As conflict between Israel and Hamas rages in the Middle East, the impact has steadily encroached onto college campuses throughout the U.S. Mounting ideological clashes have resulted in protests on college campuses, as well as broader discussions of the primacy (and potential limitations) of free speech in institutions of higher education.

Organizations such as the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee and NYU's Student Bar Association have released placing sole blame on Israel for the violence in the region, leading to widespread backlash. Meanwhile, on October 19, a coalition of university representatives from schools including the University of Notre Dame and Baylor University published a denouncing Hamas and publicly standing with Israel.

These clashes have generated heated discourse on free speech from both sides of the conflict. In response to a pro-Palestinian gathering on George Washington University’s campus, GWU President issued a reading: “The right to free speech, assembly, and debate is the foundation on which our nation and our university are built, and members of the GW community, including our student organizations, have the right to be vocal and engaged within the boundaries of the law and our university policies. However, we are also a shared community, and I not only condemn terrorism, but I also abhor the celebration of terrorism and attempts to perpetuate rhetoric or imagery that glorifies acts of violence.” At the same time, many Muslim students, as well as students who express pro-Palestinian sentiments, have ire over the lack of direct reference to Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian violence in university presidents’ public addresses, with some expressing concerns for their own safety as they voice their views on campus.

These issues are likely to pose fresh challenges for universities in the coming weeks, as they could lead to financial backlash for prestigious institutions. As these conflicts play out within university communities, high-profile donors have followed universities’ responses with keen attention—and some have threatened to pull support over institutional responses that they deem insufficient.

In an interview with CNN, Cliff Asness, a billionaire donor to the University of Pennsylvania, : “I do not like making something like this about money–but it appears to be one of the only paths that has any hope of mattering, and it has become clear that it is the only voice some of us have.”


Kenneth Griffin, a multi-billionaire donor to Harvard University, contacted university administration expressing furor over the university’s initial silence on the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee’s letter blaming Israel for the Hamas attacks. Harvard’s former president, Lawrence Summers, expressed similar via social media. In the wake of this response, Harvard President Claudine Gay issued a , saying: “I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas. Such inhumanity is abhorrent, whatever one’s individual views of the origins of longstanding conflicts in the region.” She went on to note that “while our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group — not even 30 student groups — speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.”

These high-profile clashes highlight the intricate complexities that universities face in responding to this heated international conflict, as they seek to avoid alienating or angering the student population while also placating the donors on whom they depend. Donations can carry weight—whether granting donors’ children an advantage in the admissions process or influencing institutional responses to politics. The more vehement response from administrators at Penn and Harvard after donor complaints indicates that donors wield a significant amount of power in influencing institutional response—and therefore, the tensions between administrators, donors, and student communities are not likely to abate any time soon. The question remains: If high-profile donors like Asness and Griffin pull their financial support, who is left with the institutional influence in their place?