Saturday, July 13

Wife of Investor Who Pushed for Harvard President’s Exit Is Accused of Plagiarism

Accusations of plagiarism appear to be the newest weapon in the raging battle over the leadership and direction of elite universities.

For weeks, Bill Ackman, the billionaire hedge fund manager, has campaigned on social media against Claudine Gay, who resigned as Harvard’s president amid accusations of plagiarizing other scholars and of not taking a strong enough stand against antisemitism on campus.

But that battle was brought home after Business Insider, an online publication, posted similar accusations of plagiarism against Mr. Ackman’s wife, Neri Oxman, an architect and designer, who holds a Ph.D. in design computation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Business Insider said on Friday that Dr. Oxman “stole sentences and whole paragraphs from Wikipedia, other scholars and technical documents in her academic writing.”

Those examples came a day after the publication reported on several errors in attributing others’ work in her dissertation. Dr. Oxman apologized for those errors on Thursday and said they involved only a few paragraphs of a 330-page thesis.

On Friday evening, before Business Insider had posted its latest story, Mr. Ackman posted on social media that the publication had contacted his wife about its recent findings, but that he and Dr. Oxman, a former tenured professor at M.I.T., had not had time to research the accuracy of the accusations.

“It is unfortunate that my actions to address problems in higher education have led to these attacks on my family,” Mr. Ackman, founder of Pershing Square Capital, said on X, the social media platform, where he has a million followers.

In response, he wrote, he would begin a plagiarism review of all current M.I.T. faculty members; Sally Kornbluth, the president of M.I.T.; and the university’s governing body, and would share the results with the public. “This experience has inspired me to save all news organizations from the trouble of doing plagiarism reviews,” Mr. Ackman wrote.

He posted later on Friday that he would also review the work of reporters at Business Insider.

It was unclear whether he was targeting Dr. Kornbluth because his wife had received her Ph.D. at the university or because of what he considered Dr. Kornbluth’s inadequate denunciation of antisemitism at a congressional hearing last month.

Through a spokesman, Mr. Ackman and Dr. Oxman declined to comment beyond their comments on X. Kimberly Allen, a spokesperson for M.I.T., said in an email that the university’s leaders “remain focused on ensuring the vital work of the people of M.I.T. continues, work that is essential to the nation’s security, prosperity and quality of life.”

Jonathan Bailey, a copyright and plagiarism consultant who also runs the website Plagiarism Today, said he worried about the “weaponization of plagiarism.”

“I worry that we’re going to see a sharp rise in shoddy analyses that attempt to either blow minor issues out of proportion or show plagiarism where the evidence doesn’t support it,” he said.

The first volley from Business Insider against Dr. Oxman came on Thursday, two days after Dr. Gay stepped down, and the accusations seemed similar to those against Dr. Gay.

Dr. Oxman apologized the same day.

“As I have dedicated my career to advancing science and innovation, I have always recognized the profound importance of the contributions of my peers and those who came before me,” she wrote on X.

In the age of A.I., plagiarism accusations could be easier to make and can easily be weaponized by either side in a dispute.

“Without a doubt on both sides, plagiarism has become a weapon, just like the criminal justice system has become weaponized,” said Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor, who had his own spat over plagiarism accusations years ago and was cleared by Harvard. “Everything is weaponized in America today.”

Dr. Gay was accused of plagiarism in her 1997 Harvard dissertation and in other academic papers. She acknowledged a handful of errors of citation and asked for corrections, according to Harvard. The university’s governing board said it had convened a three-member independent review board that cleared her of academic misconduct. But it has declined to publicly disclose the names of the scholars.

Mr. Ackman played a large role in discrediting Dr. Gay, posting frequent broadsides against her.

After Dr. Gay resigned as president, Mr. Ackman criticized the decision to let her remain on the Harvard faculty. “There would be nothing wrong with her staying on the faculty if she didn’t have serious plagiarism issues,” Mr. Ackman wrote on X. He added that rewarding her “with a highly paid faculty position sets a very bad precedent for academic integrity at Harvard.”

After Business Insider ran the accusations against Dr. Oxman on Thursday, Mr. Ackman wrote on X: “You know that you struck a chord when they go after your wife, in this case my love and partner in life, @NeriOxman.”

In its first article, Business Insider accused Dr. Oxman of plagiarizing “multiple paragraphs” of her 2010 doctoral dissertation at M.I.T., “including at least one passage directly lifted from other writers without citation.”

On Thursday, Dr. Oxman, a former tenured professor at M.I.T.’s Media Lab, said that she had cited the sources but “omitted quotation marks for certain work that I used” in four paragraphs of her 330-page thesis.

Not including quotation marks is a “violation of MIT’s academic-integrity handbook, both as it is currently written and as it was at the time,” Business Insider wrote.

Dr. Oxman also apologized on Thursday for paraphrasing a sentence from a book by Claus Mattheck in her thesis and not citing him.

Dr. Oxman was portrayed in a 2018 profile in The New York Times, as a brilliant, quirky scholar who founded a discipline she called material ecology, which worked “with natural organisms like slime molds, monarchs and silkworms, to make extraordinary objects and structures that do all sorts of extraordinary things.” Israeli-born, she was a first lieutenant in the Israeli Air Force. She and Mr. Ackman were married in 2019.

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.