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    Harvard raids rival Columbia for new endowment chief

    Harvard’s Cambridge campus.
    Lisa Poole/Associated Press/ File
    Harvard’s Cambridge campus.

    Harvard University said Thursday that it recruited a veteran investment manager from rival Columbia University to take over its struggling endowment.

    The Cambridge school named N.P. “Narv” Narvekar chief executive of its $35.7 billion fund, the largest endowment in the higher education world. Narvekar, 54, has run the $9.6 billion Columbia endowment since 2002. He’ll take the reins at Harvard on Dec. 5.

    Harvard’s endowment, once the envy of the academic world, has scuffled in recent years. On Narvekar’s watch, Columbia produced an annualized return of 10.1 percent over the 10 years through June 2015, Harvard said. Harvard’s gain over that period was 7.6 percent.

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    After a 2 percent loss in 2016, Harvard’s 10-year return has slumped to 5.7 percent. Columbia has not yet released its return for the most recent fiscal year, a challenging period for most endowments, though its assets have dipped.

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    Harvard’s investing model may be under fresh scrutiny with the new boss. Unlike most of its rivals, Harvard has a large staff of more than 200 and manages about 40 percent of its money internally. Most schools hire outside firms to manage their money. At Columbia, Narvekar oversaw a staff of 20.

    “Narv is a highly successful endowment manager with an outstanding 14-year track record heading a large endowment, providing steady leadership and delivering strong returns,” Paul Finnegan, chairman of Boston-based Harvard Management, the school’s investment arm, said in a statement.

    The board has been under pressure to find a permanent chief executive for the endowment since July, when Stephen Blyth stepped down after a brief and unexplained medical leave. Blyth had held the job for just a year-and-a-half. Narvekar will be the endowment’s fourth CEO in 10 years.

    Before Columbia, Narvekar worked in the investment office at the University of Pennsylvania, where he had earned his MBA at the Wharton School in 1991. Prior to joining the endowment world, Narvekar worked for Wall Street’s J.P. Morgan for 14 years, ultimately rising to the position of managing director for equity derivatives.

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    In a statement, Narvekar said, “It is an honor to join such a prestigious investment organization and help support the mission of Harvard University.” He also said HMC has an “unparalleled investment platform among endowments.”

    At the University of Pennsylvania, Narvekar was focused on building hedge fund and private equity portolios. Among the boards he currently serves on, he is a member of the Soros Foundations Investment Committee.

    Narvekar grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., and attended Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where he majored in economics.

    Harvard University president Drew Faust, who has expressed concern over Harvard’s lagging investment results, in a statement said, “We are pleased to welcome Narv to Harvard and are confident that his leadership skills and deep experience at the highest levels of investment management will position HMC for long-term success.”

    Wall Street bond rating agency S&P Global Ratings on Thursday affirmed Harvard’s AAA rating on roughly $5 billion in debt, citing “significant cash and investments compared with outstanding debt.”

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    Harvard has cut its debt down from a high of $6.3 billion in 2011, after investment losses in the financial crisis. It’s about to refinance $2.5 billion in outstanding bonds next week, or about half its total debt.

    Beth Healy can be reached at beth.healy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @HealyBeth.