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How Columbia University Lost Support From the Russell Berrie Foundation

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On Jan. 19, Angelica Berrie sent an email to Nemat Shafik, the president of Columbia University. Ms. Berrie reported that the Russell Berrie Foundation, named for her late husband, had scheduled three grant payments to Columbia.

But after months of campus protests around the Israel-Hamas war, Ms. Berrie also delivered a warning.

As the foundation prepared to transfer almost $613,000, Ms. Berrie told Dr. Shafik that future giving would partly hinge on “evidence that you and leaders across the university are taking appropriate steps to create a tolerant and secure environment for Jewish members of the Columbia community.”

Months passed, and the foundation, which has donated about $86 million to Columbia over the years, did not like what it saw. Frustrated and flummoxed by the sustained tumult at Columbia, the foundation suspended its giving to the university late last month.

Columbia has spent months under siege, bombarded by public demands from protesters, faculty members, alumni, members of Congress and religious groups since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 that precipitated the war. But the foundation’s admonition, included in correspondence that it shared with The New York Times, illustrates the pressures that Columbia administrators have also had to confront in private with donors, with longstanding relationships and enormous sums at stake.

The Berrie Foundation’s pause threatens to cost Columbia tens of millions of dollars over the coming years. And it represents a sobering turnabout for a foundation so prolific at Columbia that it underwrote both the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion and the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center.

“It’s a painful decision for us to have come to this point where we have to tell them, ‘There’s a disconnect between your values and ours,’” Angelica Berrie, the president of the foundation’s board, said in an interview. The turmoil at Columbia, she said, had left foundation leaders “to weigh the passion my husband had for diabetes against the greater values of our foundation about pluralism, bridge-building and the fact that our Jewish values infuse our philanthropy.”

A Columbia spokeswoman, Samantha A. Slater, said in a statement that the university “values its longstanding relationship with the Russell Berrie Foundation, and is grateful for their generosity and support of innumerable and impactful diabetes initiatives throughout the years.”

She added: “As we have relayed to foundation leaders, we are committed to sustained, concrete action to make Columbia a community where antisemitism has no place and Jewish students feel safe, valued and are able to thrive.”

As protests have raged on campuses across the country, other leading donors have warned universities that future gifts are at risk. Last week, the billionaire real estate mogul Barry Sternlicht eviscerated Brown University for pledging to consider divestment from Israel, and suspended donations to the school. Marc Rowan, Apollo Global Management’s chief executive, led a donor uprising at the University of Pennsylvania last year, and Robert K. Kraft, who owns the New England Patriots, recently put future contributions to Columbia on hold.

But as the Berrie Foundation, whose giving has often been tied to Israel and Jewish causes in the United States, considered its options after the first protests began, it commanded neither the public clout of Mr. Kraft nor the swagger of Mr. Rowan or Mr. Sternlicht.

What it did have was a quieter influence that it had cultivated at Columbia for decades, since Russell Berrie, who built a fortune with a company whose wares included stuffed animals and troll dolls, received diabetes care there. In the years before the Bronx-born Mr. Berrie died in 2002, the foundation began to pour millions into the university.

Within five weeks of the Hamas attack on Israel last October, though, foundation trustees were alarmed by the pro-Palestinian protests and rhetoric at Columbia, which some Jewish students believed was becoming a hub of antisemitism.

The board discussed events at the university during its meeting on Nov. 9, but it kept its misgivings out of view. Scott Berrie, the board’s vice president and a son of Russell Berrie, compared the internal mood then to a collective “deep sigh.”

A day later, Columbia suspended its chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, a step that heartened foundation officials.

But the foundation still began a private campaign to pressure the university to do more, including during a Nov. 29 meeting with Dr. Shafik, who had taken over as Columbia’s president only in July.

Foundation executives were cautious, wary of being perceived as improperly meddlesome. They refrained, records show, from demanding that Columbia embrace a specific new policy or tactic. Rather, in a strategy familiar to many higher education leaders, they adopted a more subtle plan, describing their vision for Columbia in sweeping terms and nudging the university toward their interpretations of already-proclaimed principles, like protection from harassment.

“Considering our conversation, we’re curious whether your administration will enforce the policies you’ve established to prevent speech and conduct that could constitute harassment and appropriately discipline those responsible,” Scott Berrie wrote in an email to Dr. Shafik on Dec. 14.

“In this escalating climate of hate speech,” he added, “we look to Columbia for leadership that will inspire other universities to act with moral courage.”

But in January, Ms. Berrie, her board still unnerved, issued her warning to Columbia. Mr. Berrie, himself a Columbia alumnus, recalled that the idea was to “make it clear that this is an uncomfortable position for us to be in as funders, when the values of our foundation are being so severely tested by what’s happening on the campus.”

Dr. Shafik replied on Jan. 24, five days later, making no explicit mention of the funding threat but detailing her efforts to ensure “a safe and respectful environment” for students, which she characterized as “my highest priority.”

Columbia’s troubles, though, were only growing. By April 17, when Dr. Shafik arrived on Capitol Hill to testify before a House committee, Columbia students were in open defiance of the administration and gathering at a new protest encampment on the college green.

Dr. Shafik called in the New York Police Department the next day to empty the encampment, and the university lurched to the center of the protest movement still unfolding across the country.

The decision to bring in the police infuriated many people on campus. The crackdown, though, did not fully assuage the Berrie Foundation’s fears. The board, disturbed by the vitriol on campus, decided unanimously on April 26 that the foundation’s giving would stop for now. The chaos that had enveloped Columbia for part of April, Ms. Berrie said, made the decision easier, if still deeply painful.

“For us, this didn’t start with the encampment — this has been an escalation of faculty with their ideological positions in the classrooms, Jewish students unable to participate fully in university life because of what they believe or who they are,” said Idana Goldberg, the foundation’s chief executive.

Most immediately, the pause affects $153,000 that the foundation had expected to put toward a diabetes research grant. A lasting suspension, though, could have far more costly consequences: The foundation, which is expected to wind down its operations in about a decade, has been weighing another gift of at least $10 million.

Daniel W. Jones, a former chancellor of the University of Mississippi who previously served as the dean of the medical school there, said it was “uncommon” for a donor to cut off support tied to medical research and care. Such causes, he said, are often seen as sacrosanct and insulated from the day-to-day turmoil of a major university.

“Rarely did I have someone who was interested in supporting research tie it to anything other than the research agenda,” Dr. Jones said.

Mr. Berrie acknowledged the struggle of picking among priorities. But, he said, “at some point, the rubber has to hit the road.” (Mr. Berrie said he did not believe the foundation’s decision would disrupt patient care, an assessment shared by Columbia officials.)

After the board made its move, he said, he did not feel resolve or relief — only regret.

“There’s a phrase I heard that’s like, ‘Where your attention goes, your energy flows,’” Mr. Berrie said. “And the fact that we are spending so much on energy on this rather than spending energy on bettering the world, is a regret.”

In a separate interview, Ms. Berrie resisted setting clear benchmarks for Columbia’s funding to be reinstated.

“We cannot dictate what happens in an institution of learning,” she said on Monday. “But we will watch and see whether their actions actually rectify the situation.”

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