‘U’ community weighs in on controversy surrounding Stephen M. Ross's Trump fundraiser

Friday, August 9, 2019 - 9:16pm

Stephen M. Ross

Stephen M. Ross Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

This story has been updated to include a statement from the University of Michigan College Republicans.

Stephen M. Ross, the New York-based real estate mogul who is the largest donor in University of Michigan history and namesake of the School of Business, has faced backlash from University alumni and on social media following his decision to host a reelection fundraiser for President Donald Trump in his Southampton home.

Following reports of Ross’s scheduled fundraiser — with tickets ranging from $100,000 to $250,000 — he was trending on Twitter, with many calling for the boycott of SoulCycle and Equinox, two luxury gym companies owned by Ross.

Ross, whose net worth is estimated at about $7.7 billion, also owns football team the Miami Dolphins. In a statement to the Miami Herald, Ross defended his fundraiser, explaining he and Trump agree on some issues but “strongly disagree on many others.”

“I started my business with nothing and a reason for my engagement with our leaders is my deep concern for creating jobs and growing our company’s economy,” Ross wrote. “I have been, and will continue to be, an outspoken champion of racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education and environmental sustainability.”

SoulCycle and Equinox also released statements affirming their commitment to diversity and tolerance. Both companies emphasized they do not endorse the event and said Ross is a passive investor uninvolved in management. 

However, some on social media continued to cancel membership to the two businesses and still condemned Ross’ support of Trump, citing the president’s rhetoric as racist, misogynistic and homophobic. Among Ross’ critics are former Hillary Clinton advisor Phillippe Reines, model Chrissy Teigen, actor Sophia Bush and actor Billy Eichner. 

In particular, Miami Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills suggested Ross’ support for Trump is contradictory to the mission statement of RISE, a non-profit Ross founded aiming to “educate and empower the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations.”

University community members have also shared their concerns about the fundraiser to the Ross School of Business, prompting Dean Scott DeRue to send an email to students, faculty and staff in response. DeRue said the school does not endorse or support this fundraiser or any others for any political candidates.

The email emphasized the school’s values of diversity and inclusion as well as civic responsibility. In upholding these values, DeRue wrote the importance of listening to and working with people holding different opinions is key to the democratic process. 

“I want to close by saying that we, as an educational institution built on these core values, reject all attempts to divide our community,” DeRue wrote. “We are strong because of our diversity, and hate has no place in our society. At Michigan Ross, we rise above hateful rhetoric and live the values we aspire to. It is the Michigan way, and it is the way we will create a better world, together.”

In an email to The Daily, Public Policy junior Camille Mancuso, spokeswoman for the University’s chapter of College Democrats, expressed the organization’s dissatisfaction with Ross’ decision, urging the University and members on campus to condemn the actions of the business executive.

“We are disappointed about the decision for Stephen Ross to host a fundraiser for President Trump,” Mancuso wrote. “The President’s racism is dangerous and harmful, and this fundraiser is an endorsement of the actions and rhetoric which harm those on our campus and beyond. Stephen Ross does not reflect our values as an organization, as a campus, or as people, and we call on members of the campus community to speak out against this decision.”

In an email to The Daily, LSA senior Maria Muzaurieta wrote on behalf of the University chapter of College Republicans that the situation has led to unfair "slander" against Ross.

"Stephen Ross is a respectable and charitable Republican who has the right to affiliate with and fundraise for our nation's president, Donald Trump," Muzaurieta wrote. "We respect the rights of celebrities and businessmen alike to associate with whichever political figures they support and we believe that this extends to Stephen Ross and President Trump."

In a statement to The Daily, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald called Ross “a tremendous supporter of a wide range of programs at the University,” particularly for the Ross School of Business and Michigan Athletics.

“The university has thousands of active donors who have a wide range of political affiliations,” Fitzgerald wrote. “Their political views are their own. What they all share is a love for the University of Michigan. And we thank them for that.”

In response to calls for Ross's name to be removed from University buildings, Fitzgerald wrote the University does not plan to do that.

“We don’t exclude or include people from our university community based on their political views,” Fitzgerald wrote. “That’s true in admissions, in hiring, in patient care, in campus speakers or visitors and in our donor community.”

However, some are unsatisfied with these statements, calling either for Ross to disavow his support for Trump or for the University to disavow itself from Ross. On Wednesday, an open letter — which has more than 500 signatures at the time of publication — circulated among alumni, calling for the University to remove Ross’s name from University buildings and signage, and to engage students and alumni in conversation on how to reconsider Ross’s donations to the University. 

Business alum Kumar Rao said he created the letter out of disappointment Ross supports Trump’s administration and reelection campaign, which Rao believes is centered around hateful, racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. He also expressed concern for the long-term reputation of the school and of Business alumni.

“My academic and professional reputation are tied to Ross’s name, so I really felt the calling to put our voice out there and add to the chorus of folks who are ashamed and horrified and scared of what a Trump reelection could mean,” Rao said. “I think the first call is to ask Ross to reconsider what he is doing and know these decisions he makes are not personal ones because of his stature. They are ones affecting not only tens of thousands of alumni and students but also the future of our country.”

Like Rao, Business junior Ben Schuster said the actions of Ross not only damage the reputation of the school itself, but its students and alumni as well. Schuster said Ross’ actions could impact the interest of businesses when it comes to hiring Business students and alumni.

“The event could hurt the Ross brand, especially because Ross’s main thing is ‘positive business,’ the main reason I applied to the school in the first place,” Schuster said. “It’s the idea that business can and should make a positive difference in the world while making profits. In my opinion, this event doesn’t speak to that mission and I continue to strongly encourage that Mr. Ross cancel the event.”

Due to these actions, Schuster said, the University should reevaluate the School of Business’s namesake.

Our President is ripping children from their families, attacking the LGBTQ+ community, and has made openly racist comments, Michigan and Michigan Ross can do better,” Schuester said. “If he fails to (cancel the event), it would signal to me that he is not in favor of the values he claims to have: racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education and environmental sustainability. It would also mean he’s not someone a school should be named after, let alone one as inspired, passionate and dynamic as our business school.”

However, some, like Business junior Garret Powell, feel it would be wrong for the University to take a stance against Ross’s political opinions as it is a public school. While it should be clear Ross’s views do not influence the school in any way, Powell said, it is not reason to remove his name.

I don't think Michigan should support his decision or disavow itself from Ross,” Powell said. Michigan is a public university, and although it's student body is largely to the left, it would be wildly inappropriate for a public university to blatantly take a political stance. However, I do think it's important that Michigan clarifies that none of the views of Ross, or any of their donors, necessary reflect their own views.”

Melanie Taylor contributed reporting to this article.