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David Swensen Wrote an Angry Email. Then He Pressed Send.

In an exclusive interview, the Yale endowment legend explains how, and why, he finally lost his cool.


Institutional Investor | May 7, 2018


The Institutional Investor article, “David Swensen Wrote an Angry Email. Then He Pressed Send.," quoted Russell Reynolds Associates Consultant Debra Brown about how investment professionals are rarely drawn to campus activism. The article is excerpted below.

It was a Friday morning in early March, and David Swensen was furious.

The legendary chief investment officer of the Yale endowment — the best performing of its kind over the last 20 years — had awoken in London to an email from the editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News.

The email, timestamped 10:05 p.m. New Haven time — or just after 3:00 a.m. in the U.K. — addressed an opinion piece Swensen had written regarding the newspaper’s coverage of an endowment teach-in event held by student activists earlier in the year.

“Apologies for reaching out late at night, but I wanted to get in touch about a section of your piece,” the editor wrote. The email explained that she had decided to remove a sentence from Swensen’s op-ed pertaining to the Yale Daily News’ reporting — a sentence that the newspaper’s staff had determined to be inaccurate. “I understand that you do not want your column edited and we respect that request, but cannot in good faith include that part of it.”

By the time Swensen read the email that morning, the column had already been published online, leaving out the sentence in question, as well as a pertinent footnote regarding Yale’s use of index funds.

Swensen — who had commanded the News staff, in all caps, not to edit his essay — was not pleased.

...

Universities have historically been at the center of activist movements in the U.S., from protests of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s to the first major divestment campaigns targeting South Africa’s apartheid polices in the ’70s and ’80s. Since then students have pushed for divestment as a means to effect change in nations like Sudan, a country that has been accused of human rights violations, and Israel, which activists condemn for the oppression of Palestinians. Industries including fossil fuels and firearms have also been targeted by students seeking to combat problems like climate change and gun violence.

“It’s just one of those things that goes with the territory,” says Debra Brown, a senior investment management recruiter at headhunting firm Russell Reynolds Associates. “But it can be quite unpleasant . . . I have yet to find an endowment investment professional who is drawn to campus activism.”

...

In general, however, executive recruiter Brown says CIOs try to insulate themselves from student activism. But that too can cause problems, leading to very one-sided debates on campus.

To read the full article, click here.

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David Swensen Wrote an Angry Email. Then He Pressed Send.