The Yale Daily News often discharges its mission responsibly. However, in reporting on Yale’s endowment, the News frequently fails to meet fundamental journalistic standards.
Consider “Inside Yale’s $27,000,000,000,” a Feb. 3 teach-in sponsored by a number of activist groups. In their presentation, a question appears in white letters on a black background: “So what is Yale invested in?” The answers: “Mass Incarceration” and the “Private Prison Industry.”
Quite simply stated, Yale’s endowment has no exposure to private prison management companies. Where does the activists’ assertion come from? The activists note that a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing on March 31, 2017, discloses Yale’s holdings of $345 million in Vanguard’s Emerging Markets Exchange Traded Fund, VWO. Observing that Vanguard is the largest holder of private prison companies GEO and CoreCivic, the activists imply that Yale has exposure to the companies through VWO. This assertion is completely untrue.
VWO invests in stocks of companies located in emerging markets. The private prison companies cited by activists as Vanguard holdings, GEO and CoreCivic, are headquartered in the United States. That inconvenient fact failed to deter the activists from making a dishonest argument.
The activists make a similarly flawed argument regarding a Sept. 30, 2017, SEC filing showing Yale holding $66 million in BlackRock’s iShares Exchange Traded Fund, EFA. EFA invests in developed markets outside the U.S. and Canada. Again, Yale is criticized for having positions in the domestic private prison industry. Again, the assertion is not true.
The fabricated story about Yale’s holdings in private prison companies prompted Charlie Urban-Mead ’19 to call University President Peter Salovey a “hypocrite” for supporting sensible immigration policies, while “profiting off of immigrant detention.” Urban-Mead and his cohort owe President Salovey an apology.
The News exacerbates the problem. In reporting on Yale’s endowment, the News ignores the journalistic imperatives of checking facts, providing context and maintaining balance. In the Feb. 5, 2018, article “Students Criticize University Investments At Teach-In,” the staff reporter simply serves as a mouthpiece for the activists. The reporter parrots the activists’ dishonest argument about Yale’s holdings in EFA and VWO.
Some might be inclined to forgive a reporter for making errors in the complex world of investments. The errors are difficult to forgive, however, when they are easily avoidable. First, the reporter should not serve as a megaphone for the activist arguments — the reporter gushes about “vibrant photos and precise figures.” Second, if the reporter does not understand something, the reporter should not write about it. Third, the reporter has a direct contact in the Investment Office, who is able to help with facts, context and balance. The reporter did not contact the Office before running the story. Finally, where was the editor? Should not the editor identify nonsensical paragraphs, lack of context and extreme bias?
By failing to do real reporting, the Yale Daily News misses an opportunity to address important questions. For example, do measurable differences exist between conditions in public and private prisons? As contractors for public authorities, do private prison companies bear responsibility for prison conditions or does responsibility rest with the contracting government entity? Are union activists motivated by concern for prisoners or by dislike for the largely nonunion labor force in private prisons as compared to the largely union labor work force in public prisons?
News reporting on the activist presentation painted a dark picture of Yale’s endowment.
The Feb. 5 article is one piece of a longstanding problem. In recent years, the News failed to report fairly not only on the issue of private prisons, but also on the issues of Puerto Rican debt, fossil fuels and Northern Pass. The Yale community deserves better.
In the more than three decades that I have managed Yale’s endowment, the honesty of the activists and the reporting of the News have deteriorated. The problems began more than a decade ago with a well-financed campaign, conducted first by GESO, then by Local 33, to “investigate” Yale’s investment activities. Many of the false and misleading stories generated by the union were carried by the News without careful thought and without adequate fact checking.
I am proud of the work that my colleagues and I do to support Yale. In every aspect of everything that we do every day, we operate with the highest ethical and fiduciary standards.
Readers of the Yale Daily News deserve to know the full story.
David Swensen is Yale’s Chief Investment Officer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Editor’s note, March 1: The News takes this criticism very seriously. We are looking into Mr. Swensen’s claims and will run corrections to our stories as needed. The News strives to report responsibly and accurately on campus issues, including Yale’s endowment. The News is always open to publishing criticism of our work in hopes of facilitating constructive conversations with readers about our coverage and mission. However, Swensen has not agreed to an on-the-record interview with the News. While our reporters are trained to cover every side of important campus debates, that task becomes more difficult when one side refuses to explain its position.
The online version of this Op-Ed contains a statement by Swensen that the News originally did not publish because it is incorrect. He writes that the reporter did not contact Yale’s Investments Office before the publication of the Feb. 5 story, when in fact the reporter did.