In a recent Yale Daily News article about his election to the Yale Corporation, Jeffrey Koplan commented, “To me, it’s like being a kid in a candy store.” His analogy was more fitting than maybe he’d intended.
Some would assume that Yale’s administration is motivated in its every action solely by concern for the welfare of the University, which only they, the insiders, can truly understand. Those who are even aware of the Yale Corporation’s role as Yale’s ultimate decision-making body to which President Levin answers would assume that this eclectic group is non-partisan and completely disinterested. That they have no personal stake in the decisions they make, and receive no compensation for their lauditory work save the “honor” and “prestige” of a spot in the Ivory Tower’s penthouse.
A recent report by The Yale Insider, picked up by the New Haven Register and the San Jose Mercury News, shows otherwise. Over the last decade significant amounts of Yale’s endowment have been invested in or with companies owned or managed by members of the Corporation (and the Investments Committee) or their family members. A few examples:
¥ Yale began investing in Len Baker’s company, Sutter Hill Ventures, the year after he joined the Corporation. Yale is now Sutter’s biggest investor.
¥ When Bill Draper was a trustee and member of the Investments Committee, Yale invested an unkown sum in Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a firm headed by his son, Tim Draper.
¥ After Yale and trustee John Lee co-invested in Aviva Petroleum, Lee was appointed to Aviva’s board of directors. Yale doubled its investment, and the company’s stock has since lost over 90 percent of its value.
¥ After Linda Mason was named to the Corporation six years ago, Yale began to use her daycare company, Bright Horizons, for all of its alumni reunions.
Overall, six of the last twenty people on the Yale Investments Committee were receiving a bonus: they or a family member was director or executive of a company in which Yale invested. Four of the six were on the Corporation.
Does it matter? In the 80s “eating your own cooking,” or having managers invest personally in stocks that their company held, was considered beneficial since people are most careful with their own dough. However, this fell out of favor in the 90s; in fact, as of 1993 investment-managers at Harvard were prohibited from “investing in deals into which the university has put money, to avoid conflicts of interest. Trustees also are discouraged from making such investments.” On the most recent IRS form available, Yale neglected to answer the question concerning such transactions, submitting instead a statement claiming that “this institution knows of no significant transaction between it and any such person or any corporation with which any such person is affiliated other than transactions in the normal conduct of its activities. All such transactions are conducted at arm’s length and for good and sufficient consideration.” That Yale doesn’t disclose these conflicts of interest, even to the IRS, raises questions about their propriety and legality.
Yale does not release information about its investments in or the performance of its private equity holdings, but the question is not whether “self-dealing” is affecting the endowment’s growth. In most of the cases Yale decided to invest after the trustee bought in, in which case Yale’s investment is immensely beneficial both for the investment itself and for Yale’s prestige (which attracts other investors). While “self-dealing” may have been or may be permissible as an incentive for private equity fund managers, Yale University remains a non-profit organization. Trustees should not use their status to stuff their own pockets, nor should they allow their own interests to affect their decisions. If the image of grizzled sages patiently and judiciously steering the University toward Providence is not quite in line with reality, one can only wonder how disinterested the Corporation is with other issues. Like unions.
Jeffrey Coplan was right: he has a lot to look forward to. But his analogy is a little off. The Yale Corporation owns the candy store, and anything they give away–such as the contracts and benefits that the unions had to strike for in the past–is charity, the effluvium of Yale’s warm heart, while they themselves have free and righteous reign once the door is closed and the lights are out.
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson is a senior in Davenport College.