University Endowments

Janet Lorin:

Endowments have long played a central role in the rise of some colleges. A $17 million bequest in 1932 from George Eastman, the inventor and founder of Eastman Kodak, helped make the University of Rochester one of the nation’s richest for several decades. Donations of $100 million or more have come in a flurry in recent years, with about a dozen received by universities in 2014 and 2015. Endowments have also grown by adopting aggressive investment techniques. In 1985, 65 percent of Yale’s fund sat in U.S. equities; its asset allocation target for domestic stocks in fiscal 2016 is 4 percent. Its pioneering chief investment officer, David Swensen, described an endowment’s long time horizon as “well suited to exploit illiquid, less efficient markets.” Other universities followed suit, and returns rose. Then came the 2008 downturn, when the lack of liquidity contributed to some big losses. Harvard’s fund declined 27 percent.