Kenneth Griffin has donated more than half a billion dollars to Harvard University, committing $300 million this year alone. Last Monday, with his alma mater convulsed after a coalition of student groups blamed Israel for Hamas’s attack that had left more than 1,000 people dead, Mr. Griffin, who earned his billions on Wall Street, placed a call to the head of the university’s board.
In a private conversation with Penny Pritzker, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, Mr. Griffin urged the university to come out forcefully in defense of Israel, he said in an interview.
It was a move that would have put Harvard firmly on the opposite side of 30 student groups who had said that “the Israeli regime” was “entirely responsible” for the mass killing and kidnapping of Israelis that took place, and complicate the university’s policies promoting free speech on campus.
Mr. Griffin said that he and Ms. Pritzker “were in passionate agreement,” during the call, and that he learned that a statement was in the works to address the wide outcry. Ms. Pritzker, through a Harvard representative, confirmed the call but declined to comment on the specifics.
It was not until Tuesday, three days after the student group’s letter was first posted, that Harvard addressed the matter directly. In the second of two statements on the conflict, the university condemned “the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas” as “abhorrent,” and said that the student groups didn’t speak for the institution.
Mr. Griffin wasn’t alone in demanding that an elite university denounce its students for criticizing Israel so soon after the Hamas attack. Though some complaints — like that from Harvard’s former president, Larry Summers — were made in public, the most intense demands have come behind the scenes from Wall Street financiers who make up a powerful block of donors to schools including the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, Stanford University and Cornell University.
In conversations with The New York Times, more than a dozen donors said they felt they had a right and an obligation to weigh in. Some of the donors who discussed the matter asked not to be named, because they did not want to speak publicly on a rapidly evolving issue that has elicited death threats on both sides. Some, but not all, of these donors are Jewish, though they hold a range of religious beliefs and not all have a history of being active in pro-Israeli causes.
Years of fund-raising campaigns have led the schools to hew ever closer to this big-moneyed group: Harvard, whose endowment has swelled to nearly $51 billion, named its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences after Mr. Griffin.
But the latest eruption of violence in Israel also ripped open a chasm between donors and the students and administrators that their largess helps fund. Mr. Griffin and others said administrators who had in recent years been swift to praise and participate in left-wing causes célèbres had been slow or silent in many instances to defend Israel.
Of course, if schools acquiesce too publicly to their donors, they risk again provoking the ire of their students and professors. Some institutions, like the University of Chicago, make it a point to remain neutral on political and social matters, though in recent years it has become more common for universities to speak out decisively on matters like the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the killing of George Floyd.
The Harvard spokesman Jonathan Swain said no school administrator would be made available for an interview. Mr. Swain said the school had been “in conversation with alumni and supporters,” describing them as “a vital part of our community.”
Among the donors, views on the appropriate way to respond also vary widely. The outspoken hedge-fund manager William Ackman, a Harvard alumnus and head of Pershing Square Capital Management, has called on executives to refuse to hire students who are members of groups that have signed statements singling out Israeli violence as the cause of the conflict, going further than any other major financier.
In a string of posts on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Mr. Ackman demanded that the university release a list of members of any student organizations who wrote the letter blaming Israel for Hamas’s attack, to ensure that he and others did not “inadvertently hire any of their members.”
Some high-profile donors said they felt Mr. Ackman wasn’t helping to turn the discourse in favor of Israel by calling for what would essentially be a blacklist of students who disagree with his views.
Mr. Summers, the former Harvard president, in a television interview, said Mr. Ackman was getting “a bit carried away.” “Now is not the time for demonizing students,” he said, describing the idea of a blacklist as “the stuff of Joe McCarthy,” referring to the Wisconsin senator who mounted a hunt for supposed communists in the 1950s.
Neal Berger, president of investment firm Eagle’s View Capital Management, said he was conflicted about Mr. Ackman’s suggestion. “You have to consider whether the people signing these petitions are 18 years old and very impressionable and don’t know what they are talking about.”
Mr. Griffin was more categorical. He said the students who signed pro-Palestinian letters “would have been considered adults one hundred years ago,” and should be held responsible for their actions now. Asked if his hedge fund Citadel would hire the head of a student group that signed the Harvard letter, his answer was an unequivocal no. “Unforgivable,” he said.
“How do you end up in such a twisted place?” Mr. Griffin asked.
At the universities, students have pointed out that the longstanding blockade of the Gaza Strip by Israel and Egypt, among other factors, has led to a level of desperation in the tightly packed area, roughly the size of Philadelphia. But students’ responses, too, have varied — from expressions of sympathy for citizens on both sides of the divide to the suggestion that the Hamas attack was a justifiable form of resistance.
Some prominent Harvard alumni and donors known for speaking out on geopolitics, like the JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon and the Carlyle Group founder David M. Rubenstein, have declined to weigh in publicly on the university’s actions at all. Both declined to comment.
Several donors who have made multimillion-dollar contributions to Ivy League schools said they worried that speaking out publicly would harm colleges to which they had deep ties, and could crimp donations to university medical centers and other research arms that rely on deep-pocketed donors to conduct apolitical work.
It is notable that criticism has rained in from donors who are not ordinarily politically aligned. Mr. Griffin is a high-profile supporter of Republican causes while other outraged alumni, billionaire financiers Seth Klarman and Lloyd Blankfein, give largely to Democrats.
Mr. Klarman, whose name adorns buildings at Harvard, said he had confronted the school’s administration over the past week.
“Heads of all colleges and universities should step into the shoes of what it’s like to be in Israel right now,” he said.
Said Mr. Blankfein, former chief executive of Goldman Sachs: “Given the use of Harvard’s name by Hamas-supporting student groups, it was a grave mistake not to condemn the hate messages more quickly and absolutely.”
The universities have issued staggered responses to the students. New York University has removed from its website an Oct. 8. campuswide email from its president, Linda Mills, that described Hamas’s violence against Israel as a terrorist attack but did not specifically condemn it. Instead, N.Y.U. now displays an email from Ms. Mills from two days later that expresses the school’s “condemnation of the attack” on Israel by Hamas.
An N.Y.U. spokesman said that only the second missive remained public because it was considered an update — not a sequel — to the prior one.
At the Wharton School, the business institution at the University of Pennsylvania that has minted many a Wall Street billionaire, Marc Rowan, the chair of the school’s board and chief executive of Apollo Global Management, has called for the university’s president, Elizabeth Magill, and board of trustees chair to be fired. Mr. Rowan also asked fellow donors to cut off funds.
Mr. Rowan’s complaint is not limited to the past week. In a public letter several weeks ago, Mr. Rowan criticized Penn for hosting a Palestinian-focused literary festival that included what he called antisemitic speakers, and asked the university to condemn it. Speaking on television on Thursday, Mr. Rowan said that members of the Penn administration suggested he step down from the board.
Some people who have spoken with Mr. Rowan have urged him to tamp down his criticism, worried that Penn could be resistant to reacting directly to demands from wealthy donors.
On Friday night, Vahan H. Gureghian, a Penn trustee who was appointed by the state’s General Assembly, said he would resign in protest. On Sunday, for the first time, Ms. Magill sent a university message referring to Hamas’s violence as a “terrorist attack.” She added, “While we did communicate, we should have moved faster to share our position strongly and more broadly with the Penn community.”
Jay Clayton, a former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman who is also chairman of Apollo’s board, said he was “evaluating his relationship with Penn,” where he teaches at Wharton as an adjunct professor.
Mr. Clayton said he was put off that his alma mater was willing to host speakers who criticize Israel in polemic terms yet was slow as an institution to forthrightly denounce the attack on the nation. “I think most people agree and aren’t saying that.”
Maureen Farrell contributed reporting.