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Harvard alumni rebuke its Israel response with mere $1 donations

Harvard Yard at Harvard University.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Tally Zingher earned three degrees at Harvard University and served as a workhorse volunteer, calling friends and raising money from her undergraduate class.

Now, with her 25th year college reunion approaching, she’s done — dismayed over her alma mater’s “failure of moral leadership” in its handling of a campus crisis since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, including reports of widespread antisemitism.

“I will not be calling any of my classmates to try to encourage them to donate to Harvard,” said Zingher, 46, a lawyer and entrepreneur who has given every year since graduating. “There are plenty of better places that I feel my classmates can use their philanthropy and influence.”

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For every Ken Griffin, the hedge fund manager whose $300 million donation put his name on his alma mater’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences this year, Harvard also relies on thousands of volunteers. They cultivate smaller financial commitments, organize reunions, recruit students and run alumni clubs far from the Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus. The most steadfast volunteers wear top hats or crimson rosettes at Harvard’s commencement ceremony each May.

Alumni engage for decades with the school. Harvard, which employs hundreds of full- and part-time staffers to connect with graduates and process their gifts, is now struggling to assuage growing alumni concerns while keeping the donation machine going.

Longtime volunteer fundraisers are pulling back. One alum is taking Harvard out of his will. Zingher is planning to give just $1, joining hundreds of other former students in a symbolic protest.

“The university has been in conversation with alumni and supporters, and will continue to engage closely with them,” Jason Newton, a Harvard spokesman, said in an email. “They are a vital part of our community.”

Reputational risk

Harvard counts eight US presidents, four sitting Supreme Court justices and many global leaders among its alumni. It’s the richest university in the country with a $51 billion endowment, and it boasts the highest credit rating and a fundraising operation that has brought in $1 billion annually since 2014. But cash gifts to the university fell 3 percent during the fiscal year ended in June 2023 and the endowment’s 10-year return is the second-lowest in the Ivy League.

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More than reputational risk is on the line. Total fundraising makes up about 12 percent of Harvard’s annual revenue, according to Moody’s Investors Service. The school would feel the pain if alumni dissatisfaction leads to a meaningful dent in donations.

“To lose that would be just devastating to any institution,” said Charles Phlegar, who has overseen fundraising at Cornell and Johns Hopkins and now serves at Virginia Tech. “You can say Harvard has all the money in the world, but they don’t. They have a financial scholarship model that’s best in class, world-class research and faculty, and you need that money to be a world-class institution.”

Harvard doesn’t close its books until June 30 and fundraising typically isn’t revealed until months later. That makes the precise financial impact of today’s alumni revolt hard to determine in current dollars and future bequests, even as billionaires including Idan Ofer and Les Wexner have severed ties with the university during the last two months.

But many alumni are signaling that they’ve had enough.

“My wife (an HLS alum) and three daughters are Jewish and I’m so pissed at Harvard right now that I don’t want to have anything to do with it,” investor Whitney Tilson wrote to the business school’s fundraising office as he declined a meeting ahead of his 30th year reunion. HLS is the university’s law school.

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In one sign of discomfort, the business school has postponed sending out some solicitation letters signed by alumni until next year, according to people familiar with the matter. That will allow the graduates to postpone a decision about whether they want to put their names on the requests for donations — a potentially better outcome for Harvard than if they said “no” now.

Similar turmoil is roiling colleges from Stanford to the University of Pennsylvania as the war spurs a surge in political debate and protests. It’s also stirring Islamophobia and prejudice against Palestinians as well as antisemitism.

Three men of Palestinian descent — college students at Brown, Trinity and Haverford — were shot during Thanksgiving break near the University of Vermont in Burlington. One was paralyzed from the chest down, his mother told CNN.

Congressional hearing

Harvard will be under scrutiny in Congress on Tuesday, when President Claudine Gay testifies at a House committee hearing about antisemitism on campus. She’ll be joined by her counterparts from Penn and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At Harvard, the tumult has engulfed Gay, the university’s first Black president, who took the reins July 1. She was already contending with the Supreme Court’s ruling against Harvard’s use of race in admissions, which was handed down two days before she started as president.

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Gay has drawn criticism for not initially denouncing more than 30 student groups that placed blame for the October attacks entirely on Israel and didn’t condemn Hamas, which the US and European Union designate a terrorist group.

Initially, one of the biggest critics was former university president Larry Summers, although he tempered his criticism after Gay denounced the attack and said the students didn’t speak for Harvard. She also appointed an antisemitism advisory group.

The unrest has exposed a generational divide in which older Americans tend to have more favorable views of Israel than those under 35. The plight of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza had become a lightning rod for campus protests long before the October attacks by Hamas, in which 1,200 were killed and more than 200 taken hostage. Since then, many US college students have demonstrated against Israel’s retaliatory response in Gaza, which according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry has killed 15,000 people.

While campus protests have persisted, Harvard alumni from US Senator Mitt Romney to billionaire investor Bill Ackman have called on the school to do more to ensure that Jewish students are protected. Ackman has also accused Harvard of hypocrisy over allowing some forms of free speech, while shutting down others.

Harvard wrote to students last week to say it would “enforce rules” around community standards following a call for accountability from Harvard Hillel. The group described a Nov. 29 demonstration that disrupted classes as hate speech not protected by the university’s free speech guidelines. Such protests have become normalized, it said, “causing Jewish and Israeli students to avoid class, university events, and dining halls.”

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“The idea of imagining myself being in class and listening to what has been reported is extremely upsetting,” said Erika Dreifus, a longtime volunteer and current class officer with four Harvard degrees. She had already been shifting most of her monetary donations to Harvard Hillel and away from the university before the October attacks. She gives Harvard a symbolic $19.91 for her college graduation year of 1991.

‘Moral failures’

The tensions have mobilized a group of Jewish alumni. Hearing from Jewish undergraduates who removed names from their doors in dorms because of safety concerns reminded Harvard graduate Adrian Ashkenazy of stories he heard from his father, a Holocaust survivor from Poland.

When he received an email in October from a San Fernando Valley alumni interviewing team, asking him to commit to meeting with prospective students, he declined.

“I replied immediately that I wasn’t going to be able to do these interviews because I had a difficult time encouraging anybody to go to Harvard at the moment given the moral failures that I was seeing from the students and the administrators,” said Ashkenazy, 49, a co-founder of the new Harvard College Jewish Alumni Association, which led the switch to $1 donations as a way to send a message.

For the last decade, Ashkenazy has hosted the Harvard Krokodiloes, an a cappella group he sang with as a student, when they came through Los Angeles. But he said he has second thoughts about continuing that tradition and for the first time feels embarrassed of his Harvard affiliation instead of proud.

Changing will

Libby Shani started making fundraising calls to alumni and parents as a “Crimson caller,” a student job, starting in her junior year in 2000. She continued to contact her 2002 classmates annually as a reunion fundraising chair until she quit after watching the school’s response to the Hamas attacks.

“The university inaction is appalling,” said Shani, 42, a retail consultant in New York. “I have zero desire to try to rally support and expend my personal capital for an institution I’m no longer willing to stand behind and is turning its back on a large number of us.”

Larry Carson, 52, a former president of the Harvard Club of St. Louis, is working to remove Harvard as a beneficiary of the estate plan he made more than two decades ago. The 1993 Harvard College graduate had designated the funds for undergraduate financial aid.

“It’s difficult to feel a lot of love for my alma mater right now,” he said.

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