In an email to the Columbia community, University President Lee Bollinger announced a bold plan to commit $100 million over the next five fiscal years to build a more “diverse faculty and student body.” The University’s ambition is commendable: “It is a fundamental premise ... that scholarship and teaching are strengthened immeasurably by having a diverse faculty and student body.”
With this promise, the University Trustees seem to acknowledge the longheld concerns of students and professors. More importantly, it shows that the University is willing to commit money to realizing the ideals advertised on its website.
But other recent news raises serious moral and political questions about how Columbia utilizes money. While the University’s board of trustees does not publicly discuss its investment practices, an article by Judd Legum provides some insight into those practices, stating that Columbia has money invested with Renaissance Technologies, a New York-based hedge fund.
The secrecy surrounding Columbia’s investing practices makes it hard to know how much money the school has in Renaissance’s fund, but the news is troubling, to say the least. Robert Mercer, the co-CEO of Renaissance, has been described in the New Yorker as the “reclusive hedge-fund tycoon behind the Trump Presidency.” While Mercer is a private man who prefers to insulate himself from political blowback, one thing is certain: He is a billionaire and his money buys far-reaching influence.
Mercer is a radical libertarian and has become “an extreme example of modern entrepreneurial philanthropy,” dedicating much of the vast fortune he has accumulated at Renaissance Technologies to far-right, reactionary political causes. Rebekah Mercer, Mercer’s daughter, runs the Mercer Family Foundation, which routes money to conservative causes. Following the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, billionaires can openly pursue their personal political visions with tangible results, and the Mercer family is a prime example.
By investing with Renaissance—to whatever degree—and contributing to the Mercer family fortune, Columbia’s self-professed liberal, progressive ethos is associated with one of the country’s most prolific funders of right-wing politics.
Where does all the Mercer money go? Examples include their longtime support of Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News and early investments in Trump’s presidential campaign. More recently, emails leaked by BuzzFeed show that the Mercer family is financing Milo Yiannopoulos’ latest political venture. Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart after a video went viral showing him defending pedophilia.
The emails that formed the basis of BuzzFeed’s investigation illuminate the relationship between “alt-light” political operatives like Bannon and Yiannopoulos and prominent members of the so-called “alt-right,” including white nationalists like Richard Spencer and Andrew “weev” Auernheimer. Spencer will talk to any journalist who will listen about making America a nation for whites and the supremacy of Western civilization. Breitbart, which publishes articles under the “Black Crime” tag, received editorial advice from Auernheimer, who wrote that he was thankful for Dylan Roof’s sacrifice. Throughout 2016, Milo’s Dangerous Faggot tour crossed the country from one university campus to the next, delivering speeches that were fine-tuned to antagonize liberal audiences, provoke protest, and most importantly, capture continual media attention. Backed and protected by the Mercers’ political network, this rolling “alt-right” roadshow brought the message of a small circle of online extremists into the zeitgeist.
The “alt-right” pandered to racist and white nationalist rhetoric and helped propel an “outsider” candidate, Donald Trump, into the White House, and he has in turn normalized their hate. Responding to an attack by a white nationalist that killed a left-wing protester at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump declared that there were “some very fine people on both sides,” equivocating rather than simply condemning the killer.
To the delight of Bannon and Mercer, one of Yiannopoulos’ events was cut short by Black Lives Matter protesters. In their reporting, Fox News and Breitbart portrayed BLM and the left as violent antagonizers, anti-free speech, and dangerous. Yiannopoulos complained that he did actually feel unsafe. Bannon reassured him: “We want you to stir up more. Milo: for your eyes only we r (sic) going to use the mercers (sic) private security company.” Copied on the email was Dan Fleuette, the man who acted for months as the go-between for Yiannopoulos and the Mercers.
The emails BuzzFeed published offer a disturbing window into the murky world of politics and dark money, where a respected Wall Street investor like Robert Mercer can employ his security team to protect a divisive political figure like Yiannopoulos at his speeches. As long as Yiannopoulos is associated with Auernheimer, who is openly racist and sports a swastika tattoo on his chest, the Mercers keep the money flowing in private.
With the news of their investment with Renaissance, Columbia’s commitment to diversifying the school is complicated. While the University’s financial promise is impressive, the values implicit in the school’s effort stand in contrast to associating with Mercer. If nothing else, the University Trustees and Bollinger are guilty of hypocrisy.
But if funneling cash to far-right media darlings isn’t enough warning that Robert Mercer is a questionable person to be associated with, his own statements on race certainly are. According to a former Renaissance employee, Mercer believes that African Americans “were better off economically before the civil -rights movement,” and that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a mistake. This same employee claims to have overheard Mercer say that “there are no white racists in America today, only black racists.” This is the watered down, country-club Republican equivalent of #whitegenocide, an “alt-right” conspiracy theory that white people in America are being exterminated through interracial marriage, rising non-white birth rates, and illegal immigration.
If Columbia is truly committed to creating a diverse community of scholars and faculty, it cannot sacrifice these very principles by investing its endowment in a hedge fund that is complicit in spreading white supremacy or ethno-nationalism. Are increased returns worth compromising the values of our institution? Or will Bollinger and the University Trustees continue an institutional history of consorting with fascists?
Columbia: Do not allow our investment practices to support the racism of Mercer, Yiannopoulos, and Breitbart News, and in the process damage our promise of sharing the future with a “diverse faculty and student body.”
President Bollinger describes Columbia as a “place of openness and inclusion, for which we can all take enormous pride, especially at this moment.” Well, can we?
The author is a first-year nonfiction candidate in Columbia’s MFA program.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.