In addition to the diverse catalogue of stocks, bonds and venture capital, Yale endowment guru David Swensen commandeers a portfolio of land. A sizable plot of that property is the subject of a two-year long conflict with the state of Maine.
That debate has been kept quiet because it took the media and the public until just weeks ago to discover its existence and unmask Yale’s involvement; the University holds the land under the name of a holdings corporation, Yankee Forest, LLC. Conservationists and the state government want the area to be converted into a conservation easement open to the nature-loving public. Yale attempted to go ahead with that conversion, provided that it be paid, but discord surrounding remuneration and logging practices have stalled negotiations.
Ultimately, a solution is hindered by Yale’s apparent lack of interest in consulting its School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, an institution peculiarly gifted with the ability to analyze forestry methods. While Yale money managers may not like what they hear, the non-profit interests of the University cannot be well-served without enlisting the faculty such as Forestry School Dean James Gustave Speth.
In principle the idea of maintaining a metaphorical wall dividing investment activities and faculty input is sensical and fair; the number of professors with something to say would make the volume level too high and unproductive. But in certain instances, where academic input would be of overriding practical interest, Yale should make use of its resources. This is such an instance. The Forestry School is an untapped source of knowledge that might aid Yale in reaching a mutually agreeable solution.
In fact, the University recognizes, in theory, that ethics may play a role in discussions, perhaps at the expense of returns. That faculty committee, known as Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility, is not often approached, and has as many teeth as a newborn baby. The group was not even consulted on this issue, a regrettable oversight. Forestry methods are as much an issue of ethical investing as tobacco or apartheid.
It seems as if Yale was silently content that its ownership and Maine’s proposal had not become public. But the Bangor Daily News and later the Yale Daily News helped bring the two-year long controversy to light. Now that the issue is out in the open, Yale owes it to its community to consult not only its official ethical overseers, but the dean and faculty of the Yale School of Forestry for further insight.
An involved discussion of environmentally safe logging may not resolve the issue. Indeed, dollars are the domain of Yale’s investment officers, and they and Maine may never agree on a price. But in this case, at the very least, Yale can be as responsible an owner as possible, showing that its negotiations are in good faith, whether they result in an agreement or not.