Dartmouth College: the Packing of the Board of Trustees
One example we have come frequently discussed (beginning here) is that of Dartmouth College, despite its name, really a university, and one of the elite American universities which includes a well-regarded medical school. For a long time, Dartmouth had one of the more accountable and representative systems of governance found in US universities. Recently, however, this accountability and transparency was challenged by some of the College's own leaders.
Most boards of trustees are self-elected. When an old member leaves, the new members elect his or her successor. Dartmouth alumni, however can elect eight members of the board of trustees. Until recently, eight others were "charter trustees," who were individually chosen by the other charter trustees, and two were ex-officio. Although the College's Association of Alumni traditionally nominated alumni to run for trustee positions, candidates could be nominated by petition, and starting in 2004, four such petition candidates were elected.
As described by FIRE, the Foundation for Integrity and Responsibility in Medicine, this more open process fostered change in how the university was lead, and seemed to foster renewed attention to the institution's mission:
These trustees spoke out when they perceived their alma mater as not living up to its mission, and Dartmouth students benefited. In May 2005, the college repealed its speech code, and it immediately moved from FIRE's 'red-light' rating and became a 'green-light' institution.
As might be expected, the reigning leadership was not pleased.
Some campus officials viewed the propensity of petition candidates to voice their opinions on illiberal policies as detrimental to the school's image. The Wall Street Journal profiled T.J. Rodgers, a petition-nominated trustee, who explained the criticisms leveled at the 'divisive dissidents.'
'If 'divisive' means there are issues and we debate the issues and move forward according to a consensus, then divisive equals democracy, and democracy is good. The alternative, which I fear is what the administration and [Board of Trustees Chairman] Ed Haldeman are after right now, is a politburo-one-party rule.'
In 2007, in apparent response to the "divisiveness" of the petition trustees, the Charter Trustees proposed increasing their own numbers. Chairman Ed Haldeman's rationale for this, as we discussed here, was to ensure that the board "has the broad range of backgrounds, skills, expertise, and fundraising capabilities needed," and that the board members would possess "even more diverse backgrounds."
Charter Trustees or "Shadow Bankers"?
Yet when we examined the backgrounds of the current charter trustees, we found that they exhibited little diversity. Remarkably, three-quarters (6/8) were in leaders of the finance sector. The board chairman, Ed Haldeman, was then the leader of Putnam Funds. Now, he is the CEO of "Freddie Mac." In 2007, the significance of this kind of lack of diversity were not clear. However, it did seem strange that those accused of seeking to form a "politburo" came from the Wall Street, the street that the left once loved to hate.
However, by late 2008, the world economy descended into an unprecedented financial collapse. Many concluded that the global economic collapse was caused by arrogance, greed, and corruption within the financial sector. This suggested that leadership of academia, and academic medicine in particular, by leaders of the finance sector might not, in retrospect, have been a such a good idea. When we reexamined the composition of the now enlarged cohort of Charter Trustees, however, we found nine of 13 "charter" trustees were leaders in finance, now including three in asset management, two in private equity, one in the field formerly known as investment banking, one in venture capital, one in mutual funds, and one in strategic consulting and investment. Of the remaining four, one was the CEO of a large diversified corporation that has a major finance subsidiary. The remaining three were two physicians and a pharmaceutical corporate CEO.
Given the ongoing financial chaos at the time, we again suggested that a board dominated by business leaders in the finance sector might not be a good idea. Last week, a report came out suggesting why we were right.
Charter Trustees as Dartmouth's Own "Shadow Bankers"
"Educational Endowments and the Financial Crisis: Social Costs and Systemic Risks in the Shadow Banking System," published by the Center for Social Philanthropy, Tellus Institute, focused on how prominent educational institutions, including Dartmouth College, came to invest much of their endowments in risky, illiquid "alternative" investments, the sort provided by the "shadow banking system." The report noted that this change lead to greater financial risks, leading to recent losses and consequent sharp cutbacks in spending, programs, and employment at the affected institutions. In particular, however, it focused on leadership and governance problems at the institutions that lead to this state of affairs.
Although the emergence of the high-risk Endowment Model of Investing has taken place against the backdrop of powerful forces of financial globalization and the influence of Modern Portfolio Theory, its consolidation and influence today at colleges and universities depend vitally on college leaders: senior administrators, trustees, and investment managers, especially the increasingly prominent role of chief investment officer, or CIO. The financial crisis has in many ways been a crisis of leadership. The precipitous declines endowments have suffered during the credit crisis need to be understood as the logical outcome of the Endowment Model’s high risk strategies, but behind the model stand those who are ultimately responsible for its execution: whether as professional money managers, investment officers, affiliated investment management companies, outside managers, or investment consultants, or as the fiduciaries sitting on governing boards and investment committees.
At Dartmouth, in particular, the report focused on conflicts of interest among the board of trustees:
When it comes to weakened endowment oversight, the most glaring problem arises from trustees from the finance industry whose firms provide investment management services. One of the most disconcerting cases in this respect is that of Dartmouth College, where the sudden departure of CIO David Russ in 2009 created a leadership vacuum over endowment management. The college’s investment committee chair and trustee Stephen Mandel has played the CIO role on a voluntary, part-time basis since last summer and will continue to do so until he becomes chair of the board of trustees later this year. At the same time, Mandel’s firm, Lone Pine Capital LLC, a well known hedge-fund complex he founded in 1997, has also managed an investment mandate from the college’s endowment valued originally at $10 million. Although the college has a conflict-of interest policy and is required to disclose such 'pecuniary benefit transactions' with the state of New Hampshire, it would seem difficult for fellow trustees to provide proper oversight of investments managed by a fellow trustee serving as the de-facto CIO. Additionally, if Mandel recuses himself from committee or board deliberations related to his firm, then the investment committee must function without its chair.
However, the problem is magnified because Mandel is only one of more than half a dozen Dartmouth trustees whose firms manage multimillion-dollar investments for the endowment, according to the college’s filings with Charitable Trusts Unit of the New Hampshire Department of Justice. Leon Black’s firm Apollo Management has reportedly managed at least $40 million in Dartmouth investments. Russell Carson’s private equity firm[Welsh, Carson, Anderson and Stowe] has reportedly received at least $45 million in commitments of capital from Dartmouth. William Helman, IV’s venture capital firm Greylock Partners, has reportedly received $10 million investment mandates from the college, while R. Bradford Evans’ firm Morgan Stanley has done multiple transactions
with the college, varying from investments in international real estate and hedge funds to bond issuances, all at undisclosed levels. P. Andrew McLane [T A Associates] and Jonathan Newcomb [Leeds Weld and Co] have also had reported interests in college investments at undisclosed levels. For an endowment of its size— Dartmouth’s endowment fell to less than $3 billion in fiscal year 2009—the deep dependence on trustees’ own businesses for endowment management seems disproportionate.
Thus, one half of the membership of Dartmouth's Charter Trustees were also being paid by Dartmouth to manage its endowment investments. However, as the Tellus Institute report noted,
Leading experts on nonprofit board governance, such as Richard Chait at Harvard University, stress that colleges should simply not do business with the companies of their board members, in order to avoid inevitable distractions and the sense of divided loyalties that arise, to say nothing of appearances of self-dealing and personal enrichment
Another "Missing Link": Board Members Doing Business with the Organizations They are Supposed to Steward
We have frequently discussed the web of conflicts of interest that now permeates health care. Most of the conflicts we have discussed up to now involve physicians or academicians who have financial ties to pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and device companies. Health care organizational leaders also do business with the organizations they lead have not until recently been a topic of discussion, mainly because such conflicts of interest have rarely been disclosed.
It looks like this is going to change. The US Internal Revenue Service sought disclosure of such conflicts of interest affecting hired executives and boards of trustees of not-for-profit organizations beginning in 2009. These disclosures, reported on IRS form 990, are just beginning to be made public. We just posted about members of the board of directors of a large academic health care system who also lead or owned companies that did substantial business with the system. Now we see that a substantial portion of the board of trustees of Dartmouth lead financial firms that managed a major portion of the College's endowment, perhaps to the overall detriment of the endowment's performance. No wonder the Charter Trustees got nervous about petition trustees poking about their business.
As summarized by BoardSource, there are three traditional duties of members of boards of trustees of not-for-profit organizations:
Duty of Care
The duty of care describes the level of competence that is expected of a board member, and is commonly expressed as the duty of "care that an ordinarily prudent person would exercise in a like position and under similar circumstances." This means that a board member owes the duty to exercise reasonable care when he or she makes a decision as a steward of the organization.
Duty of Loyalty
The duty of loyalty is a standard of faithfulness; a board member must give undivided allegiance when making decisions affecting the organization. This means that a board member can never use information obtained as a member for personal gain, but must act in the best interests of the organization.
Duty of Obedience
The duty of obedience requires board members to be faithful to the organization's mission. They are not permitted to act in a way that is inconsistent with the central goals of the organization. A basis for this rule lies in the public's trust that the organization will manage donated funds to fulfill the organization's mission.
Letting a board member's firm manage millions of dollars worth of the institution's endowment portfolio seems an obvious violation of the duty of loyalty. (Letting a board member's legal firm handle the institution's legal issues, or having a board member's advertising firm do its marketing, as described in our earlier post, also seem to be obvious violations of this duty.) A board member who sees nothing wrong with doing business with the organization he or she is supposed to steward would likely see nothing wrong in allowing the organization's mission to become a casualty of the means used to protect that business relationship.
I suspect we are soon to see many more examples of hired executives and board members of revered not-for-profit organizations who have been doing business on the side with the organizations of which they are supposed to be leaders or stewards. These sorts of conflicts of interest may be another "missing link" explaining why the leadership and governance of health care organizations has gone so far astray.
As disclosure continues, maybe enough outrage will ensue so that improved leadership and governance will become possible.