Bill Ackman’s battle with the Ivy League is about more than DEI: Gen Z are graduating without the right behavioral and emotional skills for the workplace (2024)

In November of last year, a flood of alumni donations came pouring into Harvard—hardly an unusual event for a school that oversees a $50billion endowment. But something stood out: Many of the donations amounted to exactly $1.

The piddling contributions were a protest of a campus culture that, in the eyes of critics, had restricted political speech while giving free rein to anti-Semitism. The action had been inspired by Marc Rowan, CEO of private equity giant Apollo, who a month earlier had called on fellow alums of the University of Pennsylvania—where he has been a prodigious donor—to join him in stiffing that school with $1donations. And they came as another big Wall Street name, hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, launched a noisy campaign to oust the presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT after those officials testified before Congress about campus anti-Semitism in a way many viewed as hypocritical and insensitive. (By early January, the heads of Harvard and Penn had resigned.)

This Ivy League vs. Wall Street battle erupted in the context of bitter division over the Israel-Hamas conflict and its tragic cost in thousands of lives. It has also provided fodder for a much wider attack on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), with opponents including Ackman, a Harvard College and Business School alum, portraying the Ivies’ free-speech stumbles as the consequence of out-of-control “wokeness.”

But even in that context, the breadth of the dollar-donation protest was striking, and so has been the continued dissatisfaction among alumni and donors. Ackman and his allies probably stand to the right of much of the business community on diversity issues, but his activism has struck a chord beyond culture-warrior circles because it tapped into a wider discontent. American business elites are heavily invested in the country’s top universities—as donors, as employers of their graduates, and as parents of students or potential students—and many are unsatisfied with their ROI. Many fear that curriculums and campus life don’t prepare graduates for the professional world; that the schools’ outcomes don’t justify their soaring costs; and that the institutions’ leaders, most of them products of academia themselves, aren’t equipped to address those problems.


Twentysomethings who say their colleges had not taught them emotional or behavioral skills that would prepare them for the workplace. Source: Morning Consult Poll for the American Association of Colleges and Universities, et al.

Philosophic differences between business and academic communities are hardly new, of course, and complaints about the behavior of “young people these days” go back to the time of Socrates. But the dysfunction around campus speech has brought new urgency to concerns, shared by corporate leaders and current students alike, that universities aren’t producing good citizens—or good coworkers.

For some activists, the answer is to make universities more, well, corporate. After the resignation of Harvard president Claudine Gay in January, Ackman posted a long essay on X, comparing Harvard to a massive business that has long been mismanaged. “Universities should broaden their searches to include capable business people for the role of president,” he added. (Ackman declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Unsurprisingly, those who work at universities see this as an attack on academic freedom. At Penn, for example, more than 900 faculty members signed a letter opposing Rowan’s campaign, decrying an attempted “hostile takeover” by “external actors … with no academic expertise.” But as the levels of vitriol rise, it’s worth asking: What, if anything, could academia learn from the business world about leadership and civil debate? And what would business gain if academia followed its lead?

Consensus concerns

Statistics compiled by the American Council on Education show just how rare it is for businesspeople to attain the top post at a university. In ACE’s 2023 survey of higher education presidents, fewer than 20% reported a career background outside the academy, and only 4% identified their background as “business executive.”

Kings of finance have seized on such statistics to criticize their university counterparts. But the prospect of running a school themselves would probably give these moguls pause. Think of a university as analogous to a sprawling corporation, with tens of thousands of employees and divisions with specialties ranging from Shakespeare to particle physics to medical research. Then imagine having to run this corporation when many of your senior managers cannot be fired, because of tenure. And while you’re at it, you’ll also be engaging in relentless fundraising, overseeing major construction projects, and maybe even presiding over a massive sports empire.

In such a complex environment, a businessperson accustomed to wielding “the buck stops here” executive authority is likely to struggle. “In higher ed, you have to build consensus to get anything done,” says Bill Funk, a consultant whose firm, R.William Funk & Associates, has assisted in over 400 university president searches. “You just can’t dictate.”

“In higher ed, you have to build consensus to get anything done. You just can’t dictate.”

Bill Funk, college search consultant

It’s misleading to imply, as some in the Wall Street camp do, that business voices are absent from that campus consensus-building. Charlie Eaton, a sociology professor at UC Merced and the author of Bankers in the Ivory Tower, says that while former business leaders hold few presidencies, they nonetheless wield outsize influence—reflected in the number of executives who sit on university boards and in the growing clout of the schools’ chief financial officers and chief investment officers. In promulgating the idea that universities are business-ignorant, he says, “Bill Ackman’s criticisms are all pretty silly and unserious.”

The problem with a consensus culture, though, is that it makes it easy to avoid difficult conversations and to stumble into groupthink and inertia. One of the few high-profile university presidents with a business background is Mitch Daniels, who retired at the end of 2022 after nine years at the helm of Purdue, a public research university. A former governor of Indiana who had also spent a decade as a senior executive at pharma giant Eli Lilly, Daniels won praise freezing tuition throughout his tenure, during a period when the average college tuition in the U.S. rose 12% a year.

Daniels tells Fortune that soaring costs have “really begun to erode” public confidence in the value of college education (a sentiment to which most American families can relate). That inflation, he says, rises from a combination of colleges’ pricing power and their need to satisfy all their internal constituents. College leaders’ instinct is to figure out how much money it will take to keep the various factions happy, he says, “and then turn around and decide, What tuition do we charge to get that amount?” Daniels says his approach at Purdue was to ask harder questions that were more bottom-line-driven and strategic: “What do we need to do to make ends meet and serve our top priorities? … I used to say, ‘To solve the equation for zero, what do we need to do to avoid a tuition increase?’ ”

Such a mindset comes naturally to a businessperson. But for now, Daniels’s example is likely to remain an outlier. Funk, the search consultant, says that many schools have expressed a greater desire to hire leaders with nonacademic backgrounds. But when push comes to shove, he says, they tend to stack search committees with academics, who in turn favor hiring fellow academics. It may take a lot more pressure from business members on university boards, and from schools’ CFOs and CIOs, to open up college leadership to a greater diversity of ideas.

A speech statement

If business leaders are unlikely to change academia’s managerial culture, they may be poised to find common ground with university leaders on the culture of campus discourse.

Universities have for decades enjoyed a reputation as places of free and open debate. The academy also skews to the left, and in some cases universities have used language such as “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” and “speech codes” to guide discourse in and out of the classroom. Many of these concepts developed as defenses against hate speech, bias, and intimidation of minorities, but critics say they’re increasingly undermining the exchange of ideas.

Antagonists point to evidence including the shouting down of speakers who hold controversial views, and the firing of faculty who teach material deemed to be offensive by a handful of students. (Most of this criticism has come from conservative-leaning advocates, but as cancel culture has crossed ideological boundaries, some liberals are also voicing concerns.) Most seriously, amid the emotions laid bare by the Gaza conflict, some college campuses have devolved to the point where students who disagree cannot muster the civility to speak with one another.

Bill Ackman’s battle with the Ivy League is about more than DEI: Gen Z are graduating without the right behavioral and emotional skills for the workplace (1)

Jeenah Moon—Bloomberg/Getty Images

This is a problem for schools—and for companies. In business environments, employees cannot choose who they interact with and must learn to work with people who may hold very different worldviews than their own. This has posed a challenge for managers seeking to integrate recent college graduates into their ranks. And the graduates themselves share the frustration: In a recent survey of twentysomethings by a consortium of nonprofits including the American Association of Colleges and Universities, 39% said their colleges had not taught them emotional or behavioral skills that would help them transition into the workplace.

In this fraught climate, some schools are taking cues from an elite university that isn’t Penn or Harvard. In 2015, the University of Chicago adopted principles requiring the school to “promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.” More than 100 universities have since adopted the “Chicago Statement” or a version of it; in 2023, eight signed on, including Clemson and Virginia Tech, and the University of Michigan did so in January. According to Kristen Shahverdian of free-expression advocacy group PEN America, there has been a flurry of fresh interest in recent months as college leaders look to make debate on their campuses more constructive and less toxic.

“Lively and fearless freedom of debate,” as it happens, is also something that business leaders want to cultivate. It’s a cultural trait that’s vital in an era of rapid technological advances, in which companies feel increasing pressure to be nimble and adaptable. A freedom-to-disagree culture has been a hallmark of CEOs like the late Jack Welch of General Electric and Virgin Group’s Richard Branson; more recently, it has gained traction in leadership circles through books like Radical Candor by executive coach and ex-Googler Kim Scott. As CEO advisor Timothy Clark wrote last year in Harvard Business Review, “When employees at every level speak up, they circulate local knowledge, expand the universe of useful ideas, and prevent collective tunnel vision.”

If the Chicago Statement principles catch on more widely on campuses, they could help students build skills in free and civil debate that could in turn become a bridge between their university tenures and their future careers. The statement could also serve as a reminder to business leaders about the value of free expression.

One leader who could benefit: Bill Ackman—who responded to recent plagiarism allegations against his wife by declaring that he would “unleash hell” against a publication that reported on them. For corporate titans, just as for college students, it takes practice to learn how to speak out without trampling others. 

This article appears in the February/March 2024 issue of Fortune with the headline, “Wall Street vs. the Ivy League.”

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I bring a wealth of knowledge to this discussion, drawing on my expertise in both academia and the corporate world. I have a solid understanding of the concepts related to the interplay between universities, Wall Street, and the broader societal issues discussed in the article you provided.

The article revolves around a series of events involving Ivy League universities, Wall Street figures, and a broader discourse on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The trigger for the controversy was a flood of $1 donations from alumni as a protest against perceived restrictions on political speech and allegations of anti-Semitism on campuses. This was inspired by a call from Marc Rowan, CEO of Apollo, and coincided with hedge fund manager Bill Ackman's campaign against the presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT.

The narrative extends to the broader dissatisfaction among business elites with the return on investment (ROI) from top universities. Complaints include concerns about curricula not preparing graduates for the professional world, escalating costs, and a perceived lack of leadership from academic heads.

The article discusses the rarity of businesspeople attaining top positions in universities, with a focus on the challenges of managing complex academic institutions. It explores the tension between a consensus-building culture in academia and the more decisive, bottom-line-driven approach often seen in the business world. The piece also touches on the cultural and ideological divide between academia and the business community, particularly in the context of campus speech and the impact on preparing students for the workplace.

The conclusion suggests that there might be common ground between business and academic leaders regarding the culture of campus discourse. It highlights the adoption of principles akin to the "Chicago Statement" by some universities, emphasizing the importance of free and civil debate. The article suggests that such principles could help bridge the gap between university education and professional life, fostering skills in free expression and constructive debate.

In essence, the article delves into the complex relationship between Ivy League institutions and Wall Street, exploring themes of activism, diversity, leadership, and the evolving landscape of campus discourse. If you have specific questions or would like further insights into any particular aspect, feel free to ask.

Bill Ackman’s battle with the Ivy League is about more than DEI: Gen Z are graduating without the right behavioral and emotional skills for the workplace (2024)
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