America needs more people like Robert Rowling.
Rowling is a Texas businessman who until recently served on the University of Texas Board of Regents and as volunteer board chairman of a state-controlled company that manages the university's endowment funds. Earlier this month, he resigned during a state Senate hearing at which the investment firm's chief executive was blasted for accepting a $1.05 million bonus and Rowling himself drew criticism for approving that payment.
The incident should be a wake-up call for any investment professional who considers the non-profit sector a safe haven. Given the broad public's antagonism toward anyone and anything connected with finance, in-house investment managers of university endowments, teachers' retirement systems and other public and quasi-public investment funds could soon face similar attacks on compensation and fee structures. The instigators seem to believe that anyone managing public funds should be compensated on the scale of a civil servant - and anyone who isn't is fair game for mudslinging, no matter what they did to earn an above-average paycheck.
Speaking Truth to Power
In Texas, Rowling refused to bow to his state's lawmakers. Instead, he spoke truth to power.
"We have nothing to apologize for, in my opinion," Rowling told the Associated Press in reference to $3.38 million in performance bonuses his board had approved for employees of University of Texas Investment Management Co. (UTIMCO). For politicians, he said, the act of awarding or accepting a bonus is "a popular, easy target to beat people over the head with."
In his resignation letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry - who had also criticized the UTIMCO bonuses - Rowling wrote: "You have characterized the (bonus) payments as 'irresponsible' and 'hardly defensible.' I completely disagree. It would be irresponsible and shameful to commit to an agreement with employees and then turn your back on the agreement...."
And he said senators' treatment of UTIMCO CEO Bruce Zimmerman during the Feb. 5 hearing "truly does meet the definition of 'shameful.' In the current environment, I do not know why any rational person would volunteer their time to serve" on the board, Rowling's letter said.
The incentive payments were awarded to UTIMCO's in-house portfolio managers and researchers last November for their funds' performance during the fiscal year ended June 30, 2008.
Obfuscation and Bullying
State Sen. Roger Ogden has said University of Texas methods for setting fund managers' bonuses are "under the radar" and need to be "surfaced." However, our contributor Dona DeZube says it took her all of 10 minutes to locate a publicly available version of UTIMCO's detailed incentive plan document, prepared by Mercer Human Resource Consulting.
I've read that 24-page document and it appears unremarkable - probably typical of the incentives in place at most other in-house endowment management firms. Performance goals are based on overall returns of the fund relative to benchmarks and a peer group, plus returns for each staff member's asset class compared with specified indices.
Rowling told AP that when state senators grilled Zimmerman, "They were almost speaking to him like he was accused of a crime or something, like he'd done something unethical or illegal."
Nothing in the voluminous local press coverage suggests Zimmerman or other UTIMCO employees deviated from mandates, fell short of goals, or did anything improper. Instead, what we have here is a bunch of politicians - at least one of whom (Gov. Perry) faces a tough primary challenge within his own party in 2010 - trying to score points by bullying employees who have done a fine job managing the university's funds. No one has challenged Rowling's statement that those funds outperformed more than 75 percent of comparable endowments and pension funds nationally during the period for which the bonuses were awarded.
Rowling's principled resignation won't entail a sacrifice of income or career prospects. The university board seats are unpaid and he is financially independent, so he wouldn't have taken those civic posts as a steppingstone to some future role. Still, he is a hero in my book for sticking up for his team and standing up to the demagogues. Many in similar positions will be called to take courageous stands in the months ahead, around the nation and around the world.