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Who is Bill Ackman and why is he so mad?

The aggrieved billionaire is gunning for Harvard, Business Insider, and anyone who talks about his wife.

Billionaire investor Bill Ackman speaks at the New York Times DealBook Conference in 2016.
Bill Ackman is the billionaire founder of a hedge fund who has recently become a central figure in two plagiarism scandals.
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
Whizy Kim is a reporter covering how the world's wealthiest people wield influence, including the policies and cultural norms they help forge. Before joining Vox, she was a senior writer at Refinery29.

Hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman has a lot of opinions, and he’s going to make sure you hear them.

How Ackman came to be a main character at the center of not one but two academic plagiarism scandals is a messy tale indeed. It started with Ackman amplifying allegations of academic dishonesty leveled against Harvard University president Claudine Gay by right-wing activists; Gay resigned from her post in early January due to the controversy. Ackman, who is Jewish, first set his sights on Gay after she failed, in his view, to adequately condemn pro-Palestinian student protests in which chants such as “from the river to the sea” were repeated.

But Ackman’s accusations came back to bite him after similar charges of plagiarism were made against his wife, former MIT professor Neri Oxman. Two Business Insider reports made the claim that Oxman “stole sentences and whole paragraphs from Wikipedia, other scholars, and technical documents in her academic writing.” Oxman wrote on X that she regretted some of the errors, while saying that in other instances she couldn’t confirm Business Insider’s claims. Her husband has since launched a fresh offensive — this time against Business Insider.

Ackman isn’t a celebrity (unless you spend too much time online), or an academic, or even someone who has shown previous zeal for the cause of rooting out plagiarism. But he is worth $4 billion, and that can buy you a lot of attention.

Who is Bill Ackman?

Ackman was born to a wealthy family in Chappaqua, New York, and later attended Harvard University. He married Oxman (who was once rumored to be dating Brad Pitt) in 2019.

Since the ’90s, the founder of famed hedge fund Pershing Square has been well-known in finance circles as an activist investor — meaning he aggressively pushes for changes at the companies he buys stakes in. Another renowned activist investor Carl Icahn once said of Ackman, “He’s the quintessential example of if you want a friend on Wall Street, get a dog.” Talking to the New York Times in 2007, Ackman said of himself, “If I think I’m right, I can be the most persistent and most relentless person in America.”

Pershing holds stock in just a handful of companies; among them are Google, Chipotle, Hilton Hotels, Lowes, and RBI, a fast food multinational that owns popular chains like Burger King, Popeyes, and Tim Hortons. Much of Ackman’s fortune comes from a few incredibly lucrative bets, like shorting an insurer of mortgage-backed bonds right around the subprime mortgage crisis, and wagering tens of millions of dollars that the pandemic would cause absolute market chaos.

Not all of his bets have panned out. Throughout the 2010s, he lost a billion dollars shorting Herbalife, a multilevel marketing company selling supplements and meal replacements. The billionaire also made a misstep in trying to put the juice back into struggling retailer J.C. Penney, and took a huge loss on a pharmaceutical company called Valeant, with his fund losing almost $4 billion in two years. In 2017, Ackman’s Pershing and Valeant reached an agreement to pay $290 million to settle a lawsuit alleging insider trading.

The billionaire is a signatory of the Giving Pledge, a popular promise taken up by the ultra-rich to give away at least half of their total wealth. His philanthropic foundation has doled out hundreds of millions of dollars since 2006, often toward social justice issues such as poverty and criminal justice reform, and also scholarship funds for immigrants.

On X, he said he had “invested millions in helping promote Palestinian economic development and peaceful coexistence,” but that he would do more if only he had confidence that “the funds would be used productively.” Fran McGill, head of communications at Ackman’s hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, told Vox that Ackman declined to provide any additional comment beyond what he’s posted on X, including any details on what these pro-Palestinian investments were.

But that history of giving is at odds with Ackman’s latest activist turn, in which Ackman has emerged as a firm opponent to diversity and inclusion initiatives that he says he once supported. He wrote on X that he believes not just in diversity of race and religion but “diversity of viewpoints” and politics. He accused DEI of being “not about diversity in its purest form” but rather a “political advocacy movement on behalf of certain groups that are deemed oppressed under DEI’s own methodology.”

In his view, DEI unfairly paints any “merit-based program, system, or organization” as racist because there are disproportionate outcomes. It’s worth noting that Ackman’s father got his MBA from Harvard, where applicants are given preference if they have alumni family members.

Billionaires are used to getting their way because of more than just money (but mostly money)

Wading into the culture wars is new for Ackman, who mostly stayed in his finance lane before the pandemic. But like many of his ultra-rich peers, he hasn’t had much trouble commandeering attention thanks to a heady mix of wealth, connections, and access to a large social media audience — nor much hesitation in waltzing into new conversations with an air of authority. In the past week, he has been making novel-length X posts (some over 4,000 words long) interpreting the intricacies of MIT’s plagiarism rules and journalistic “due process” with the explicit goal of discrediting the plagiarism allegations detailed in Business Insider’s reporting.

He insists that he’s fighting to uphold the integrity of American institutions — including whether they sufficiently respect meritocracy — not just airing his grievances. Claudine Gay, in Ackman’s view, committed plagiarism. His wife didn’t; the book paragraphs and Wikipedia pages she allegedly lifted without citation were “inadvertent omissions” and “clerical errors of punctuation.” Ackman has not explained why, exactly, the examples used against Gay, which likewise involve copying phrasing and sentences without quotation marks or attribution, shouldn’t also count as a light omission. He has only said that his real goal was “to help her address the rise of antisemitism on campus” all along and that he had trusted plagiarism experts who called Gay’s academic record into question. But when it comes to his wife (who left MIT years ago), Ackman has not only launched a furious defense of why allegedly copying language isn’t plagiarism, but has acted as though others even knowing these allegations exist causes catastrophic emotional and reputational harm and counts as a matter of public injustice.

To right this perceived wrong, Ackman has tried his best to get the Business Insider article removed, decrying it as an example of journalistic malpractice. Not long after the story was published, he spoke privately with executives at both Business Insider and its parent company Axel Springer, informing them that he was disputing the plagiarism claims and that Insider would need to “withdraw the story.”

After these calls, Axel Springer said it would review the “process leading up to the reporting” on Oxman, but reiterated that “the facts of the reports have not been disputed.”

If the facts aren’t in dispute, it’s hard to see the move as anything but assuaging a powerful man’s displeasure — and a way to protect themselves legally against litigious, well-resourced billionaires. Gawker is a cautionary tale — a beloved outlet whose initial closure came on the heels of an expensive lawsuit funded by venture capitalist Peter Thiel. An Axel Springer spokesperson declined to comment further on the review of Business Insider’s reporting.

Ackman is far from the first rich guy to try to control the kinds of stories the media publishes, as well as how they’re framed. He’s joining the ranks of Thiel and Elon Musk, who famously bought X, a social media site used by many journalists, because he was confident he could create a better media landscape. (Musk even advised Ackman to sue Business Insider on X, where Ackman is waging his campaign; Ackman thanked him for his support.) That’s not to mention the many billionaires who own newspapers and media empires, whether it’s the Hearsts, the Sulzbergers, or Jeff Bezos. There was even a critically beloved TV show about it.

The way Ackman’s crusades against Harvard and Business Insider have played out are almost parodic demonstrations of a billionaire’s disproportionate sway on society; they are especially difficult to square with his supposed respect for meritocracy. Both at Harvard — a school his father attended and to which he has donated tens of millions of dollars — and Business Insider, Ackman’s money and network have given him a direct line to decision-makers that most of us don’t have access to. Ackman wrote on December 11 that two reporters had told him that Harvard resisted firing Gay in part because “they were concerned it would look like they were kowtowing to me.” It’s not an unwarranted concern. He also has a friend on the Harvard board — a former board director of Pershing Square Holdings — who had privately questioned whether Gay could stay on as president.

The perks of knowing the right people can’t be overstated. Ackman has given us an inside look at how he has escalated his contention with the allegations against Oxman: He quickly got on the phone with multiple executives at Business Insider and Axel Springer, growing irate when one didn’t call him back in an hour as promised. He contacted Axel Springer’s billionaire CEO Mathias Döpfner (you may remember him offering to run Twitter for Elon Musk when Musk was gearing up to buy it), and even reached out to Joseph Bae, one of the CEOs of KKR, Axel Springer’s biggest shareholder, as well as KKR co-founder and Axel board member Henry Kravis. As the days passed and the media company refused to remove the articles or say that they’d gotten the facts wrong, Ackman went even further, accusing the above men of being “responsible and profiting from Business Insider’s illegal and unethical journalism.”

This isn’t the first time Ackman’s connections likely greased the wheels for him. A few years ago, Ackman became involved in the fight to pressure Pornhub to remove alleged child sexual abuse material — the story goes that he sent a text to his friend, the then-CEO of Mastercard, which was also a payment processor on the site. Mastercard, in turn, pressured Pornhub to remove the videos.

Nor is this the first time Ackman has used his power to protect his wife’s reputation and influence the media narrative around her. In 2019, Oxman’s research lab at MIT garnered press attention for receiving $125,000 from Jeffrey Epstein after a 2015 meeting, when he was already a convicted sex offender. According to emails obtained by the Boston Globe, Ackman advised then-director of the MIT Media Lab Joi Ito not to mention his wife in any statements to the media so that she wouldn’t have to issue her own statement on the scandal. A few days after the Globe piece revealed these behind-the-scenes details, Oxman issued an apology.

The wealthy have always held this kind of quiet influence, but social media has allowed them to use that influence — or attempt to use it — explicitly in public view. Ackman has become much more active on X, which he has said is his only social media account, in the past few years — before the outbreak of the pandemic, he tweeted sparsely. He went from 24,000 followers in January 2019 to over a million by January 2024. His recent social media activism hasn’t had much of a financial impact on his publicly traded investment fund, whose stock price has risen since October 2023. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t pitfalls to using your influence to name yourself a commanding officer in the culture war — as Ackman and Oxman have learned.

Ackman’s fit of temper isn’t over yet. An Axel Springer spokesperson reportedly told Puck News journalist Dylan Byers that “most people had underestimated the way that Bill Ackman is completely losing it.” But maybe Ackman is making a bet — something he’s very used to doing — that in this fight, too, the billionaire will come out on top.

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