Friday, June 01, 2012

Dartmouth's Governance and Wall Street

While the money spent on health care in the US continues to increase, care becomes less accessible and its quality becomes more dubious.  Most public health care discourse seems at a loss to explain how we can keep spending more to get less.

Of many possible explanations, one that has become more credible is continuing erosion of health care stewardship.  The boards of trustees of health care organizations, those charged with their stewardship, seem increasingly preoccupied with self-interest rather than the health care mission.  As more information about how such boards currently operate sneaks into public view, the problems appear more serious and salient.

New information about the governance of Dartmouth College, an issue we have followed since 2007, is illustrative.

The Case So Far

The problems at Dartmouth were notable because in many ways its governance was superior to that of many US higher educational and health care institutions.  At the time we first stumbled on these problems, Dartmouth was unusual in that nearly half of its board of trustees were elected by alumni, rather than being self-appointed.  That made its governance both more representative  and more accountable. 

In 2007, however, a dispute was ongoing about the extent that the institution's board of trustees ought to represent the alumni at large, or instead, ought to be a self-elected body not clearly accountable to anyone else.  The unelected, or "charter" board members were pushing to increases their numbers.  In 2007, what really got our attention was the stated rationale for this push towards less representative and accountable governance. Mr Charles Haldeman, then the chairman of the board of trustees, announced a smaller proportion of elected trustees would 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."  However, despite his appeal to diversity, Mr Haldeman seemed most intent on reducing "divisiveness," especially dissent that challenged his own authority.  At the time, we thought his argument for more diversity to reduce dissent and increase his own authority seemed Orwellian.

Yet when we examined the backgrounds of the self-appointed trustees, we found that they exhibited little diversity. Furthermore, rather than resembling followers of Ingsoc, they resembled more the group that the radical left traditionally reviled.  Remarkably, three-quarters (6/8) were leaders of the finance sector, of what is popularly called "Wall Street." In 2007, they seemed not very diverse, but why the majority should be in the financial sector, and what implications that had, was then obscure.

After the fall of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the global financial collapse/ great recession, the implications of this Wall Street majority on the board of an institution of higher education became more troubling.  Since 2008, growing concerns about the extent that finance is driven by a "greed is good" culture increasingly suggest that domination of university, medical school, or hospital boards by leaders in the finance sector may increasingly divorce boards from the missions which they are supposed to uphold.

Yet in 2008, the unelected "charter" members of the Dartmouth board succeeded in increasing their numbers, and hence their proportion of total board seats.  The new board was no more diverse.  Of its 13 charter members, 9 were from finance, and one more was the CEO of a corporation with a major finance subsidiary.  (Look here.)  By 2009, the charter board members had succeeded in ousting a dissident alumni-elected member, labeling him a member of a "radical cabal," and rewriting a board loyalty oath apparently to discourage further dissent.  (Look here.)

All this spoke to the increasing power of the culture of finance among members of the board.  Perhaps, though, there were reasons that the financial majority on the board wanted to suppress dissent other than to make themselves more comfortable with their own dominant culture,  In 2010, as the global financial crisis continued, "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."  (See this post.)  The report noted extensive conflicts of interest on the Dartmouth board involving trustees who were also leaders of finance.  Their firms, it turned out, were managing a substantial fraction of the money in the college's endowment.  Half of the charter trustees were also being paid to manage the finances of the institution for whose stewardship they were responsible. 

Trustees of non-profit organizations are supposed to exhibit a duty of loyalty, that is, they "must give undivided allegiance when making decisions affecting the organization."  (For a summary of their duties, look here.)   In 2010, I noted, "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."  So, "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."  I then posited, "as disclosure continues, maybe enough outrage will ensue so that improved leadership and governance will become possible.

The Friends of Eleazar Wheelock Charge Corruption

Now there seems to be more outrage.  Last month, the dissident Dartblog broke the story of a letter sent in February, 2012 to the New Hampshire Attorney General by an anonymous group called the "Friends of Eleazar Wheelock."  (Wheelock was the founder of the college.)  To the the letter was appended a report that included an even more extensive list of conflicts of interest affecting Dartmouth trustees, the college's Finance Committee and Investment Committees, and their friends and relatives. 

The letter also added
The mismanagement extends beyond the investments and endowment. 1) Over a period of seven years The College engaged Lehman Brothers in six 'interest rate swaps' totaling $550 million dollars. The current value of these 'swaps' is now in excess of two hundred million dollars. That is what Dartmouth owes on these bets. These losses are not reported in the College’s financial statements. 2) The College’s 'cash' was invested in six hedge funds. Up to 40% of it was lost. Again, this was not reported. This comprises grant money for research, advances to faculty, and other working capital which should have been invested in the safest of money market instruments. 3) over 50% of the endowment is invested with Trustees, Investment Committee members, or their friends.
The report summary stated,
The pattern that the Dartmouth trustees and members of the Endowment/Investment committee have engaged in for decades is clear. That pattern is that a donor/investment manager’s pledge to support Dartmouth is reciprocated with an investment of ever increasing proportions in the donor’s firm, lending the credibility of an Ivy League institution to the firm. The investment returns are of little import; most of these alum/donor/investment manager returns are average to poor.

It rhetorically asked how the college came into
the grip of a club of investment manager alums who have invested almost six hundred million dollars in their very own funds and directed over one billion dollars to their friends? And who have taken almost one hundred million dollars in fees to manage the endowment, often with poor results culminating in the twenty three per cent loss in 2008 and the worst performance of all the Ivies in 2011?

The letter charged that there has been a
quiet takeover of this great College by a cabal of external, wealthy alumni/ae of the college. They have mortgaged the College’s future through borrowing heavily in the tax exempt marketplace under NH HEFA (Health and Education Facilities Authority). They have simultaneously directed the College’s three billion dollar endowment to themselves, their firms, and their friends. They have furthered their own self-interest at the expense of the College and the Upper Valley. They have abused the non-profit status of Dartmouth College. They have enriched themselves through managing and directing Dartmouth’s three billion dollar endowment. In all cases they have taken gargantuan fund management fees through 'Private Equity', 'Venture Capital', and 'Hedge Funds' investments which they, themselves, manage and are the owners of.

A post on the American Thinker blog noted that the letter alleged "corruption." It is impossible to tell whether these expanded allegations will result in any charges, much less convictions. The state Attorney General is currently looking into this (see Reuters). Certainly, the allegations are at least of ethical corruption as it is defined by Transparency International, "abuse of entrusted power for private gain."

The revelations since 2007 (and I could argue beginning with my finding that the majority of the supposedly "diverse" charter trustees were leaders of finance) first raised questions whether Dartmouth governance's was attentive to the mission, then, whether it was conflicted, and now, whether it is corrupt.

That these questions can be credibly raised about one of our most prestigious institutions of higher education and health care demonstrates the depth of our health care crisis. It also demonstrates how the health care crisis seems inextricably linked to the financial crisis, and to a fundamental crisis about our society and its commitment to democracy and fairness.

A fair and thorough enquiry about the mess at Dartmouth, resulting in clear actions to uphold the institution's mission and ethics, and, if applicable, the law, would start us down the path of true health care reform.

However, if this just gets swept under the rug, we will not have reached the bottom of our descent.

ADDENDUM (2 June, 2012) - Note that Dartmouth's most recent President, Jim Yong Kim, who was appointed by and served under the Trustees in question above, is now President of the World Bank (see this LA Times article.)

See also comments in the University Diaries blog.


InformaticsMD said...

over 50% of the endowment is invested with Trustees, Investment Committee members, or their friends.

Holy cow.

Anonymous said...

I, for one, will no longer contribute to Dartmouth. I urge all others to withold financial contributions.

Afraid said...

The Dartmouth Atlas is (was?) a force for reducing overtreatment and cost. Was there a target at Dartmouth for a bigger agenda?