University investments should be public knowledge

If TCU were my child, I would ground him or her for a good, solid year.

That’s what my parents would have done to me if I got two F’s on my report card.

The 2008 College Sustainability Report Card, a study conducted by the Sustainable Endowments Institute that grades 100 colleges on campus greening practices and endowment policies, gave the university F’s in two of eight categories, both of which had to do with TCU’s investment practices.

These failing marks were well-deserved.

Like many private institutions, TCU has a strict non-disclosure policy, meaning specifics about endowment investments are only available to the investment staff and the board of trustees.

A handful of middle-aged businessmen are the only ones who have any way of knowing or deciding how the endowment is being invested.

The endowment is $1.2 billion, according to the sustainability report. How can TCU not even let us know the names of the firms and companies in which the money is being invested.

What if the majority of TCU’s endowment were being invested in tobacco companies or in some other ethically questionable way? Even though it’s far-fetched to think the board of trustees would let that happen, it’s possible.

The truth is we have no idea what kind of university we’re a part of. We’re in the dark.

If there was such a thing as a grade lower than an F, I would send an angry letter to Mark Orlowski, executive director of SEI, urging him to give TCU the lowest grade possible.

Fortunately for the TCU administration, two F’s is all they got and I didn’t have to send any letters to Orlowski.

I did call him though.

I asked Orlowski why TCU and so many other schools keep these non-disclosure policies and how the situation could be remedied.

He said a lot of private schools choose to keep their investment practices a secret because it gives them a “strategic advantage.” He said a lot of schools solve this problem by having a delayed-disclosure system where information regarding the endowment is released once it becomes out of date.

“There are quite a few schools that do make this information available,” Orlowski said. “It’s not a common or widespread practice by any means but there is a growing number of schools that are making this information available with no concern over a detriment in performance or otherwise hindering the ability of the endowment to perform at the highest level possible.”

Jim Hille, TCU’s chief investment officer, said certain investments that TCU makes are only possible because they don’t disclose certain information.

“We keep investments private because very often they are simply not ready for the scrutiny of public markets,” Hille said. “Early price discovery would be damaging to the competitiveness of these firms.”

Orlowski said with a system of delayed-disclosure, TCU could increase endowment transparency while maintaining the same strategic advantage.

“There’s a point when certain information can be released without consequence,” Orlowski said. “The whole concern about competitive advantage or the loss of strategic investments is, to me, a non-issue because it wouldn’t be very smart to trade information that’s six months or a year out of date.”

TCU should release information about its investments to the university community but do it on a delayed basis to eliminate a strategic disadvantage.

It would reassure us that the endowment is being invested responsibly and would encourage a healthy dialogue about ethical investment strategies.

Until that happens and the university brings its grades up, TCU will stay grounded in my book.