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It wasn’t like nobody saw it coming. Richard Levin ’74PhD has been president of Yale for 19 years, longer than any of his Ivy League counterparts and longer than any Yale president since 1921. Speculation about when he might decide to pack it in had been a parlor game on campus for at least five years.
But it was still a surprise to almost everyone when Levin announced on August 30 that this academic year would be his last. Levin had given no public hints that such a decision was coming, and his morning e-mail to faculty, students, staff, and alumni was the talk of the campus.
“As my 20th anniversary approaches,” Levin wrote, “I recognize that this is a natural time for a transition. We stand between the realization of many important institutional goals and another round of major initiatives.… It is a source of great satisfaction to leave Yale in much stronger condition—academically, physically, and financially—than it was when I began in 1993.”
The consensus is that this president will be a tough act to follow. Levin didn’t say so outright, but Yale was at a low point when he took over as president. His predecessor, Benno Schmidt Jr. ’63, ’66LLB, had resigned unexpectedly after a contentious six-year term, and the university faced a budget crisis and a host of problems. Proposals for draconian cuts to academic programs had sparked the ire of the faculty: engineering, linguistics, and sociology, to name three, were threatened with extinction. A 1991 New York Times headline asked “Can Yale, With Budget Troubles, Still Be Great?” The buildings, long neglected, needed expensive renovations. Relations with the unions were as dysfunctional as ever. And New Haven was experiencing an alarming increase in crime, a fact that hit home for many at the university when a Yale sophomore, Christian Prince ’93, was shot to death during a robbery on Hillhouse Avenue, just a block from the president’s house.
As the search for a new president began, US senator and Yale trustee David Boren ’63 (now president of the University of Oklahoma) told the Yale Alumni Magazine, “Every president is important, but once or twice in a century, you have a defining moment. I think we’re facing one of those moments now.”
Richard Levin is not the person Hollywood would have cast for that defining moment. He is decidedly low-key, even introverted, and not naturally drawn to the oratorial role that predecessors like Kingman Brewster Jr. ’41 and A. Bartlett Giamatti ’60, ’64PhD, enjoyed. But he had developed a reputation as a capable leader when he chaired the economics department, bringing harmony to that once-fractious corner of the campus, and he had been appointed dean of the Graduate School in 1992.
And over the last 20 years, Levin has not only had considerable success with all the problems he inherited, but has also built up the university’s international engagement and strengthened Yale science. Of course, the turnaround has been fueled by more than Levin’s leadership. The first years of his tenure coincided with two trends that made a big difference: a dramatic national decline in urban crime that made New Haven, like other cities, a more attractive place to live and invest; and a booming global economy that allowed Yale to raise billions in donations and—under the prodigious stewardship of chief investment officer David Swensen ’80PhD—earn billions more in returns on its endowment, making all kinds of problems much easier to solve.
Levin’s first priority on taking office was the university’s fraught relationship with New Haven. Schmidt had more or less commuted to Yale from New York City during his presidency, but Levin and his wife Jane had raised their children in the city’s East Rock neighborhood. He realized that Christian Prince’s murder—and the drag New Haven’s reputation was putting on student and faculty recruitment—made improving the city a matter of both altruism and self-preservation.
In 1994, Yale launched a program to encourage its employees to live and invest in the city; it offers cash payments of up to $30,000 to employees who buy homes in selected neighborhoods. The university has also sharply increased direct payments it makes to the city in lieu of property taxes, invested heavily in retail development downtown, and put Yale volunteers to work in city schools and neighborhoods. Levin spoke proudly of his administration’s engagement in an interview in August: “New Haven is demonstrably a better place to live than it was 20 years ago,” he said, and one reason is that “we’ve made what used to be an aloof ivory tower into the leading corporate citizen of New Haven.”
In academics, Levin gained the faculty’s confidence and avoided radical cuts by encouraging “selective excellence” within departments: Yale engineering, for example, wouldn’t be eliminated, but it also wouldn’t try to excel across the entire span of the discipline; instead, it would pick areas in which to focus and build strength. As the endowment swelled and the economy improved, Yale was able to expand the faculty, adding 100 new full-time professors by 2010 to the 600 on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 2000. Levin also worked to raise Yale’s profile in science and engineering through new facilities and new initiatives; improved facilities for Yale’s art schools and museums; presided over an overhaul of the college curriculum; and increased financial aid in the college, the Graduate School, and some professional schools.
At the same time, he went to work restoring the campus’s badly neglected buildings. In 1993, the street-side façades of many structures were covered in soot. Interior walls and artwork were grimy. Sterling Memorial Library was so drafty that students’ papers would blow off the reading tables. As of this year, the renovations completed under Levin include all 12 residential colleges, the Law School, the Divinity School, Sterling Library, Sterling Hall of Medicine, and many others. And after 20 years of almost no new construction, Yale added 19 new buildings, including a new home for the School of Management (now under construction) and five new science buildings. Alumni visiting Yale now routinely, and enviously, remark on how much more posh today’s campus is than the one they remember.
Yale’s holdings were also expanded dramatically in 2007, thanks to a stroke of luck: the Bayer Corporation decided to sell a research, manufacturing, and office campus straddling nearby West Haven and Orange—a property that Yale vice president Bruce Alexander ’65 estimates to be worth at least $1 billion—and Yale was the highest bidder, at $109 million. No other buyer wanted Bayer’s state-of-the-art research labs, but to Yale, the labs and their extensive high-end equipment were an incredible windfall for science. Now known as Yale’s West Campus, the 136-acre site is home base for many new researchers Yale has recruited, along with storage and conservation space for Yale’s museums and libraries and, soon, a new home for the School of Nursing.
Renovating nearly the entire campus, building a billion dollars in laboratories, buying a new campus for ten cents on the dollar—well and good. Making peace with Yale’s unions? Now that’s amazing. Picket lines and shuttered dining halls were a rite of passage for Yale students beginning in the 1970s, as first service and maintenance workers and then clerical and technical workers became unionized and fought regularly with an administration that played hardball. This continued well into Levin’s tenure as president: there were strikes in 1996 and again in 2003. When the 2003 contract was finally settled—two years after the previous contract expired—it covered a longer-than-usual eight years, in order to give labor and management time to build a better relationship. It worked: new contracts were negotiated quietly, out of the public eye, in 2009 and again this summer.
Besides his emphasis on New Haven, the other accomplishment Levin himself points to as most important and lasting is the internationalization of the university. In his inaugural address, he had made clear that Yale “must focus even more on global issues… if we are to be a world university.” That focus has been a hallmark of the second half of his tenure. “I’ve been saying now for more than a decade how important it is in this age of interconnectedness for students to develop the capacity for cross-cultural understanding,” he says. “The vastly increased numbers of students going abroad from Yale and the substantially increased numbers of foreign students coming here, the strengthening of the curriculum in international studies—all these things have made us much more of a global institution than we ever were.”
During Levin’s tenure, Yale has founded a Center for the Study of Globalization (headed by former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo ’81PhD), a World Fellows program to bring mid-career leaders from around the world to Yale for a semester, and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Yale urges every undergrad to spend a term or summer abroad and offers money and support for it. And the proportion of international students in Yale College has risen from 3.4 percent in the Class of 1997 to 9.6 percent of the Class of 2016—largely because Yale now offers need-based aid for international students, just as it does for US students. Levin has also made numerous trips to China, helping to forge new research partnerships and other connections there.
Most recently, Levin has staked his reputation—and the university’s—on an international venture unprecedented for Yale: a new liberal arts college in Singapore that will bear the university’s name (though it will not issue Yale degrees). For Levin, Yale-NUS College, opening in the fall of 2013 at the National University of Singapore, is a chance to raise Yale’s profile in Asia and introduce liberal education in the region. As other US universities open new campuses around the world, it is also a way for Yale to stay current. But for detractors—including a group of Yale faculty—it’s an ill-advised collaboration with an authoritarian government that does not permit the free expression required for a true liberal education.
Yale-NUS has been at the center of the most vocal faculty pushback Levin’s administration has seen. Last year, a group of faculty coalesced around a number of concerns, including the administration of the Graduate School and plans to streamline support services for academic departments. This group felt a “pervasive sense of top-down policymaking,” as history of art professor David Joselit put it. The plan for Yale-NUS College, though it was developed with much input from faculty recruited for the effort, was never put to a faculty vote. Last April, a year and a half after the plan was announced, the Yale College faculty approved a resolution expressing “our concern regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore.”
Levin insists that Yale-NUS can thrive in Singapore. Asked whether the unaccustomed heat from the faculty had contributed to his decision to step down, he said it was not a factor. “Over the years, we’ve taken our hits on all kinds of things,” he said. “One develops a pretty thick skin about controversy.”
Why did Levin choose this particular moment to leave? “I love this job and I’ve been thriving in it. It’s not that I’ve lost any steam or energy,” he said in August. “But 20 years is a long tenure, a nice round number, and I think that it’s kind of the right moment in the institution to pass the torch.”
He added that a number of Yale’s plans—including two new residential colleges—still require substantial fund-raising. “We’ve done a lot to improve the financial stewardship of the university, and to make some big investments that aren’t fully paid for doesn’t seem right,” he said. “So it seemed like I might as well get out of the way now, step aside, and let someone else take on this responsibility.”
Levin says he had told the Corporation three years ago that he would leave in three to five years. After the latest union contract was signed in June, Levin and his wife went hiking at Mont Blanc in France, and it was there that he decided the time was right.
After he steps down in June, Levin plans to work on a book of his speeches and some new writings about higher education and the economy. He’s also looking forward to a little free time. “If you look at my calendar over the past 20 years, you won’t see much white space,” he said. But he says he’ll miss his “incredibly exciting, stimulating job. It’s been a great run. I’ve loved every minute and will continue to for the next nine months.”
Levin Looks Back
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