Ever since he was a boy, Bill Ackman dreamed of becoming a businessman. He sold ads for Let’s Go travel guides from his dorm room as an undergrad at Harvard and co-captained the business-school crew team, which had oars decorated with dollar signs. “Let’s face up to what Harvard Business School represents,” Ackman wrote in the school newspaper after the rowers were booed at the Head of the Charles. “We spend 90 percent of our studies at HBS pursuing the maximization of the dollar.”
But even as a college student, Ackman was also thinking about how the university worked — and the role it played in society. He majored in social studies and took a formative course on ethnicity and nationalism taught by Marty Peretz, who became a lifelong mentor. “He’s a bruiser,” Peretz told me recently when I asked what had impressed him about Ackman. “A bruiser and a brain do not very often go together.” Ackman’s senior thesis, submitted in 1988, looked at how admissions quotas to limit the Jewish student population in the 1920s echoed what some saw as the unfair treatment of Asian Americans in the ’80s. Ackman concluded that Harvard was admitting more students from other minority groups simply because “it has been pressured to do so.” He also critiqued the idea that the university was primarily a place for the transfer of knowledge. The real purpose of a university, in a capitalist society, was “to distribute privilege,” Ackman wrote. “The question, ‘Who should go to college?’ should perhaps more appropriately become ‘Who is going to manage society?’”
Ackman left Cambridge to join the managerial class — he started a hedge fund and became a billionaire — and didn’t spend too much time thinking about his alma mater. He gave a little money in the ’90s, earmarked for Holocaust studies. In 2014, he funded a center for behavioral economics with a professorship in his name and tossed $5 million to the crew team. His nephew enrolled at Harvard, as did his eldest daughter — which, Ackman told me recently, is where the trouble started.