In an exclusive interview, the Yale endowment
legend explains how, and why, he finally lost his cool.
- By Amy Whyte
May 07, 2019
It was a Friday morning in early March, and David Swensen was furious.
The legendary chief investment officer of the Yale endowment — the best performing of its kind over the last 20 years — had awoken in London to an email from the editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News.
The email, timestamped 10:05 p.m. New Haven time — or just after 3:00 a.m. in the U.K. — addressed an opinion piece Swensen had written regarding the newspaper’s coverage of an endowment teach-in event held by student activists earlier in the year.
“Apologies for reaching out late at night, but I wanted to get in touch about a section of your piece,” the editor wrote. The email explained that she had decided to remove a sentence from Swensen’s op-ed pertaining to the Yale Daily News’ reporting — a sentence that the newspaper’s staff had determined to be inaccurate. “I understand that you do not want your column edited and we respect that request, but cannot in good faith include that part of it.”
By the time Swensen read the email that morning, the column had already been published online, leaving out the sentence in question, as well as a pertinent footnote regarding Yale’s use of index funds.
Swensen — who had commanded the News staff, in all caps, not to edit his essay — was not pleased.
At 9:19 a.m. GMT, he fired off a response from his BlackBerry.
“Don’t you understand simple English?” he demanded. “What is the matter with you?”
The chain of emails that followed — in which the investment chief blasted the behavior of the Yale Daily News editors as “disgusting” and “inexcusable,” ultimately calling editor-in-chief Rachel Treisman a “coward” — revealed a side of Swensen that had rarely, if ever, been seen in public.
Described by Yale administrators, former students, and former colleagues as generous and benevolent — the kind of man who would take an interest in a young person’s career or make the time to give your young kids a campus tour — Swensen is widely and wildly admired, both at Yale and in the larger investing community.