Berrie Foundation pauses its funding at Columbia

Berrie Foundation pauses its funding at Columbia

Diabetes center, scientific research affected by reaction to antisemitism on campus

Dr. Idana Goldberg (Russell Berrie Foundation)
Dr. Idana Goldberg (Russell Berrie Foundation)

To those of us who do not have huge amounts of money to give away, and foundations to help us do it, philanthropy seems as if it must involve people in the enviable position of having a great deal to donate just basically, well, donating it. Giving it away. Picking institutions that seem good.

As it turns out, it does not work that way. Serious philanthropists and philanthropic leaders define their core values and beliefs, think very carefully about what they fund, and pay close attention to how those projects do or do not continue to align with their values.

Angelica Berrie of Englewood is a serious philanthropist. Her life has taken her from the Philippines, where she was an entrepreneur and a political activist who faced down tanks as her country’s strongman, Ferdinand Marcos, finally gave up the power he’d hoarded, to the United States, where she married fellow entrepreneur Russell Berrie.

Ms. Berrie also became Jewish, under the tutelage of Rabbi Donniel Hartman, the head of the Shalom Hartman Center in Jerusalem.

Russell Berrie died in 2002, at 69, and soon Angelica Berrie left the business world to take the helm of the Russell Berrie Foundation.

All of this is to say that she is very serious about how and where she invests.

The foundation, under the leadership of its CEO, Idana Goldberg, is sunsetting slowly and carefully; it plans to be finished in about 10 years. That means that it is even more deliberate about its decisions now.

So when the Berrie Foundation decides to pause its funding of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, as well as other programs at Columbia — over 30 years, the foundation has given the university nearly $90 million, mainly to its diabetes center, to the university’s Irving Medical center, and to New York Presbyterian Hospital, a Columbia affiliate — it is clear that careful thought and not a small amount of pain went into that decision.

“Over the past 30 years, we’ve valued the impact we and Columbia have made in providing outstanding patient care and paving the way toward a cure for diabetes,” Ms. Berrie said in the foundation’s press release. Naomi Berrie was Russell Berrie’s mother; she suffered from diabetes, and so working toward a cure became important to Mr. Berrie.

The Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center is in Columbia’s Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, on St. Nicholas Avenue in northern Manhattan. (Russell Berrie Foundation)

Most of the foundation’s work is in either North Jersey, because that is the Berries’ community, or in Israel, which also became a central part of their world. Much of the work is in the Jewish community, some of it is interfaith work. The foundation has been an important presence in North Jersey.

“Russell Berrie was looking for diabetes care in his own backyard,” Dr. Goldberg said; just over the bridge counted. When he couldn’t find it, “he took the initiative to help set up a world-renowned diabetes center.” That was in 1997; Mr. Berrie died in 2002.

“Over the last 27 years, we’ve had a working partnership with the Berrie Center and with Columbia Medical Center,” Dr. Goldberg continued. “We’ve worked on several diabetes-related initiatives — in obesity research, in simulations that can help emergency-room doctors. The relationship between us has been built in partnership.”

But the antisemitism that’s pervaded Columbia made the decision to pause funding there inevitable, Dr. Goldberg said.

“Minouche Shafik, Columbia’s president, set out four principles,” she said. Dr. Shafik’s principles, outlined on April 29 in direct response to the chaos on campus and reprinted in the foundation’s press release, are “keeping all community members physically safe; safeguarding academic freedom and supporting free speech that permits everyone to share their views; requiring protestors to comply with time, place, and manner restrictions; and condemning hate and protecting everyone at Columbia from harassment and discrimination.”

The school has not followed those principles, Dr. Goldberg said.

Columbia also released the first part of its report on antisemitism, she continued; it came out in early 2024, and was not particularly reassuring. The next part is due out sometime soon.

“We look at what was happening on the Columbia campus, from almost the day after October 7, with consternation, with stress, with anxiety, with concern,” Dr. Goldberg said.

“So we reached out to them. We initiated a meeting between several of our trustees and the president, and we followed up subsequently to talk about our ongoing concerns.

“And ultimately, we reached this moment, where it was about our values, and Russ Berrie’s values. We just couldn’t see keeping on funding a place that was not keeping students safe.”

The antisemitism that students report turns out not to have started on October 7, and it’s not about Israel, Dr. Goldberg said. “We had lots of conversations and email exchanges, and what was revealed in this moment is that what’s happening on campus now has been happening for a long time.”

The demonstrations now are highly visible, but the student protests are not the main part of the problem, she continued. “What has been revealed over the last several months, in talking to Jewish students and faculty, is that there’s been a culture across the university, with faculty putting ideology into the classroom, of students feeling uncomfortable because of who they are and what they support.”

The protests might be a symptom of these culture shifts, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t upsetting. “The protests, the language that students and non-students in the protests are using, the way it’s antisemitic, the way protestors often are supportive of terrorist groups — all this is very upsetting,” Dr. Goldberg said.

“The Russell Berrie Foundation supports free speech but not hate speech,” Ms. Berrie wrote in the press release. “We hope the university can move beyond this toxic chapter in its history and support students and scholars of all faiths and backgrounds in engaging in civil discourse and building bridges across difference.”

Until then, Columbia will have to get along without support from the Berrie Foundation.

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