Report: Few colleges disclose their investments
Boston – — Colleges and universities are under growing pressure from Congress and campus activists to reveal financial investments made through their endowments, but most institutions are standing firm against the idea.
The movement includes federal lawmakers who are questioning whether to tax colleges on investment profits that can amount to billions of dollars a year. Many students and alumni are making inquiries too, demanding to know whether schools invest in certain industries.
Those moves challenge the privacy that has long been granted to university endowments, which are large pools of investments meant to provide financial aid to current students and to sustain the schools for future generations.
Endowments face little federal regulation compared with other fundraising institutions. Private foundations, for example, are required to spend at least 5 percent of their assets each year and pay a 2 percent excise tax on investment earnings. Colleges face no spending rules and, because of their educational purpose, are not taxed on their earnings.
Despite the calls for transparency, record requests made by the Associated Press to dozens of the nation’s wealthiest colleges show a continued push to keep investments secret.
Out of 50 public and private universities asked to disclose their investments, 39 schools with combined endowments of $255 billion refused to provide a single record. Four never responded to the requests sent in September. None of the private universities, which are not subject to open-records laws, released any information.
Most public universities, which operate with taxpayer money, kept their investments secret. The universities that did provide records in most cases revealed only a small fraction of their portfolios.
Colleges drew on a variety of reasons to withhold records. The University of Virginia and four other public universities said they house their endowments in outside foundations that are not subject to open-records laws. Michigan State University, also public, cited a state law that explicitly keeps college investments confidential.
The University of Michigan released 20-plus pages of investments to the AP, listing those held directly by the school. During the 2015 Fiscal Year, UM reported $10 billion in endowments.
Transparency can also lead to unwanted scrutiny. For instance, Harvard University’s investments in the timber industry inspired student protests in 2014, and environmental groups blasted the school for buying land in Africa to be used for commercial farming. Harvard insists that it invests responsibly.
The University of California system told one of its student newspapers that it cut investments in the owner of Bushmaster, the maker of the rifle used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.
Many colleges contend that disclosing their investment portfolios would risk losing a competitive edge.
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