Are the Wealthy Donor Board Members Like Madoff and Merkin Ruining Our Universities?

Roy M. Poses MD writes a blog called "Health Care Renewal" about issues in the medical industry and medical education. It's not an area that we normally follow. But the doctor has taken an interest in Yeshiva University's board as an example case for a point he wants to probe.

Poses posits that university boards are heavily influenced by "finance leaders" and that may be causing some unanticipated problems.

He has started to do his homework on the subject, but he does not fully spell out his thesis. It seems to me that he is thinking as follows - in the metaphor of medical terms.

Universities have a "capital" deficiency in their systems. (They are non-profits.) To alleviate this they take in "finance leaders" as members of their boards. (That gives them access to donors and donations.) In the past few months we  we have seen a combination of the ill effects these "leaders" (i.e., Wall Street) can have to weaken our economy, and particularly we witnessed how some  (i.e., Madoff and Merkin) can have malevolent lethal effects on their investors' pools of capital.

Accordingly, Poses says in his provocative blog post, "Hedge Fund U," it's time to look hard at the unintended deleterious side-effects of the main medicine.

Good work. Great thoughts...
Seeing how readily Madoff's institutional investors, in particular, the leadership of Yeshiva University were bamboozled, I thought maybe it was time to see who that leadership actually was.

Yeshiva's current Board of Trustees is listed here on the University web-site, but without any detail about the people whose names appear there. A bit of Google searching revealed that the group included, besides Merkin and Madoff,
- Morry J Weiss (chairman), who is on the advisory board of Primus Venture Partners, a private equity firm
- Sy Syms (vice chairman), who is on the board of the Israel Discount Bank of New York
- Alan E Goldberg (treasurer), who is co-managing partner and co-founder of Lindsay Goldberg, a private equity firm
- Israel A Englander, who is co-founder if I A Englander & Co, a financial derivatives trading firm, and founder of Millennium Partners, a hedge fund (also note that Millennium Partners and Mr Englander personally settled lawsuits in 2005 that charged they used an elaborate scheme using market timing, as per this NY Times story)
- Ruth L Gottesman, the spouse of David Gottesman, the founder and senior managing director of First Manhattan Company, an investment adviser, (and also a former chairman of the Yeshiva University board)
- Lance L Hirt, another partner at Lindsay Goldberg, a private equity firm (see above)
- Michael Jesselson, the president of Jesselson Capital, an investment company
- Henry Kressel, a partner and senior managing director of Warburg Pincus, a venture capital company
So, before the resignation of Madoff and Merkin, nine of the 40 officers and trustees of Yeshiva University were in finance, all in leadership positions (and the board also included the spouse of another financial leader). Most were not in retail banking or retail stock brokerages, but in the more exotic areas of finance that are most associated with the global economic collapse, including derivative trading, hedge funds, private equity, etc.

On one hand, it would appear that a board so heavily stocked with finance leaders ought to have been sophisticated enough to do the due diligence their role required in evaluating the university's investments. On the other hand, perhaps the enrichment with finance people created a clubby atmosphere that discouraged questioning their fellow financiers too closely.

That almost 25% of Yeshiva University's board was composed of finance leaders is striking, given that the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that less than 6% of employed people work in finance. But note that we previously found that 50% of the Harvard Fellows (the equivalent of their board of trustees' executive committee), and 69% of Dartmouth College's charter (self-appointed, as opposed to elected by alumni) trustees were leaders in the financial sector. This is somewhat anecdotal evidence, but it suggests that leaders of finance are much more prevalent among the top leadership of elite US institutions of higher education than would be explained by their prevalence in the population.

This raises the question of why financial leaders seem to have become so prevalent in academic leadership. This question is important, since this prevalence seems to have increased in a time when the culture of the leadership of the financial sector seemed to become more and more alien to the values that academic leaders ought to support, culminating in a global financial collapse that many blame on the sector leaders' arrogance, greed, and sometimes outright corruption.

At least it seems a reasonable hypothesis that some of the problems of academia, and particularly the problems of medical academia, may have been at least enabled by leadership more used to working in an increasingly amoral marketplace than to upholding the academic mission.

We hope that there will be more interest in who now leads academia, especially medical academia, how they got there, and what they have wrought.

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