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The Endowment Location Conundrum

The Cornell Office of University Investments, following talent and trend, is heading to New York City. Will returns follow?

  • Frances Denmark

So long, Ithaca.

In late September officials at Cornell University announced that the upstate New York school’s Office of University Investments will move to New York City by late 2017. The move, approved by the board of trustees’ investment committee earlier in the month, will follow an increasingly popular path taken by schools located far from major financial centers — among them, Williams, Dartmouth and Bowdoin Colleges.

Cornell CIO Kenneth Miranda, who took the reins on July 1, gives the impending relocation his full support, noting in the university’s announcement that “the full merits will take time to achieve, but the decision is extremely supportive of the goals of the office.” Cornell has already established a New York presence with the Weill Cornell Medical School and the anticipated 2017 opening of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech engineering school. 

It is difficult to find an endowment official who does not support establishing an investment office closer to the global financial action. “I don’t even think about it,” says Collette Chilton, CIO of Williams College, who spends most of her time in a Boston office rather than on the bucolic Berkshires campus in Williamstown, Massachusetts. A veteran of remote work even before her 2006 hiring by the school, Chilton had a Boston office as CIO of Lucent Technologies, a telecommunications company located in western New Jersey.

As Chilton and others can attest, the move to a financial center affords an investment office access to a broader and deeper pool of professional talent. A New York or Boston location also brings allocators closer to asset managers, who can be quite reluctant to travel many hours to a campus location in the boondocks. A third advantage is proximity to industry conferences and asset manager–client events. Quick access to an airport is also important. Simply put, “the purpose of an investment office is to make money,” says Charles Skorina, an investment office search consultant in San Francisco. “Where can you best make money?”

Cornell may be late to the endowment office migration trend, judging at least in part by the school’s revolving door, which has seen four CIOs pass through in a decade. The $6.1 billion fund’s dismal –3.3 percent return for the year ended June 30, compared with the –1.1 percent median return for all endowments with more than $500 million in assets in the Wilshire Trust Universe Comparison Service, does not hurt in making the case for a move.

Chilton, who reports to Williams president Adam Falk and maintains an office on campus, returns there for weekly senior staff meetings when she isn’t on one of her frequent road trips to visit asset managers. The decision to locate the college’s new investment office in either Boston or New York had already been made by trustees in 2006, when Chilton was hired after a search, she explains. Today she oversees $2.3 billion with the help of two senior investment staff and three analysts; her team expands in the summer with student interns.

Brunswick, Maine, is ever farther from civilization than Williamstown. So it was no surprise when four years ago Paula Volent, CIO at Bowdoin College, now with $1.34 billion in assets, oversaw the move of the school’s investment office to New York City. Volent had been hired away from an investment role at the Yale Investments Office in July 2000 to start a similar investment office at Bowdoin. Previously, the CIO’s responsibilities had been part of the treasurer’s function. “The portfolio wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now — or as complicated,” Volent explains. Along with many of its peers in the difficult 2015–’16 fiscal year, Bowdoin found itself reporting in negative territory, with a –1.4 percent return.

Over time, “we looked at different models,” Volent says. “We had turnover because people wanted to enlarge their careers.” Like Chilton, Volent established a student internship program on campus. “My mission is to work for the college, so I need to have a real presence. You need to be near it,” she asserts, adding that this philosophy was expounded by her mentor, David Swensen.

Tensions can arise in the operation of a remote investment office. “It is very hard for endowment and foundation offices not to be in reasonable proximity to their mission,” says George Wilbanks, a search consultant and principal at Wilbanks Partners in Stamford, Connecticut. And some investment professionals prefer to raise their families in “softer” settings. “Every single location presents its challenges,” Wilbanks contends.

So it’s no surprise that the Bowdoin investment office has split its functions between Maine and New York. In the New York office, on Park Avenue and 54th Street, at the epicenter of asset management, three investment professionals work alongside the CIO. Although the urban office allows the school’s president to make use of the conference room, as well as hire a summer intern, most of the operations team (plus a director of research) is in Maine. Come summer the CIO and her investment staff head north to enjoy the country life back on campus.

For now it remains to be seen how much time Cornell’s Miranda and his team will spend in New York. We do hear that summers in Ithaca are “gorge-ous.”