Kim Y. Lew will take over as chief executive officer of Columbia Investment Management Company in November, according to an announcement from University President Lee Bollinger at the end of last week. She will be the only Black woman heading an endowment investment company in the Ivy League.
Lew, who was named Chief Investment Officer of the Year in 2019, served as the vice president and CIO of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic fund that supports education programs in the United States. Her arrival follows the retirement of Peter Holland at the end of this month—who headed the company for four years— and the departure of former CIO Tim Donohue in September of last year. She also serves on the investment committees of both the American Civil Liberties Union and Wesleyan University.
As part of her duties with CIMC, Lew will spearhead the investment decisions of the University’s over $10.6 billion endowment assets, the fourth smallest in the Ivy League despite doubling since 2003. In the past few years, Columbia’s endowment has consistently performed among the worst within its peer institutions, generating a nine percent and 3.8 percent return in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 respectively.
Lew’s appointment comes at the heels of greater demands for transparency in representation among external asset management firms. These firms oversee a school’s endowment after being assigned funds by their respective management companies, a responsibility that has increasingly faced the ire of protestors who point to the political nature of universities' investments of billions of dollars in wealth in corporations. In recent years, students and faculty members have directed attention toward university endowments and called upon the University and its affiliates to divest from companies that they view as contradictory to the mission and values of Columbia.
The most recent calls for change come in the form of demands to divest from fossil fuel and extraction businesses. Currently, the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, an advisory group to the managers of Columbia’s endowment, is reviewing a student group-led proposal to divest from fossil fuels.
In February, Lew co-authored a piece stating that diversity is a priority when evaluating and selecting investment firms to manage an endowment, in which she describes diversity as a “performance imperative” that can give firms a “competitive advantage.”
Alongside its dismal return, CIMC has also faced significant turnover, starting with the departure of N.P. Narvekar to Harvard in 2016 and followed by Donohue and Holland departing within one year of each other.
And while Bollinger stated in an interview with Spectator in early March that he feels “very confident on the future performance of the endowment,” the consistent underperformance of Columbia in comparison to its peers and the significant drop in returns over the past fiscal year might indicate otherwise, especially during a time where Columbia is already facing significant simultaneous losses in its other four revenue streams. Given that the only amount the University can spend from the endowment lies in its returns, FY 2020′s return on investment will prove crucial to the following year’s operating budget.