Throughout this academic year, I have been arguing that while the state may have cut the UC’s total $20 billion budget by $600 million in the last two years, the university lost over $23 billion in its investment portfolio during the same time period. In fact, there has been a huge outcry over the reduction of state funds, but no one has questioned UC’s investment losses. It appears that people assume that since everyone lost money during the global fiscal meltdown, we cannot hold the university responsible for its investment decisions. However, a new study concerning the pension losses at six New England universities should make us re-open the question of how the UC lost so much money.
According to a new report by the Tellus Institute, Harvard, Dartmouth, MIT, Boston College, Boston University and Brandeis University all embarked on a high risk investment strategy that has now resulted in reduced endowments, budget cuts, delayed construction projects, and job eliminations. Like the UC, these universities all followed Yale University's investment chief, David Swensen’s endowment model of relying on alternative assets such as commodities, real estate and private equity.
While this report only looks at the six New England schools, its findings can also be applied to many universities, including the University of California. As I have written, the UC also copied Swensen’s strategy of moving money from stable securities to high return areas. In fact, the UC is still following this advice, which is evident in the following statement from Moody’s regarding the university’s investments: ““The long-term targets for the endowment pool would bring alternative assets (including hedge funds, real estate and private equity) to 35% of the total, with domestic and international equity accounting for another 45% of total assets.” Instead of shying away from the high-risk Yale investment model, the UC is increasing its exposure to these volatile assets.
Like the UC, one of the driving forces behind these risky investments is the role of trustees or regents with conflicting business interests. According to a Bloomberg Businessweek article ,“The investment committee at Dartmouth, in Hanover, New Hampshire, included more than six trustees whose firms oversaw more than $100 million in investments for its fund over the last five years, the report said. Stephen Mandel, who is relinquishing his post as chairman of the school’s investment committee to lead the board later this year, originally managed $10 million for the school at his firm Lone Pine Capital LLC. . . . Other trustees who manage money for Dartmouth include Leon Black, with at least $40 million in his private-equity firm Apollo Global Management LLC, and William Helman, a partner at venture capital company Greylock Partners, the report said. Helman, who will take over the committee’s helm from Mandel, has received $10 million from the endowment.” These types of conflict of interest are evident in the UC system since many of the regents have major holdings in private equity, real estate, and construction.
As the UC union coalition told state senator Darrell Steinberg during Charlene Zettel’s conformation to be the next UC regent, we need to have employees on the pension board to make sure that the university’s investment decisions are not guided by the personal business interests of individual regents. Moreover, we need a full investigation into how the UC lost $23 billion during the global fiscal meltdown.