Pro-Palestinian NYU alumni look to create 'ripple effect' by withholding donations

Justice in Palestine group aims to put financial pressure on university to protect demonstrators, among other demands

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As the academic year at New York University comes to a close, a group of alumni is aiming to put financial pressure on the institution to protect pro-Palestinian students by withholding donations.

The group, NYU Alumni for Justice in Palestine, hopes its grass-roots efforts will convince the university to meet its demands, which include protecting pro-Palestinian supporters and divesting from companies with links to Israel, such as GE and Lockheed Martin.

With NYU's semester wrapping up, NYUAJP hopes to expand on its alumni base pledging to withhold donations. In March, more than 300 alumni signed an open letter announcing a total of $3.4 million in withheld donations. Nearly three quarters of the individual donations withheld were of $10,000 or less.

“It was to show to the administration that these donors and this growing body of alumni that you're alienating, that's going to have the repercussions both in the short and long term when it comes to how donations are done in small amounts,” said an NYUAJP representative, who spoke to The National on condition of anonymity.

The group launched the effort to counter NYU's One Day campaign, a tentpole fundraising event for the university. NYU said it raised more than $11.4 million through the drive.

The representative said the group believes universities are "banking on" the end of the school year drying up support for efforts. But with NYU's semester wrapping up, the NYUAJP aims to expand its base of alumni who pledge to withhold their donations to the university.

"Because then you start to see a bigger drop in the bucket that the institution can no longer be ignoring," the representative said.

NYU did not respond to The National's request for comment.

Alumni donations typically help fund a university's operating budget, scholarship opportunities for students or campus renovations. Donations can also help fund research projects, new programmes and faculty support.

While the withheld donations appear meagre compared to billionaires pulling their financial support from some Ivy League universities, the representative said the hope was to create a “ripple effect”, as more pro-Palestinian alumni networks expand.

Two other groups – at the University of Michigan and George Washington University – are engaging in similar efforts.

And nearly 1,600 alumni at Columbia University pledged to "withhold all financial, programmatic, and academic support" for the university until it meets the group's demands, which are similiar to that of NYUAJP's.

“We're only going to see this continuing to grow because the advantage that alumni have is they don't face the same repercussions or consequences as current students or faculty may face," the representative said.

Deep-pocketed owners include a former US ambassador, the former president of Harvard University, as well as the owner of an NFL franchise.

Many come from Ivy League institutions, considered to be premier education attraction for students domestically and internationally.

NFL franchise owner Robert Kraft, who has a building named after him at Columbia University, on April 22 said he would not support the university for what he said was a rise in violence towards Jewish students at the campus.

Mr Kraft has given at least $8.5 million to the university in New York City's Upper West Side since 2000, including a $3 million gift that funded the Kraft Centre for Jewish Student Life, and a $5 million gift in 2007.

“It is my hope that in this difficult time, the Kraft Centre at Columbia will serve as a source of security and safety for all Jewish students and faculty on campus who want to gather peacefully to practise their religion, to be together and to be welcomed,” he said in a statement through the Foundation to Combat anti-Semitism.

The fortunes of Mr Kraft and other mega-donors are an important source of fundraising for universities, although many private gifts come with specific instructions.

Citadel chief executive Kenneth Griffin, whose donations to Harvard totalled more than $500 million, gave a $150 million gift to Harvard in 2014 largely going to supporting the university's financial aid programme. Mr Griffin halted donations to Harvard in January.

Harvard was one of the earlier political flashpoints in the US as universities grappled with how to respond to the Israel-Gaza war. A disastrous congressional hearing on rising anti-Semitism on US campuses put enormous pressure for Claudine Gay to step down as president. She resigned weeks later due to a plagiarism scandal.

Others to cease donations include the Wexner Foundation, chaired by Leslie Wexner, over a “dismal failure of Harvard's leadership” after October 7. Ukrainian-born Len Blavatnik suspended his donations to the Ivy League institution.

Mega-donors are also putting financial pressure on the University of Pennsylvania, whose president Liz Magill was also forced to step down after the congressional hearing in December.

The man who led the campaign for her ousting, Apollo Global Management chief executive Marc Rowan, withdrew his financial backing on October 11.

Mr Rowan donated $50 million to UPenn's Wharton School in 2018, which at the time was the largest single donation made to the business school. After halting his donations, Mr Rowan gave a $1 check to the university in protest, urging others to follow suit.

Stone Ridge Asset Management founder Ross Stevens, and Ronald Lauder, one of the heirs to cosmetics company Estee Lauder, also halted their financial support to the university.

NYUAJP said that while its donations are modest compared to those of mega-donors, its efforts show that increasing numbers of university alumni disapprove of NYU's policies.

“Here's a growing body of other alumni … who are saying, 'Until you fix your ways, we're also going to be uploading our donations,'” the representative said.

We want to make it clear that alumni across the board are paying attention to what NYU is doing
NYU Alumni for Justice in Palestine representative

“And so you can keep ignoring us, but you're only going to see an increase in the amount of donations withheld and the amount of students who are going to boycott us.”

The group is also demanding NYU condemn the tens of thousands of Palestinian deaths and re-evaluate its relationship with companies researching arms manufacturing. The NYUAJP representative said it was unclear how much the university invests in Israel-linked companies, where that money goes or who controls the university's investments.

“We want to make it clear that alumni across the board are paying attention to what NYU is doing," NYUAJP's representative said.

Updated: May 10, 2024, 9:41 AM