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David Swensen '64 inspires new Swensen Fellows program

Yale News

June 30, 2016

Over the past 30 years, David Swensen and his investment team have redefined the way universities manage their endowment portfolios — not just at Yale, but all over the country.

At the Yale Investment Committee dinner on June 15, President Peter Salovey announced the new Swensen Fellows in Strategic Analysis program. It is based on a fellowship model developed by David Swensen and Dean Takahashi that allows recent Yale graduates to spend a summer as an intern or two years as an analyst in the Investment Office. Over time, alumni of the Yale Investment Office have gone on to oversee the endowments at universities across the country, including Stanford, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Similarly, the goal of the new Swensen Fellows program is to build a network of capable analysts who will provide support to Yale’s leadership on university decisions. Summer interns and two-year fellows will receive training and mentoring as they work with university leaders on projects across Yale. Two inaugural fellows will be appointed this summer, and the program will build to a total of four Swensen Fellows at any given time, plus summer interns.

Swensen and Yale alumni Rob Wallace ‘02 and Stephen Freidheim ’86 provided the initial idea for the fellowships. Wallace, Freidheim, Stefan Kaluzny ’88, Fran Biondi ’87, and other alumni have contributed generous support for the program. Provost Ben Polak and Vice President Steve Murphy worked together to get the program up and running.

“Thirty years ago, university investments offices did not have great returns,” says Polak. “Now they are run in a professional way. They all follow the Swensen model, and they’re brilliant. Similarly, we need to make sure that we are making other kinds of university decisions in a rigorous way. We need to bring serious analysis and data to the table. The Swensen Fellows will learn to dig into an issue, benchmark against other schools, and help us make the best possible decisions.”

Tim Pavlis, the assistant vice president for strategic analysis and institutional research, will oversee the Swensen Fellows program.

“The university is a complex place with lots of different priorities, and there’s a big need for data and information about what’s happening within the institution, as well as outside the institution. It leads to better decisions,” says Pavlis.

An example of the type of project Swensen Fellows might work on is collaborating with the Center for Teaching and Learning and academic leaders to assess programs aimed at improving student learning outcomes.  By assessing a mosaic of qualitative and quantitative data — including student satisfaction, students’ use of university services, and academic outcomes — program leaders will gain a clearer picture of what is working and what could be improved. This type of analysis will enable the university to more rapidly adapt and ensure that its programs have the highest possible impact.

Pavlis believes proactive measures like this are necessary to keep Yale at the forefront of higher education, and to set the stride for the future.

“I think this program is about helping to maintain the greatness of Yale, and about recognizing that we don’t take that for granted,” he says. “We need to make sure that the university is durable, like Yale has been for the last 300 years. At the same time, the institution needs to be innovative in how it runs itself, and thoughtful about where to invest its resources. My personal view is that the model we have of academics leading the university makes a lot of sense, and this program is about providing these leaders the best information and analytical resources to help them as they guide Yale. The Swensen Fellows will also provide a terrific pipeline of new talent for Yale as well as other high-impact organizations.”

Candidates for the fellowships are not necessarily economics students — they may have backgrounds ranging from history or physics to engineering, statistics, or an M.B.A.  The first two Swensen Fellows are 2016 Yale graduates, one with a B.A. in math, and the other with a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

“Mostly fellowship applicants need to be smart and they need to be enthusiastic,” says Polak. “They’re going to need to learn some quantitative skills as they go. But there’s no shortage of bright students here at Yale in every major and in every school. I think this will be a great opportunity for them, and a great opportunity for Yale.”