Updated: November 29, 2023, at 11:24 a.m.
Harvard gift officers are privately worried that some longtime donors will stop giving as a result of the controversy over the University’s response to the Israel-Hamas war and concerns about antisemitism on campus, five Harvard donors said in interviews over the past month.
A few of the donors also said they have personally faced pressure to stop donating to Harvard. The donor backlash has put an additional strain on Harvard administrators, who have also worked overtime to ease tensions on campus over Israel and Palestine.
“I have talked to people in the administration of the University and I know they’re concerned. Everyone’s concerned about it,” said Kenneth G. Lipper, a former member of the Executive Committee of the Committee of University Resources — a group consisting of people who have donated at least $1 million to Harvard.
“It’s a difficult time for the president and it’s a difficult time for the University,” Lipper added.
After initially declining to comment for this article, Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in a statement after publication Wednesday that the University “has been in conversation with alumni and supporters, and will continue to engage closely with them.”
“They are a vital part of our community,” Newton added.
Harvard faced fierce criticism from a slew of prominent affiliates — including major donors and former University President Lawrence H. Summers — after it released an initial statement about Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel that did not address a controversial student statement and failed to directly condemn Hamas.
Harvard administrators released eight additional “messages to the community” related to the Israel-Hamas war, and President Claudine Gay established an advisory group to combat antisemitism on campus. Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 also acknowledged the first statement’s shortcomings in an interview with The Crimson, saying he “has regrets” over it.
But the damage inflicted by Harvard’s initial statement has been difficult to reverse — and it could prove very costly for the University.
Several major Harvard donors have opted to publicly withdraw their support for the University over the weeks since Oct. 7.
The Wexner Foundation, chaired by billionaire Leslie H. Wexner, cut ties with Harvard and the Harvard Kennedy School after it described the University’s response to Hamas’ attack on Israel as a “dismal failure.”
Idan Ofer, an Israeli billionaire and businessman, quit the Kennedy School’s executive board in protest of the University’s handling of the situation.
Bill A. Ackman ’88, a billionaire hedge fund manager who donated $26 million to the University in 2014, has emerged as one of President Claudine Gay’s most vocal critics since Oct. 7. Ackman repeatedly slammed the University in posts on X and called on Harvard to publicly list students who were members of the student groups that signed onto the controversial statement that held Israel “entirely responsible” for Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.
But billionaires are not the only donors who are threatening to suspend their charitable contributions to Harvard.
In an open letter by the Harvard College Jewish Alumni Association, more than 200 donors have pledged to stop giving to the University until a series of demands are met, including the development of a plan to combat antisemitism on campus.
“It should not require three statements (the latter two following a faculty protest) for this University and its leadership to condemn these evils,” the group wrote in the letter, addressed to the Harvard Corporation.
More than 1,800 alumni signed an additional letter in support of HCJAA, but did not explicitly pledge to cut financial ties with Harvard.
Andrew H. Levy ’66, who has decided to stop donating, said he did not know what Harvard was saying about the conflict until former University President Lawrence H. Summers publicly condemned the University’s response on X.
“Although my amount of money is not significant, as a symbolic act, I feel it would be disingenuous for me to give any more money to Harvard,” Levy said.
“I’m always willing to reconsider it if Harvard behaves better,” Levy added.
Many more donors, however, have opted to voice their concerns and frustrations privately to University leadership.
In a Nov. 10 email to Harvard President Claudine Gay, Peter L. Malkin ’55 — namesake of the Malkin Athletic Center — as well as four alumni labeled the initial response a failure and implored Gay to “restore civility on campus.”
While Malkin said he will continue to donate, he has received several emails discouraging him from doing so.
“Harvard has been sustained by huge gifts in hundreds of millions of dollars that are almost incomprehensible, and those are going to be more difficult to come by,” Malkin said.
The furor over the University’s response has also revealed the direct lines between Harvard’s most powerful donors and the University’s top officials.
Hedge fund magnate Kenneth C. Griffin ’89 called Penny S. Pritzker ’81 — senior fellow of the University’s highest governing body, the Harvard Corporation — to urge that Harvard issue a statement forcefully defending Israel. Griffin’s $300 million donation to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in April led the school to rename the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in his honor.
The call — which was first reported by the New York Times — occurred on Oct. 9, hours before Harvard issued its first statement about Hamas’ attack against Israel.
Griffin’s call with Pritzker demonstrated the special access that top donors have to the University’s most senior administrators. Harvard’s biggest donors regularly receive additional communication from the University about how their money is spent and are invited to attend private events with the Harvard president and senior leadership.
Though Gay and other Harvard officials maintain that its relationships with donors do not threaten academic freedom, the University depends on donors to fulfill its academic mission. Philanthropy accounts for 45 percent of its annual revenue, including 8 percent that comes from current-use gifts.
During a Nov. 17 dinner in New York with Harvard donors, Gay extensively discussed the divisions on campus over the fighting in Israel and Gaza — another exercise in damage control for a president whose first semester has been almost entirely consumed by the backlash against Harvard.
“I worry — more each day — that divisions and tensions on our campus are having a chilling effect, that people are becoming increasingly reluctant to extend a hand or to offer support for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing,” Gay said.
Gay told donors the University had increased security around campus, including stationing more Harvard University Police Department officers around campus. She also said Harvard will take steps to address Islamophobia and other forms of hate but did not specifically announce any new initiatives.
Jeffrey S. Flier, who served as the dean of Harvard Medical School from 2007 to 2016, said that while donors have generally refrained from making public demands of the University in the past, the scale of the outrage has emboldened them.
“A university president or a dean these days has to be spending a lot of time thinking about these issues because they care about their donors, but they cannot just accede to demands that are inappropriate for the academic freedoms and for the actual terms of gifts,” Flier said.
“On the other hand, are they happy if five of their biggest donors say, ‘I can’t give to you anymore because I’ve lost confidence in your moral sense, in your leadership?’ No. They don’t want that,” he added.
Since Oct. 7, Gay has been forced to reckon with what Garber, the University’s provost, called Harvard’s worst crisis in more than a decade. But the backlash, which erupted as Gay reached her 100th day in office, could have the potential to impact her tenure for years.
One of Gay’s chief imperatives as president is to fundraise for the University, with Harvard expected to launch a capital campaign at some point over the next few years.
The University’s last capital campaign, which ended in 2018, raised a record 9.6 billion dollars over the course of five years. It relied heavily on engagement from a variety of donors, with 633,000 contributions from more than 153,000 households.
It is unclear, however, if donors’ anger at Harvard over its initial messaging about the Israel-Hamas war could impact the timing of the next capital campaign. If a significant number of influential donors reconsider their support for Harvard, Gay could face major hurdles in her fundraising efforts.
It would not be the first time that controversy on campus disrupted capital campaign planning. The University’s last capital campaign was marked by delays and administrative turmoil; while administrators started to privately court donors as early as 2004, Summers’ abrupt resignation in 2006 led Harvard to push their timeline.
In the years leading up to an official announcement of a capital campaign, the administration typically reaches out privately to its most prominent donors, whose contributions can total up to approximately 40 percent of the campaign’s monetary goals. This private outreach sets the tone for the public fundraising to follow, allowing the University to assess what monetary goals are in sight.
The pushback from donors also comes as Harvard’s endowment has decreased for a second consecutive year — the first time such occurrence in 20 years — which may add to the pressure on Gay to ensure the University’s financial stability.
Harvard Club of the United Kingdom President Victoria W. Leung ’91 said that donors who have pledged to suspend their contributions to Harvard could still decide to donate in the future.
“Not all is lost,” Leung said. “In time, they could reconsider.”
Correction: November 29, 2023
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of former Harvard Medical School Dean. Jeffrey S. Flier.
Correction: December 1, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the Harvard Club of the United Kingdom.