Harvard datapoint of the day

By Felix Salmon
May 31, 2009

Richard Bradley reports:

Harvard has already halted the hiring of junior faculty and announced an early retirement program for tenured professors, and for the first time ever is considering laying off tenured professors.

And why might Harvard be laying off tenured professors? Because it’s down to its last $25 billion, of course.

Bradley adds a bit to what we know about Harvard’s financial mismanagement:

According to the university’s 2008 financial report, in the next 10 years it must pay various private investors some $11 billion in capital commitments. Where will that money come from if, as seems likely, endowment growth over those years is minimal or nonexistent, and alumni’s own strained budgets limit their generosity?

These are the famous capital calls from Harvard’s private-equity investments, which previous HMC managers assumed could be met out of earlier private-equity payouts. Or something. But now — and for the foreseeable future — Harvard is facing a massive liquidity crunch:

HMC “took the university right to the edge of the abyss,” one alumnus, a financier who is privy to details of the university’s balance sheet, told me. I asked what he meant. “Meaning, you’re out of cash.

“That,” he added, “is the definition of insolvency.”

Er no, actually it’s the definition of illiquidity, but never mind. The point is that Harvard has run out of liquid assets, and that’s going to have huge effects on its institutional psyche — and possibly even on the job security of tenured professors. My guess is though that no one with tenure will be laid off involuntarily.

And maybe Harvard’s alumni might start giving a lot more now than they have in the past. After all, until recently, any giving from alumni was dwarfed by the investment gains of the endowment, and so the incentive to add another drop to the bucket was greatly reduced. Now, by contrast, cash from alumni is desperately needed to meet the university’s annual liquidity requirements. It might even feel better, giving money when you know it’s going to actually be spent, rather than giving money simply to augment some gargantuan endowment.

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