative talking point about DEI, concluding, after meeting with students and faculty at Harvard, that DEI was at the core of the antisemitism cropping up on the campus in the wake of Oct. 7.

House Republicans have since latched onto the winding controversy they helped create, announcing last week their plans to expand their investigations into institutions of higher learning to target academic elites in the name of weeding out campus antisemitism, The New York Times reported. The Education and Workforce Committee, which held the contentious December hearing, launched an investigation aiming to explore DEI efforts on U.S. campuses and their effect on Jewish students; accreditation and whether a school can be stripped of federal aid for failing to protect Jewish students from antisemitic acts on campus; and academic integrity at Harvard in light of the allegations against Gay. 

"Even though these things seem very separate from one another, if you can be creative in a narrative way and braid the scandals together, then it just creates more strength for the idea that you're pushing, which I think, overall, is that higher education is suspect," Johns Hopkins sociology professor Amy Binder told Salon of the various threads the controversy has taken in the last month. 

The House Education and Workforce Committee did not respond to a request for comment.

For his part, Ackman, who is Jewish, has maintained across his explanatory X posts that his initial motivation in seeking Gay, Magill and Kornbluth's terminations was what he described as their failures to lead their universities and champion the safety of Jewish students in light of their Dec. 5 testimonies, even sharing on Friday a lawsuit filed by Jewish students against Harvard. Stefanik has also denied claims that her intense questioning during the congressional hearing was intended to trap the college leaders. 

However, as the controversy progresses well beyond where it began — now seeing a claim boosted by X owner Elon Musk, who has been accused of antisemitism himself and subsequently defended by Ackman, connecting corporate DEI initiatives to an increased risk of death by way of Boeing plane blowouts  — it appears their proclaimed intentions have given way to, as Magid suggests, a wholly different scheme.

"It's a war about white anxiety that's happening in academia, and that's happening in other parts of the country," Magid told Salon, pointing to the charges against DEI and immigration as indicators of growing fears of a decreasing white population.

Ackman's AI-powered plagiarism crusade against MIT and higher education at large seems to be increasingly relegated to the back burner as he takes on Business Insider executives and members of its parent company over the accusations the outlet leveled toward Oxman. But the work he's done to bolster the distrust in academia has already set the harm in motion, Binder said. She pointed to an analogy that likens the three pillars of academic careers — research, teaching and service — to the three legs of a stool.

"It seems to me like with plagiarism, one of the legs of the stools is being kicked out — research. And the protecting students — protecting Jewish students in this case — really kicks out the stool under teaching," Binder said.

She further described the seeds of doubt in higher education these right-wing efforts could be planting.

"If you can't trust these leaders, to protect students in the face of threats of genocide, and you can't trust them to do their own research, then they don't have the common sense like just regular folks like you and me," Binder said. "And, so lacking that, why would we put any trust in their expertise? And all kinds of other areas like climate change, or protecting democracy, or teaching history, or any of a variety of other things we've long trusted higher education to do?"

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Tatyana Tandanpolie is a staff writer at Salon. Born and raised in central Ohio, she moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue degrees in Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. She is currently based in her home state and has previously written for local Columbus publications, including Columbus Monthly, CityScene Magazine and The Columbus Dispatch.

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Antisemitism Bill Ackman Claudine Gay Dei Harvard Mit Politics Reporting Sally Kornbluth