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Bill Ackman Is Wrong About DEI



Danielle Mitalipov (MBA ’25) responds to the controversial alumni’s accusation of ““reverse racism.”


On January 2nd, Harvard students were no doubt diligently making progress on New Year’s resolutions when they were interrupted by an email notification. It was from Claudine Gay (PhD ’98), announcing her resignation as Harvard President following a long, highly publicized campaign led in part by investor and HBS alumnus Bill Ackman (MBA ’92). This was an understandable, if unfortunate, outcome. Countless tweets and thought pieces had consistently argued that Gay inadequately handled congressional questioning about calls for Jewish genocide on Harvard’s campus, and accused her of plagiarism in her academic work.


Immediately after Gay’s resignation, Ackman wrote a post on X.com. However, instead of celebrating a victory against anti-semitism or academic dishonesty, he took aim at a new target: Harvard’s Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging (OEDIB). Ackman argued that OEDIB pushes an ideology of “reverse racism” and antisemitism, that it gives unqualified minority candidates unfair advantages in admission and employment, and that it fundamentally violates free speech and stamps out bold dissent.  


Make no mistake, Ackman cares a good deal about bold dissent. It’s a pedagogical value that I’m sure became more vital to him at HBS. (Evidently the MBA program did not impart on him the value of brevity, or finding an appropriate forum for your message: the post clocked in at over 4,000 words. Perhaps this is why HBS recently added a word count on the application essay, although now I’m the one who is digressing). So, in the spirit of that esteemed Socratic tradition, I dissent: Ackman is wrong on all counts. 


First, his characterization of OEDIB as an Orwellian panopticon enforcing ideological compliance has no basis. For one thing, ODEIB has no punitive powers – its website directs students elsewhere to make reports. Rather, its mission is primarily strategic, including initiatives such as an event series which “brings together experts from different viewpoints to discuss critical issues in productive ways and model dialogue across difference,” a goal Ackman professed to share in his post. OEDIB and Ackman have another interest in common: battling antisemitism. Following the October 7th attack, OEDIB took action to include Jewish students in its advocacy, offering community support sessions and creating a student leadership council with Jewish representation. Certainly these actions should have been taken earlier, but those who seek safety for Jewish students at Harvard should see OEDIB as an ally, not a threat. 


Ackman also blames DEI “ideology” more broadly for suppressing conservative viewpoints at Harvard. Setting aside the incorrect terminology (DEI is an organizational framework, not an ideology), he tellingly gives no examples. The closest I could find based on a scan of Ackman’s X account was that of Harvard professor Carole Hooven, who resigned following student outcry over her claim that there are only two biological sexes. Even if Ackman finds Hooven’s resignation regrettable, isn’t this vocal student response exactly the kind of free expression he seeks to protect? Surely he would not have suggested OEDIB punish the students for their opinions. What really strains credulity, however, is Ackman’s hand wringing about threats to “employment, social status, reputation and more” that DEI opponents supposedly face, given these tactics are the bread-and-butter of his own playbook. Ackman led the charge in calling for Gay’s ousting – he also demanded the names of Harvard students who signed a pro-Palestine letter so that he and other business leaders could avoid hiring them. 


His wish came true, and then some. Trucks displaying the names and faces of the students were parked outside the students’ homes following the doxxing of their addresses. Regardless of one’s views on the Israel-Palestine crisis, this is a far more extreme example of “cancel culture” than anything OEDIB has ever advocated. To his credit, Ackman at least condemned the trucks after they showed up on Gay’s doorstep, but one could be forgiven for doubting his sincerity when he immediately followed the statement by noting: “Perhaps the doxxing trucks will give President Gay some perspective on what it is like to be Jewish and/or Israeli on the @Harvard campus.” Apparently, these tactics are justified when Ackman approves of their aims, but are deplorable censorship by the DEI bogeyman when he does not.


However, I want to reply to the heart of Ackman’s position, the idea that Harvard can be committed to equality of opportunity while remaining “a meritocratic institution which does not discriminate for or against faculty or students based on their skin color.” This is an admirable idea in theory – I believe Ackman is genuine in this position – but it is incoherent in practice. Equality of opportunity requires consideration of structural barriers if it is to mean anything at all. Take affirmative action for example (setting aside the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, which Harvard agreed to follow). If a low-income candidate was unable to participate in many extracurriculars because they worked a part-time job or lacked transportation, shouldn’t the admission committee take these factors into consideration? And shouldn’t they consider that, for instance, Black students are more likely to face these circumstances than white students? If not, then what sort of “opportunity” do they really have?


Here's a case study that hits closer to home: the Harvard Business School. Historically, HBS struggled to achieve gender parity; female students faced harassment and did not over-perform consistently with their proportion of the overall class, as measured by graduation honors. But in 2013, HBS implemented policies to ensure equal opportunities for women, such as adding scribes to the classroom and offering coaching for female students and professors. This reform was widely recognized as a success – although there’s progress to be made, I’m happy to say I don’t recognize the culture of misogyny that women experienced at HBS just a decade ago. I doubt such change would be possible under Ackman’s philosophy, which views with disdain any ideology in which “women are deemed to be oppressed.” In their New York Times article defending DEI, HBS professors Caroline Elkins and Frances Frei provide a similar example, in which targeted academic support helped veteran students succeed at HBS. 


If Ackman is not convinced by appeals to equity, then perhaps as a results-driven financier he will find this compelling: diversity makes organizations more effective. In the academic world, more diverse faculty and student body improves average academic outcomes, including for white students. Certainly, then, university DEI initiatives have a valid pedagogical goal and are not mere ideology. And as for corporate America (which Ackman argues Harvard should emulate), a McKinsey study found that more diverse companies achieve higher returns. This is presumably because they better understand a consumer base that is increasingly diverse and demands diversity – and the data shows that they do, despite Ackman’s misgivings, demand diversity. Institutions are simply responding rationally to the stakeholders they depend on for their economic survival. As an activist investor, Bill Ackman should appreciate this fact more than most.

 

What’s most worrying, though, is that OEDIB is merely a canary in a coal mine. One has only to consider the national context to see this. In recent years, certain activists and politicians have used the rhetoric of DEI and critical race theory (CRT) as a Trojan horse to enact troubling policies prohibiting discussions of race, gender, and sexuality in schools. The tactic first saw success in Florida, where schools are now mandated, among other things, to discuss “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit." This is precisely the racist educational censorship that Ackman should be challenging. Here’s hoping he argues against it with the same vigor with which he called for Gay’s removal. I won’t be picky – he can use as many words as he likes.

Danielle Mitalipov (MBA ‘25) is an RC interested in scaling climate technology and renewable energy generation. She is a Student Sustainability Associate (SSA), and helped organize the HBS Climate Symposium. Prior to HBS, she studied philosophy at Stanford University, and led merchandising for a global brand at adidas. Outside of school, she is usually writing or watching the latest release at the Coolidge Corner Theater.


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So sad to see someone so concerned with virtue signaling and so totally confused in her views.


That DEI is bad should be “self-evident” to any real American. If we are all to enjoy life and live together in peace we must bid goodbye to identity politics and get all DEI workers new jobs where they can’t do any more harm.

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