David Swensen, the long-time chief investment officer at Yale University and a legend in the world of college endowments, died Wednesday at the age of 67.
Yale president Peter Salovey wrote about Swensen’s death in a statement Thursday, saying that Swensen died following “a long and courageous battle with cancer.”
Swensen graduated from Yale with a Ph.D. in economics in 1980 and then worked briefly at Wall Street investment banks Lehman Brothers and Salomon Brothers before returning to Yale in 1985 as head of the Ivy League school’s investment office.
Under Swensen’s management, the endowment fund grew to more than $31 billion as of 2020 to become the second largest in the nation — trailing only arch rival Harvard. Yale’s endowment stood at about $1 billion when Swensen took over.
Swensen is most famous for helping develop the so-called “Yale Model” of institutional investing, a method that many college endowments and charitable organizations have since adopted to manage their own money.
Swensen advocated for the university to invest more heavily in stocks and alternative assets such as hedge funds, private equity, venture capital and real estate as opposed to sleepier bonds.
It’s a riskier approach but one that yielded much bigger returns than traditional endowment strategies that rely more heavily on fixed income investments. Over the past 30 years, the university’s portfolio has returned an average of 12.4 percent per year, according to the Yale Investment Office.
“David will be remembered at Yale and beyond our campus. Please join me in expressing our collective appreciation for his lifelong commitment to Yale and in extending our most heartfelt condolences to his wife, Meghan McMahon, and their family,” Salovey wrote.
Swensen was criticized by some in the Yale community in recent years, mainly because the endowment was putting money into funds that continued to invest in fossil fuels. Last month, Yale issued new guidelines for how it would invest in energy companies.
Even so, tributes to Swensen poured in on Twitter from many high profile members of the investing world.
“Very sad to hear of the passing of David Swensen, CIO of #Yale’s endowment, #investment pioneer, and enabler of thousands of #students and faculty,” Mohamed El-Erian, an advisor to Allianz and president of Queens’ College at Cambridge University, wrote on Twitter. “In addition to his transformational impact, David was generous in sharing insights and guidance.”
“David Swensen will be remembered for how great he was at his job but I hope we will all take a moment to remember what a kind, decent person he was and how much he cared for the public good” added Austan Goolsbee, economics professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama. “And how that very decency was what made him great at his job.”