Why Do Colleges Expect Endowment Managers to Be Wizards?

The hardest jobs at prestigious universities might not be those performed by academics or traditional administrators. The heavy lifting, the impossible job, might be that of the endowment manager, the money guy. He’s got to fix everything.

According to an article in the New York Times:

Miscues by university management and more tepid investment returns have pulled down Harvard’s results, culminating in the June resignation of Jane L. Mendillo, the chief executive of the Harvard Management Company, who started just before the market collapse in July 2008.

The performance of Ms. Mendillo, who is leaving at the end of the year, illustrates not only the vicissitudes of investing but also the revolving-door aspect of an operation like the Harvard endowment, where retaining top talent can be difficult because of the intense scrutiny and the availability of bigger paychecks elsewhere.

And what did Harvard need Medillo to do? Well, basically exactly what David F. Swensen did at Yale in the 90s: make a lot of money with private equity and short-term, risky investments. He made the school much richer. And then Jack Meyer did the same thing at Harvard. This changed everything at America’s most prestigious colleges.

“The pressure on people in that kind of institution is tremendous from people who want to see good results all the time,” said Keith Ambachtsheer, who runs an education program for nonprofit board members at the University of Toronto. “There’s no patience for the fact that managing endowments is a long-horizon enterprise that naturally involves occasional periods of disappointing results.”

Critics often accuse academics of not understanding business or the bottom line. They just want to sit and their ivory towers and think about impractical subjects. Meanwhile, out in the “real world” we’re all busting our humps trying to meet demands and make money, right?

It turns out there might be another way universities don’t understand business. It appears that one of the problems of colleges with regard to money is that they often fail to understand that downturns don’t always mean a crisis. From the article:

One former official of Harvard Management compared the endowment’s cautious, defensive style in the Mendillo years to a soccer team that tries to keep possession of the ball instead of taking shots on goal. Many of the company’s alumni called Ms. Mendillo more of a steady, capable manager than a visionary investor.

Harvard will report a 15 percent return for the last fiscal year. Mendillo matched the school’s long-term record of 11 to 12 percent annual returns during her time in the job.

Isn’t a steady, capable manager exactly who you want to run a $32.7 billion endowment? A “visionary investor,” after all, could lose a school a lot of money.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer