Universities Addicted To Endowments: The Curse of Hoarded Treasure

04/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Peter Coy Business Week

Something seems wrong with the way elite U.S. universities finance themselves. The problem: They're addicted to multibillion-dollar endowments. When the endowments suddenly shrink, they can seem more like curses than blessings. Harvard University, the richest institution of higher education on the planet, gets about one-third of operating funds from its endowment.

Now that Harvard is expecting a roughly $11 billion endowment decline over the current academic year--30% of the total--the university is in such a financial squeeze that it has frozen faculty salaries and offered early retirement to 1,600 employees. Princeton is even more addicted to its endowment, which provides about 45% of its operating budget. Princeton Provost Christopher Eisgruber warned in February: "We are beginning to live in the 'new normal' and we should not expect to go back to how we operated in the last 10 years."

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