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Smart Communications for a Change

The College leapt out front last week in announcing a 14.6% investment return on the endowment for fiscal 2017. We were the first Ivy to break the news, as Bloomberg notes:

Endowment Growth September 2017 Comp.jpg

Had we announced the stellar gain (not as good as the stock market, but a fine return overall) after three or four other Ivies, we don’t get the big headline. And had our return been below that of other schools, we’d have been depicted negatively. That may still happen, but at least until yesterday we enjoyed the limelight alone.

We really should see forward-thinking communications like this more often. In contrast to the past. During the failed appointment this spring of Bruce Duthu as Dean of the Faculty, senior members of the administration had not a word to say upfront about Duthu’s BDS petitioning. Were they so clueless as to think that Duthu’s stance would not be an issue?

I expect that if the administration and Duthu had jointly said at the time of his appointment that he had long since revised his view on the merits of boycotting all Israeli universities, he would be our Dean today. Instead, the Office of Communications and the Parkhurst, uh, braintrust, let the pot boil until the controversy was about the go national. Wrong. You have to get out ahead of a story.

In any event, let’s celebrate something well done by the administration. I wish that we could do so more often.

Addendum: Harvard announced its weak endowment return yesterday. Only 8.1%. Ouch. And because the school came out almost a week after the College with its press release, the Wall Street Journal story about Harvard’s results contained this pithy comparison:

Dartmouth College, the first Ivy League school to announce its results earlier this month, delivered a 14.6% gain for its endowment.

In tiny increments is a reputation made and protected.

Addendum: In 2013 the administration made the same communications mistakes as with Duthu when endeavoring to appoint Anglican Bishop James Tengatenga as head of the Tucker Foundation. No plan was in place when the good Bishop’s ambiguous position on gay rights was first reported. Let’s hope that Phil & Co. learn from their mistakes.

Addendum: A reader writes in:

Your characterization of Dartmouth’s 14.6% endowment return as “stellar” and “not as good as the stock market, but a fine return overall” is likely framed relative to the S&P 500 index (15.5%). The S&P is a useful benchmark, so OK. But an S&P investment would also include dividend return of about 2%. Moreover, other widely-tracked indexes outran the S&P by a good bit over the same 12 months: Dow Jones Industrials 19.1%, Nasdaq Composite (tech-heavy) 26.8%, Russell 2000 (small caps) 22.9%. All plus dividends (which the endowment return surely includes).

All such simple index comparisons are, well, simplistic. Consultants spend considerable time (and money) devising truer comparables. There are lots of factors that may legitimize even a way-below-index return, for instance bonds or other non-equity holdings. But just on a quick-take basis, 14.6% for the year ended June 30 shouldn’t really qualify as “stellar.”


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