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Bill Ackman and the Crusade Against Free Speech

By Jasmine N. Wynn, Crimson Opinion Writer
Jasmine N. Wynn ’27, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Thayer Hall.

Over the past few months, Harvard has routinely made national headlines, often alongside one name: Bill A. Ackman ’88. The billionaire has captured the public imagination since Oct. 10, when he fired off the beginning of an inflammatory series of X posts criticizing Harvard’s handling of antisemitism.

Ackman’s posts, made undoubtedly in bad faith, fueled already virulent retaliation faced by pro-Palestinian student activists. These students, who faced doxxing and harassment, were largely Black and brown.

Ackman has repeatedly abused his influence to intimidate those with significantly less power.

Asymmetric attacks on educational institutions — and the values of diversity and dissent which they strive to espouse — are nothing new to me. With Ackman’s recent theatrics, I am reminded of a similar incident that occurred at my high school in December 2020, where Ackman is a current parent.

At the end of my freshman year of high school, my school hosted a town hall in light of the murder of George Floyd. During this town hall, I, along with many other students of color, shared my experience with the racism that pervaded our campus. In the hopes of better protecting students like myself, several teachers and administrators then crafted a document of anti-racist proposals, which a far-right blog later leaked.

The ensuing months thrust our school into the national spotlight, although not to the same extent as Harvard today. First, the recently appointed head of diversity, equity, and inclusion was targeted and resigned under pressure. A few months later, the head of our school resigned. After that, our top health educator resigned over the spread of malicious disinformation about her curriculum. A truck then parked itself in front of our high school flashing anti-“woke” messages — a strikingly similar parallel to the “doxxing truck” that paraded Harvard Square last semester.

It is worth noting that quite a few parents at my high school supported this attack. That year, I watched as my wealthier classmates were emboldened by their parents’ behavior. My peers mocked recently implemented DEI measures as “woke-ism,” despite learning of the importance of their implementation in our community through stories shared on the viral “Black at Dalton” Instagram account and a mandatory assembly that fall.

Like the controversy involving former Harvard President Claudine Gay, my high school’s community had many valid criticisms to offer of our former head of school. However, this does not change the fact that, as in the case of Harvard, the loudest criticism originated beyond the walls of our school, from reactionary right-wing pundits.

The campaigns to tarnish the reputations of these two leaders and their respective institutions present a stepping stone for further attacks on freedom of speech on school campuses. The success of both of these campaigns raises urgent doubts about institutional autonomy in the face of external, moneyed influence.

The right-wing assault on education has not stopped at the gates of Harvard or my high school. The former president of the University of Pennsylvania — after testifying at the same congressional hearing on antisemitism as Gay — resigned following similar public scrutiny over her performance at the hearing and Penn’s initial response to Oct. 7.

The past several years have witnessed a national attack on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, namely education surrounding race and BGLTQ identity. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis passed the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill which effectively banned the discussion of LGBTQ+ identity in classrooms. Similarly, many states have recently passed laws or regulations criminalizing the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

The broader anti-DEI campaign being championed by the right is one that seeks to silence and erase large portions of America’s population and history. It attempts to deny the fact that oppression is systemic.

It is no coincidence that Ackman is a vocal proponent of this anti-DEI campaign. His attack against Gay was motivated by a reluctance toward change. Most deplorably, he weaponized antisemitism as a smokescreen to advance a political agenda — a move that undoubtedly undermines efforts to combat true antisemitism on college campuses.

For Ackman and the right, Gay’s departure represents a triumphant victory in a far greater war: the nationwide crusade against free speech, especially when it attempts to shine light on America’s history of oppression.

I have seen, now twice, how unchecked vitriol endangers the most vulnerable members of our community; these attacks make everyone less safe. So, to students across the United States — regardless of education level — it is our responsibility to speak out against this siege. We must do so to protect our classmates, teachers, and our school communities.

Finally, to Bill Ackman, my message is simple: do better. Your reactionary words have threatened the livelihoods of countless students and endangered the prospect for open and constructive discourse on campus — an undeniable violation of your ostensible commitment to free speech. In my conversations with those from across Harvard and my high school community, there has been a shared feeling of profound disgust and anger for your actions.

Going forward, I hope that the public will remain vigilant in their critiques of the crusade against higher education. At this moment, the future depends on it.

—Jasmine N. Wynn ’27, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Thayer Hall

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