A Palestinian flag waves in front of a tent encampment on a university campus.

How rich philanthropists exert undue influence over pro-Palestinian activism at universities

Written by Fahad Ahmad, Toronto Metropolitan University, and Adam Saifer, University of British Columbia. Originally published in The Conversation.
Pro-Palestinian protesters set up tents on The Quad at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg in May 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

On university campuses across North America, a new anti-war movement has emerged. Camped-out students are pressuring their universities to divest from companies that profit off the Israeli war machine, to cut ties with Israeli institutions and to publicly condemn Israel’s deadly military campaign in Gaza.

A Black woman with short hair and wearing glasses speaks into a microphone.
Former Harvard president Claudine Gay speaks at a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill in December 2023 in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

Away from the student encampments, unsympathetic alumni and donors are pressuring university administrators to suppress this student movement.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft announced he would cease donations to Columbia University. Hedge-fund billionaire Bill Ackman, dissatisfied with Harvard University administration’s response to a student statement criticizing Israel, led a highly publicized campaign to oust the university’s first Black president, Claudine Gay.At Toronto Metropolitan University, several donors threatened to withhold scholarships and donations to the law school in response to a student letter in solidarity with Palestinians.

More recently, Ernest Rady, the man behind the University of Manitoba’s largest-ever donation, publicly condemned the convocation address delivered by the medical school’s valedictorian.

The valedictorian called for a ceasefire, humanitarian aid to Gaza and an end to the killing of Palestinian medical professionals and journalists. The university responded by denouncing the valedictory speech and removing it from their media channels.

Donor influence over university policy on pro-Palestinian student protests is an alarming case of the growing footprint of private philanthropy in higher education. It poses a grave risk to free inquiry, critical thinking and the democratic ideals of universities.

Philanthropy goes beyond mere do-gooding

Philanthropy refers to the mobilization of private resources for the public good.

As governments have scaled back public spending, philanthropists have stepped in. They are widely celebrated for making financial contributions to social, cultural and educational institutions.

For example, the Gates Foundation has been praised for spending billions on health and education. The names of billionaire businessmen like Schulich, Sprott and Munk grace post-secondary institutions across Canada.

A curved stone archway over a large wooden store reads the Munk School of Global Affairs.
The Munk School of Global Affairs building in Toronto in January 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette


On university campuses across North America, a new anti-war movement has emerged. Camped-out students are pressuring their universities to divest from companies that profit off the Israeli war machine, to cut ties with Israeli institutions and to publicly condemn Israel’s deadly military campaign in Gaza.

Our work, however, shows that philanthropy’s “goodness myth” obscures the fact that “philanthropic wealth and power emerge through social relations of colonial and capitalist accumulation, which produce the very societal harms … that are the target of philanthropic interventions.”

Scholars have long cautioned against philanthropy’s undemocratic and unaccountable nature. Stanford political scientist Robert Reich calls it “a plutocratic exercise of power.”

Philanthropic donations are publicly subsidized through charitable tax receipts. However, spending is directed according to donors’ preferences. Philanthropy therefore allows wealthy people to exchange financial capital for social and symbolic capital. This grants philanthropists undue influence over public policy, including matters related to post-secondary education.

Mega-donations and Canadian universities

The neoliberal turn in higher education has resulted in a stagnation or decline in provincial funding to post-secondary institutions.

In addition to raising student fees and cutting costs, universities are seeking philanthropic donations to fill funding gaps. These donations boost university trust, capital, endowment and research funds, even though they constitute a small portion of university revenues.

Canadian universities’ growing dependence on philanthropic donations coincides with a significant expansion in the number and size of philanthropic foundations.

Foundations are charitable institutions used by the wealthy to make donations. From 2013 to 2022, the total assets of philanthropic foundations in Canada rose from approximately $56 billion to $123 billion. This growth ushered in a new era of “mega-donations” to universities. In just the last five years, the University of Toronto, Queen’s University, the University of Waterloo and McGill University have received individual donations of $100 million or more.

Mega-donations provide post-secondary institutions with the financial resources to help them realize their goals. In the process, however, university administrators are rendered accountable to the whims and political priorities of wealthy philanthropists. When balancing donor interests against their own academic principles and organizational priorities, the balance all too often tips in favour of the donors.

In 2020, for example, the dean of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law blocked the hiring of a human rights scholar in response to pressure from a major donor (and sitting judge) who disapproved of the scholar’s research on Israel/Palestine.

A nighttime protest shows demonstrators waving Palestinian flags.
Protesters chant outside of a pro-Palestinian encampment set up on the University of Toronto campus in May 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

The need to increase public funding

Scholars of the philanthropic sector have long pointed to the power imbalances in donor-grantee relationships. Philanthropy is uniquely characterized by upward accountability — institutions like universities that are reliant on big donations are compelled to sacrifice the needs of students and faculty at the altar of donor wishes and priorities. Administrators are driven by fear of losing philanthropic funding.

Philanthropists clearly understand this power when they demand that post-secondary institutions discipline student protests supporting Palestine.

When university administrators accede to donor demands, they punish students for enacting the core values and principles their institutions profess. This cultivates the conditions for wealthy elites to introduce their ideological biases into public academic institutions.The Conversation

Students carrying book bags and knapsacks walk toward an ornate stone building on a treed path.
Students walk on the McGill University campus in October 2023 in Montréal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz


There is a long history of wealthy people controlling organizations and institutions through giving and withholding donations. Elites across the political spectrum have used their philanthropy to un-democratically shape public policy and “capture” social movements.

This structural dependence on philanthropy explains why donors are able to pressure university administrators into suppressing the anti-war student movement against Israel’s campaign in Gaza. Safeguarding against this creep of private forces into the university requires a recommitment to increased public funding of post-secondary education.


The Conversation