Bill Ackman is the First (and Worst) Wife Guy of 2024

Bill Ackman, billionaire founder and CEO of hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, has become a new and formidable actor in the American culture wars thanks to his connections to Harvard University. But by stepping into the fray, he inadvertently took up the mantle of a social media archetype that is awkward and difficult to shed: He’s 2024’s first “wife guy.”

Back in early November, a month after Hamas militants’ deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Ackman, who is Jewish, addressed a 3,000-word open letter on X (formerly Twitter) to Claudine Gay, then president of Harvard, where Ackman earned both his undergraduate and business degrees. In short, his message conveyed frustration with what he saw as Harvard’s failure to deal with antisemitism on campus amid the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Following meetings with students and faculty, Ackman alleged in his lengthy tweet that Jewish students were being bullied and even spat on, and that campus Slack message channels were rife with hate speech and memes targeting the Jewish community. He also took issue with certain chants from pro-Palestine demonstrators — “Intifada” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — which he condemned as “eliminationist language.” The letter took the position that such comments could not possibly fall under the university’s protections for free expression and called for disciplinary action befitting violations of Harvard’s code of conduct.

Ackman was hardly alone in accusing his alma mater of allowing the harassment and endangerment of Jews as the war in Gaza raged; another critical letter signed by hundreds of people and authored by several Harvard alumni, including Sen. Mitt Romney and billionaire investor Seth Klarman, accused the university of “silence” in the face of antisemitism. But in the weeks that followed, Ackman would become a primary conduit for a right-wing reactionary movement that sought to bring down President Gay — the first non-white person to serve in her position — as part of a crusade against DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) frameworks within institutions such as Harvard.

By early December, Ackman was frustrated with both Gay’s lack of response to his initial missive and her declining to attend a screening of Bearing Witness, an Israel Defense Forces compilation of raw footage depicting the chaos and violence of the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. Then, on Dec. 5, Gay testified before Congress alongside the presidents of University of Pennsylvania (Elizabeth Magill) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sally Kornbluth) for a hearing on campus antisemitism. All three equivocated when asked by Harvard alumna Rep. Elise Stefanik if “calling for the genocide of Jews” violated their school’s code of conduct, saying it depends on “context,” such as whether an individual was targeted or the speech turns into actionable conduct.

Ackman raged on X that these answers were proof of the three women’s “moral bankruptcy” and demanded they all “resign in disgrace.” Gay later apologized for her remarks, though it did nothing to stall the mounting outrage.

Soon after Ackman began agitating for Gay to step down, he found himself in close alignment with Christopher Rufo, a right-wing activist known for stoking a panic about Critical Race Theory being taught in schools. Rufo has since focused much of his rhetorical attacks on DEI values and initiatives, and with Gay’s job hanging in the balance, he published a newsletter outlining instances of apparent plagiarism in Gay’s 1997 dissertation. Conservative media ran with the allegations, and a panel of experts appointed by Harvard also found instances of “duplicative language without appropriate attribution” in her published work.

Ackman shared and championed Rufo’s coverage of the scandal, leading Rufo to declare that both Ackman and X owner Elon Musk (who had also criticized Gay on the platform) “realize that DEI is death to merit, accomplishment, and the American spirit.” Ackman had, over the previous few months, become increasingly hostile to the concept of DEI, in October sharing an op-ed from a former DEI director who claimed it fosters antisemitism. The day after Gay’s testimony before congress, he claimed to have learned that she was appointed president by a committee that “would not consider a candidate who did not meet the DEI office’s criteria,” and compared the “DEI movement” to McCarthyism because people who push back against those values are labeled racists.

Obviously, Harvard could never fire Gay over her race or gender, but the plagiarism allegations presented a convenient way for Rufo, Ackman and others to argue that DEI considerations had led the university to select an unqualified president. Rufo’s Wall Street Journal column following Gay’s eventual resignation on Jan. 2, “How We Squeezed Harvard to Push Claudine Gay Out,” makes it clear that his efforts were one front in a broader battle against strategies for promoting diversity in various settings.

The Harvard Corporation, the university’s governing board, released a statement the day Gay announced her resignation and return to a faculty post, saying they received her decision with “great sadness.” Reached for comment, Harvard’s media relations team referred Rolling Stone back to that message, in which the board mentions “difficult and troubling times” but none of the controversies that marred the end of Gay’s mere six months as head of the school. The board has not publicly addressed whether its previous support for Gay had crumbled in part due to reports of the Ivy League’s wealthy megadonors potentially closing their checkbooks — Ackman claimed in December that Gay had cost Harvard “billions” in withheld or withdrawn funds.

In any event, the plagiarism narrative that helped fuel Gay’s ouster, a symbolic victory for anti-DEI activists, would have an unintended consequence for Ackman, who is married to American-Israeli designer and architect Neri Oxman, herself a former high-profile professor at MIT. On Jan. 4, the same day Ackman argued with fellow billionaire Mark Cuban, who came out in defense of DEI in response to a Musk tweet calling it “discrimination on the basis of race,” Business Insider ran an article exposing instances of plagiarism in Oxman’s own 2010 MIT dissertation. Oxman admitted to citation errors and said she would take steps to have them corrected. But a follow-up report cited many more cases in which Oxman lifted directly from Wikipedia, other scholars, and a textbook for her work without attribution, and she has yet to respond.

Ackman, however, has now demonstrated a commitment to being a main character on social media, simply posting through whatever blowback he may face. He came to Oxman’s defense as any extremely online wife guy would. First, he walked back his previous assertions that plagiarism is a “very serious” offense, writing in a tweet that rambled for more than 5,000 words that it is “a near certainty that authors will miss some quotation marks and fail to properly cite or provide attribution for another author on at least a modest percentage of the pages of their papers.” He further denied that Oxman had plagiarized at all.

Next, he attacked Business Insider for running stories on Oxman, calling himself “the protagonist” of recent events while arguing that she should have been “off limits” and was not given ample opportunity to defend herself. He also accused an Insider editor of being motivated by anti-Zionism. Rufo pitched in on defense, labeling the articles “revenge” and claiming that while Gay was “a legitimate subject for public scrutiny,” Oxman, who left her MIT professorship in 2020, was not — even though she enjoys a certain level of celebrity due to her academic career and has artwork exhibited in the permanent collections of top museums around the world.

On Monday, Ackman’s attempts at damage control broadened in scope as tweets about Oxman’s connection to the late pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and an acquaintance with “an actor” circulated on X. In 2017, while a professor at MIT’s Mediated Matter department, Oxman had presented Epstein “an oversized 3D-printed marble,” per ARTnews, as instructed by her director, because Epstein had donated $125,000 to the lab. Oxman later expressed regret at receiving those funds.

But Ackman, who at one point noted how “extraordinarily private” a person his wife is, went further in a tweet, describing how Oxman had not accepted various dinner invites from Epstein following that encounter. As for the actor — whom he identified as Brad Pitt — Ackman sought to dispel any impression that Oxman had had a “romantic” relationship with him, explaining that Pitt had shown interest in her work because of a “cultural architecture project” he was considering. The mention of Pitt, however, only contributed to jokes and speculation about Oxman and the actor having a more intimate history.

By Tuesday, Ackman was in full meltdown mode, trying to pick apart Business Insider‘s reporting from every last angle and thanking Musk for his “support” when the tech mogul recommended he sue the publication. (Last week, Ackman had predicted the outlet “will go bankrupt and be liquidated.”) Axel Springer, Insider‘s German parent company, on Sunday took the unusual step of announcing it would “review” the coverage — but even they said in a statement that “the facts of the reports have not been disputed.” The comment further angered Ackman, who tweeted, “We expect to dispute a substantial number of facts in the story.”

Ackman is currently down the rabbit hole of researching MIT’s plagiarism policy as of 2009, when Oxman was working on her dissertation, to prove her innocence. Yet he continues to expose his own legal strategies and call more attention to the embarrassing story with long-winded diatribes for which he has quickly grown infamous: his replies tend to draw mockery from people saying nobody wants to read such tedious tweets and that he continues to self-sabotage.

Such are the hidden risks, apparently, of making oneself the mouthpiece for a reckoning on academic honesty that has more to do with grievances about campus politics at a university you left more than 30 years ago. Three months into this saga, Ackman is learning that the role of online “protagonist” doesn’t just mean glory and triumph: you’re stuck in the same mud as everyone else.