Many HBCUs Remain Socially Liberal, Fiscally Conservative

May 17, 2010  |  

By Jada F. Smith

Since the start of the economic downturn many institutions have struggled to fund increasingly costly operations with diminished funds.  But if the old adage is correct – when America has a cold, black America has the flu – historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) hoping to weather this storm are forced to be more careful than their counterparts in investing.

“Howard’s investments have performed fairly well compared to other colleges – the big names,” said Robert Tarola, chief financial officer and treasurer for Howard University.  “We lost, but not 30% like some of the big name Ivy schools.  Howard takes a very conservative and thoughtful approach in managing the endowment.”

The university’s endowment currently stands at $424 million.   According to it’s 2008-2009 Financial Statements and Supplementary Information report, Howard invested a total of $426 million during the 2008-2009 fiscal year.  During that same year it experienced a $90 million loss on its investment return.   It takes $800 million dollars a year to run the school and it’s affiliated hospital.  With this sort of price tag, taking measures to responsibly manage funds is paramount.  “We allocate endowment funds to over a dozen different asset classes,” said Tarola.  “We have a highly diversified portfolio both in terms of the number of asset classes, as well as the number of investment managers.  We don’t have a large amount in any one bucket because diversification reduces risks.”

Lavera Prestage, comprehensive financial advisor for Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc., believes universities with modest endowments, as is the case with most HBCUs, should approach investing with considerable caution as a matter of necessity.  However, she contends risky investments are necessary for financial growth. “They should have some aggressive investments, but they also need a smart level of conservative investment,” said Prestage. “Ninety percent of performance depends on the mixture of investments.”

While sampling this recipe for growth may challenge organizations across the board, one could argue that stewardship of funds for historic institutions must be handled with greater care.  The number of constituents to whom they are accountable – not just for the operation of a school, but for the continuation of a legacy – is substantial.When the city of Atlanta threatened to shut off the water at cash strapped Morris Brown College in 2009, interest swelled well beyond faculty, current enrollees and alumni.  The Black community banded together to help save the debt-strangled institution from drowning.  It wasn’t just the threat of a school suffering, it was the idea that one of black America’s most prized possessions – the Negro college – was in danger.

Robert Flanigan, chief financial officer of Spelman College, is well aware of his role in preserving the institution’s legacy and it’s place in the country’s academic community.  “I always feel pressure with regards to creating equity and capital,” he said.  “We have to provide spending for the existing population at Spelman and maintain this same endowment for students 100 years hence.  I feel that pressure every day.”

Spelman suffered along with other universities when the economy tanked, but things have been rebounding and the school is shooting for an 11% increase over the next decade.  In order to make that happen, Flanigan believes the school must continue with a relatively aggressive strategy when it comes to diversification.  Currently the school has stakes in foreign equities, private equities, venture capital, real estate, commodities and currency.

“We’ve all learned a lot from 2008,” he said. “The world markets are not as uncorrelated as we thought. Before we had the fall in 2008, Spelman’s endowment stood at $350 million, then went down to $285 million. However, that 17 percent loss was probably one of the least losses in the U.S. with aggressive investments.”

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