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Bill Ackman's celebrity academic wife Neri Oxman's dissertation is marred by plagiarism

Katherine Long,Jack Newsham   

Bill Ackman's celebrity academic wife Neri Oxman's dissertation is marred by plagiarism
  • Harvard's president, Claudine Gay, resigned after conservative activists revealed she had plagiarized.
  • The hedge fund manager and prominent Harvard donor Bill Ackman helped lead the charge against Gay.

The billionaire hedge fund manager and major Harvard donor Bill Ackman seized on revelations that Harvard's president, Claudine Gay, had plagiarized some passages in her academic work to underscore his calls for her removal following what he perceived as her mishandling of large protests against Israel's bombardment of Gaza on Harvard's campus.

An analysis by Business Insider found a similar pattern of plagiarism by Ackman's wife, Neri Oxman, who became a tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2017.

Oxman plagiarized multiple paragraphs of her 2010 doctoral dissertation, Business Insider found, including at least one passage directly lifted from other writers without citation.

Her husband, Ackman, has taken a hardline stance on plagiarism. On Wednesday, responding to news that Gay is set to remain a part of Harvard's faculty after she resigned as president, he wrote on X that Gay should be fired completely due to "serious plagiarism issues."

"Students are forced to withdraw for much less," Ackman continued. "Rewarding her with a highly paid faculty position sets a very bad precedent for academic integrity at Harvard."

An architect and artist who experiments with new ways to synthesize materials found in nature, Oxman has been the subject of profiles in major outlets such as The New York Times and Elle. She has collaborated with Björk, exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and had paparazzi stake her out after Brad Pitt visited her lab at MIT in 2018.

In 2019, emails uncovered by the Boston Globe showed Ackman pressured MIT to keep Oxman's name out of a brewing scandal over an original sculpture she gave to Jeffrey Epstein in thanks for a $125,000 donation to her lab.

While MIT and Pershing Square Foundation continue to describe her as a professor in online biographies, a spokesperson for Pershing Square Capital Management said she left MIT in 2020 "after she got married, became a mother, and moved to New York City." After this article was published, MIT responded to a prior request for comment, writing that Oxman left MIT in June 2021.

Her husband, meanwhile, has been vocal about wanting to see MIT's president, Sally Kornbluth, fired since Kornbluth testified on December 5 in front of a congressional panel examining how university presidents handled student protests against Israel's war in Gaza. Kornbluth said in her opening statement that she didn't support "speech codes" that would restrict what students say during protests.

Ackman attacked Kornbluth's testimony, as well as that of Gay and the University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill, as tantamount to supporting antisemitism. He also criticized the presidents' stated goals of improving campus diversity, equity, and inclusion as "violations of basic American principles."

"To the @MIT governing boards: Let's make a deal. If you promptly terminate President Kornbluth, I promise I won't write you a letter," Ackman posted on X on December 10, referring to an open letter he sent to Harvard's governing board criticizing Gay's leadership.

Both Oxman and Ackman declined to comment when reached by Business Insider. Both posted lengthy responses on X to the piece shortly after it was published.

Multiple instances of plagiarism from a 2010 dissertation

In Oxman's dissertation, completed at MIT, she plagiarized a 1998 paper by two Israeli scholars, Steve Weiner and H. Daniel Wagner, a 2006 article published in the journal Nature by the New York University historian Peder Anker, and a 1995 paper published in the proceedings of the Royal Society of London. She also lifted from a book published in 1998 by the German physicist Claus Mattheck and, in a more classical mode of plagiarism, copied one paragraph from Mattheck without any quotation or attribution.

"The basic building block of the bone family of materials is the mineralized collagen fibril," Weiner and Wagner wrote in their paper. "It is composed of the fibrous protein collagen in a structural form that is also present in skin, tendon, and a variety of other soft tissues. The collagen constitutes the main component of a three-dimensional matrix into which, and in some cases onto which, the mineral forms."

That passage was included in its entirety in Oxman's dissertation. She cited Weiner and Wagner but did not include the passage in quotation marks, a violation of MIT's academic-integrity handbook, both as it is currently written and as it was at the time.

Similarly, in most of the other instances that BI identified in which Oxman lifted passages from other works, she cited the author but did not put quotation marks around the plagiarized material.

MIT's academic-integrity handbook notes that authors must either "use quotation marks around the words and cite the source," or "paraphrase or summarize acceptably and cite the source." Oxman published her thesis in 2010; identical language appeared in MIT's handbook at least as far back as 2007.

Oxman also took a passage from Mattheck's book without attribution and inaccurately attributed a passage she lifted from the Royal Society of London paper to two different sources.

She also recycled phrasing she used in her dissertation in subsequent papers. The opening paragraph of her dissertation, for instance, appears almost word-for-word in an article she published in 2013. While re-using material isn't a formal violation of MIT's academic-integrity code, a guide to "ethical writing" recommended by the university to its scholars and students warns against it.

Ackman said Harvard president's plagiarism made her unfit to work

Like Oxman, Gay was found to have lifted passages from other academics' work without using quotation marks while citing the authors.

Gay's plagiarism was seen by some academics, including many of those she plagiarized, as relatively inconsequential.

George Reid Andrews, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the people Gay plagiarized, told the New York Post that what Gay did "happens fairly often in academic writing and for me does not rise to the level of plagiarism."

"I am glad she read my work, learned from it, and recommended it to her readers," Andrews continued.

But for Bill Ackman, the plagiarism wasn't only cause for Gay's immediate ouster as Harvard's president — it also warranted her total removal from its faculty. In the weeks leading up to her resignation as president, he posted more than a dozen times about her plagiarism on X.

Ackman, a Harvard graduate worth roughly $4 billion, has been a prolific donor to the school. His most substantial donation, of $25 million in 2014, supported the expansion of the economics department and the endowment of three professorships. He also made a smaller contribution to the rowing crew, a team he was part of as an undergraduate.

Ackman and Oxman married in 2019 and their first child was born the same year. In 2015, Ackman purchased a luxury apartment in New York's swanky One57 building, which Oxman also lists as an address, according to public records. The couple are listed as trustees for the Pershing Square Foundation, a charitable organization.

Ackman began campaigning for Gay's removal in the wake of widespread protests on Harvard's campus related to Israel's invasion of Gaza in October. Ackman decried the protests as antisemitic and accused Gay of not doing enough to protect either Jewish students or "academic freedom."

"President Gay catalyzed an explosion of antisemitism and hate on campus that is unprecedented in Harvard's history," he wrote last month on X.

Ackman also intimated that he had inside information that Gay had only been offered the job as Harvard's president because she is a Black woman. Gay became the school's first Black president and the second woman president in July.

On X, he wrote that he had been informed that Harvard would not choose a president "who did not meet the DEI office's criteria." Gay, he implied, would most likely "not have obtained" the role of president "were it not for a fat finger on the scale."

Gay's plagiarism was surfaced by the right-wing activist Christopher Rufo, who was forthright about his plans to "smuggle" the news of the plagiarism "into the media apparatus" to lend credence to those calling for Gay's resignation.

Harvard's governing body, the Harvard Corporation, initially stood by Gay's handling of the on-campus protests and her plagiarism. In recent weeks, though, pressure on Gay to resign has mounted, spearheaded in no small part by Ackman.

Gay resigned as Harvard's president on Tuesday. In a letter to the Harvard community, Gay wrote that she was stepping down in part due to "personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus."

But Ackman remains on the hunt for one more head. Of the three university presidents who testified in front of Congress in a disastrous early December session, two of them — Gay and Magill — are no longer in their posts. One remains: Kornbluth, the president of MIT, where Oxman wrote her thesis and worked from 2010 to 2020.

When a user on X asked Ackman why he wasn't going after Kornbluth, Ackman's response was to the point.

"Stay tuned @MIT," Ackman replied.