The Man Who Eschewed Wall Street to Lead Yale’s Endowment
David F. Swensen, the money manager who spurned a career on Wall Street to steward Yale University’s endowment for many years, has died. In the world of college endowments, Mr. Swensen was an icon, catapulting Yale’s endowment to be the best-performing fund in the nation for two decades. In 1985, when Mr. Swensen took the reigns of Yale’s endowment, it was valued at $1.3 billion and fell well behind the endowments of Princeton University and the University of Texas. Yale’s endowment now stands at $31.2 billion, ranking as the second largest university endowment in the nation — trailing only Harvard University. So how did Mr. Swensen set the standard in investing for Yale and how does his work influence low-income students who rely on financial aid dollars to attend Yale today?
As Geraldine Fabrikant writes for The New York Times in Mr. Swensen’s obituary, “Mr. Swensen’s innovation at Yale was to shift endowment investing from a formulaic menu of stocks and bonds to a portfolio that included hedge funds and even timberlands…Mr. Swensen was particularly proud of how the growing endowment had helped the university contribute to financial aid. ‘One of the things that I care most deeply about is that notion that anyone who qualifies for admission can afford to go to Yale, and financial aid is a huge part of what the endowment does,’ he said in an interview for this obituary in 2014…Mr. Swensen’s investment strategy became known as the ‘Yale model’ and was imitated by other colleges and universities. A number of them, including Princeton, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Bowdoin College in Maine, were quick to hire his protégés, many of whom were also courted by Wall Street, where they could have easily made a fortune. Mr. Swensen’s returns rivaled and even exceeded those of many of the world’s great hedge-fund managers, and he could have earned tens of millions, even hundreds of millions, in the private sector. But he resisted that lure, his brother Dr. Stephen Swensen said in an interview in 2014.”
In some ways, Mr. Swensen’s story and his outsized influence on elite college admissions reminds us of Billy Beane, the leader of the Oakland Athletics who helped usher in the Moneyball era in professional sports. And just as Mr. Bean’s disciples would go off and run other Major League Baseball teams with a new model, Mr. Swensen’s protégés would go off to run the funds of other universities across the land, including even rival Princeton. In addition to all the students who are able to attend Yale on financial aid because of Mr. Swensen’s savvy investing, these leaders of other college funds are also one of his legacies.
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