BOSTON (AP) – Harvard’s endowment survived market turbulence and a transition in leadership to post an 8.6 percent return and grow to $36.9 billion in the recently completed fiscal year, university officials said Friday.

Driven by a nearly 36 percent return in real assets, which includes real estate and timber, as well as double-digit returns in both domestic and foreign bonds, the endowment beat internal benchmarks and finished near the top of the 165 large institutional funds measured by Wilshire Associates Inc.’s Trust Universe Comparison Service.

Harvard Management Co., the university’s investment unit, said the school lost 12.7 percent on its U.S. stock portfolio and 12.1 percent on its foreign equity portfolio in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

The 8.6 percent return was far below the 23 percent return of the previous year, but managers were happy.

“During this period of extreme market volatility, the staff at HMC has performed at an extraordinarily high level,” Robert Kaplan, who served as the company’s acting president and chief executive from December until June, said in a statement.

Mohamed El-Erian stepped down as president last December and Kaplan, a Harvard Business School professor and former vice chairman of The Goldman Sachs Group, took over. Jane Mendillo, a chief investment officer at Wellesley College, stepped in as president on July 1, after the end of the fiscal year.

The university spent about $1.6 billion in endowment funds during the fiscal year, including $321 million in aid to students. Investments in financial aid have helped reduce the median debt burden for undergraduates by half from 2001 to 2008. All student loans were replaced by grants beginning with the 2008-09 school year.

Harvard’s continued success is hardly a surprise, said John Griswold, executive director of Commonfund Institute, an investment manager for nonprofit and education organizations.

“The very large endowments do better than average for the same reasons they always have – because they are run by highly sophisticated managers,” he said. “Even a change at the top doesn’t mean a change in strategy or a change in holdings.”

Harvard’s endowment makes it the nation’s wealthiest university, far ahead of second-place Yale University, which had a $22.5 billion endowment at the end of the 2007 fiscal year. Yale has yet to report its 2008 results.

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