Alumni mount campaign for Swensen’s name on new college

At a bash three years ago in honor of David Swensen’s 20th year at the helm of the Yale endowment, a curious bar chart showed the giving of several of Yale’s most generous donors. There were the Harknesses, memorialized on Yale’s most popular classroom building, at $128 million. The Sterlings, of library fame, came in at $151 million, topped by the Beineckes at $263 million, and then the Mellons at $379 million.

Above them all was a single name — Swensen — and a staggering amount: $7.8 billion, the difference between the endowment’s return under his watch and the average performance of a university fund during that time.

The scene from Swensen’s bash was detailed at the time in the Yale Alumni Magazine. “No one has named a Yale building after David Swensen,” the magazine noted. “Not yet, anyway.”

But now, some alumni hope that will change — and in the grandest way possible. As the University prepares to debate possible names for the two new residential colleges, a group of alumni appears to be mounting a campaign for the chief investment officer’s name to be affixed to one of the colleges.

“What man gives up at least $100 Million a year to work for Yale?” asked a full-page advertisement in the News on April 7, referring to the windfall Swensen, who received a doctorate in economics from Yale in 1980, could likely earn in the private sector given his almost God-like status on Wall Street.

Similar, anonymous advertisements have been repeated in the News three times since then, and additional messages will continue through Commencement, according to the people who are behind the advertisements. Based on the News’ posted advertisement rates, the Swensenites have already racked up a bill of several thousand dollars for their messages. That’s nothing, of course, compared to the billions the 54-year-old Swensen has earned for the University in his 23 years nursing the Yale endowment, which has soared from $1.3 billion to $22.5 billion under his shepherding.

The group requested to remain anonymous and declined a request for an interview. In a written statement, its members offered only that they are “trying to generate interest in what we believe is a worthy cause.”

“We believe the ad campaign reflects the sentiments of a large portion of the Yale community,” the statement said. “Our hope is that the ads will encourage the University to recognize one of the most important men in the history of Yale.”

The advertisement campaign is not the first push for the University to honor Swensen by naming one of the colleges in his honor. Last spring, as Yale officials embarked upon a year-long study of the possibility of expansion, “Swensen College” was among the suggestions received by the Yale Alumni Magazine when it asked alumni to propose potential names.

The alumnus who offered that suggestion was John Wesley ’96, a New York City investment analyst who described Swensen to the magazine as “the embodiment of dedication to Yale,” considering the millions he could have earned in the private sector if he bolted the University.

“He’s made a huge personal sacrifice,” Wesley said by telephone Thursday. “He’s got a higher ideal and a higher mission.”

The Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, has already decided that the new colleges will not be named after their donors. Meanwhile, University President Richard Levin has promised that the Yale community will be including in generating possible names for the new colleges, which are expected to be formally approved by the Corporation as soon as June.

When the idea of Swensen College arose last April, Levin chuckled when asked about it but declined to comment. He could not be reached Thursday night.

Wesley acknowledged that naming a residential college after a real, live person would be a departure from the Yale tradition of naming colleges after great alumni, former presidents or local historical figures. That did not sit well with Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61.

“I’ve got enormous admiration for him; he saved Yale economically, obviously,” Smith said of Swensen. “But I would have doubts about naming [one of the new colleges] for a living person and even more doubts about anyone who is currently employed.”

Students, too, did not seem ready to start taking out newspaper ads of their own in support of Yale’s investments czar. In an unscientific poll of about 50 undergraduates this week, two in three said they opposed the idea of naming a college after Swensen, his investment prowess notwithstanding.

One called it a “self-indulgent waste.” Another termed the idea “ridiculous,” although he pointed out that, as one saving grace, “at least Swensen has not supported slavery,” unlike at least two of the existing colleges’ namesakes.

“People would freak out. Or at least I would,” Anna Parks ’09 said. “Since when did making bucketloads of money constitute some kind of noble act?”

Or, as Matthew Shaffer ’10 put it, “Yale should be teaching us the meaning of life” — not investment management.

“I, for one, would be more inspired by the name of a visionary artist or something on my college than by that of a guy who was able to manage a portfolio exceedingly well,” added Sarah Dewey ’10.

“I imagine my peers who are into the i-banking scene might disagree,” she continued, “but they already have muscled their way into dominating the dining-hall conversation, so let’s not indulge them any further.”

Swensen could not be reached for comment Thursday, but a few students rose to his defense in his absence. Christopher Yergan ’09 called Swensen “more worthy of having a college named after him than anyone else.”

Yet even Yergan noted that he doubts Swensen’s name will be placed on one of the two new colleges, since he is not only still alive but also still a Yale employee. But the Silliman College economics major still held out hope.

“If one of the two new ones isn’t named after him,” Yergan said, “college number 15, whenever it is built, surely will be.”

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