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March 2, 2024
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How Wall Street’s Jewish avenger took down Harvard’s Claudine Gay

“He’s obviously very bright and sometimes he might get thrown a curveball, but it’s not as though he’s ever left without an answer,” says the City source who knows Ackman.

“He’s very charming and very engaging. He’s very upfront. When he does come to town, he’s always happy to give people his time.

“Some US business people will give you half an hour but it’s almost the other extent. Meetings can be open-ended and go on for a very, very long time.”

While Ackman has dialled down his activism on Wall Street, he has redirected his zeal towards academic campaigning. 

Many of the tactics used in his battle at Harvard – the public letters and attempts to embarrass Gay – are straight out of the activist playbook he developed in his boardroom battles at Pershing Square. 

Ackman has acknowledged as much. 

“The Harvard situation reminds me of the Canadian Pacific proxy contest,” he tweeted on December 22, referring to his 2012 pursuit of the railway operator.

Then, he published scathing letters about management and forced the board to resign. 

Ackman’s campaign at Harvard, to which he has donated tens of millions, has riled some who see him as a billionaire bully who pushed the university’s first black president out of a job.

“Bill Ackman is a pernicious influence on American education,” Yale School of Public Health associate professor Gregg Gonsalves wrote on social media. “He thinks his money equals wisdom and even if it doesn’t, he thinks it gives him the right to bully at will.”

Reports have claimed Ackman’s crusade against Harvard was the result of sour grapes after his input into the running of the university was consistently snubbed. He has denied the claim.

With one victory under his belt, Ackman is now turning his attention to MIT president Sally Kornbluth, who also drew criticism for her senate performance addressing campus anti-Semitism.

Ackman tweeted last week in the wake of Gay’s resignation: “Et tu Sally?” 

He has also signalled his ambitions to take his campaigning beyond the three university chiefs. Ackman last week published a 4,000-word memo bemoaning what he claimed were “racist” diversity policies in American society.

“We have a lot more work to do,” he told his one million followers on X, formerly known as Twitter.

When he glides onstage at the Berkeley next month, Ackman will update investors about the annual performance of his FTSE 100-listed investment vehicle. Cocktails and canapés will be served.

Ackman no longer forces companies to bend to his will. Instead, it is American society he is seeking to reshape to his tastes.

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