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The New Man Takes Command
About fifteen years ago, when Richard C. Levin was a bright but still relatively unknown economics professor, A. Bartlett Giamatti, then beginning his stay in Woodbridge Hall, perceived something exceptional in the young man. Confiding to the headmaster of the school Levin’s children attended, Giamatti prophesied: “Someday, he’s going to be President of Yale.”
“That story is getting to be like the one about who was in Yankee Stadium when Babe Ruth hit his last home run,” chuckles Levin, clearly a little embarrassed as he shifts uncomfortably on the sofa in his office and runs his hand down his tie. “I can’t tell you how many people have come out of the woodwork to tell me they heard the same thing from Giamatti.”
Still, whether the story is mere mythology or an example of uncanny prescience, it can only help Levin as he takes over as Yale’s 22nd President to be linked to one of his most beloved predecessors. And there is a further link. As the Babe Ruth remark might suggest, Levin, like Giamatti, is an ardent baseball fan, a fact underscored during the April 15 press conference announcing his appointment when he declared that “before today, I would say the most exciting day in my life was the day the Giants moved to San Francisco.”
But it’s more than the associations with Giamatti and the all-American game that has members of the Yale community feeling more optimistic than they have in at least a year. Although some thought it curious that an exhaustive ten-month search would ultimately tap somebody from Yale’s own backyard, Levin is widely viewed as a wise choice. More a number-cruncher than a wordsmith, Levin, at 46, is seen as a highly intelligent and skillful administrator who possesses an insider’s knowledge of Yale, a sound understanding of the University’s economic needs, a keen respect for scholarship, and a youthful energy. Known as “Rick” to colleagues, friends, and students, Levin is described as a good listener and an easygoing, accessible teacher. One colleague said that in the scores of meetings he watched Levin conduct over the years, he never once saw the economist lose his temper.
Yet Levin’s résumé offers far more than credentials as an affable insider. A native of San Francisco, Levin has studied on both coasts and abroad. His father was a sales executive for a liquor importer, and his mother’s family owned a company that supplied costumes to local theatrical groups and helped spark Levin’s enduring interest in opera. (When Levin’s not listening to Mozart during his severely limited spare time, he’s playing basketball with his New Haven neighbors, who say he’s got a formidable jump shot.)
The new President attended Stanford as a member of the class of 1968, and during his sophomore year studied at the university’s campus in Florence. It was there that he met his future wife, Jane Ellen Aries, who was also a Stanford sophomore. They were married a week after graduation and went on to study at Oxford, where Bill Clinton, ’73JD, was then enrolled as a Rhodes scholar. Levin, who says his contact with the future United States president was only passing, terms himself an “A.O.B. (Acquaintance of Bill),” rather than a member of that elite cadre known as “F.O.B. (Friends of Bill).”
Levin went on to earn a PhD in economics at Yale in 1974, and was named to the economics faculty that same year. He has since become nationally known for his work on industrial organization and studies of technological change and its impact on industry. In more than two decades at Yale, he has served on several important University committees, including the budget committee and last year’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences restructuring committee. He also served as chairman of the economics department from 1987 until last year, when former President Benno C. Schmidt Jr. appointed him dean of the Graduate School.
Levin’s work as chairman of the once-fractious economics department is often cited as the most compelling evidence of his effectiveness as an administrator. “One of the first things he did was to bring the parties together to think about different solutions,” says William D. Nordhaus, an economics professor and Yale’s acting vice president for finance and administration. “He found common ground among the different research groups, and the problem disappeared.”
Asked about the diplomatic magic he reportedly worked to bring both sides together, Levin explains that he eliminated the department’s two-tiered “caste” system by making membership in the prestigious Cowles Foundation, a Yale economics research group, voluntary rather than selective. How did he persuade professors to give up such a coveted honor? “Therein lies the magic,” he says with a sly smile.
Frederick P. Rose, ’44E, a member of the Yale Corporation, defines Levin’s selling points another way. “Most important,” Rose says, “we were looking for a leader, but someone whose leadership qualities were grounded in academic excellence. And secondly, we wanted someone with administrative abilities, which calls for diplomacy as well as an understanding of the economic impact.”
Acting President Howard Lamar, who has led Yale since Benno Schmidt’s resignation last May (and who officially became Yale’s 21st President by vote of the Corporation following Levin’s selection), says it is Levin’s energy and efficiency that convinced him the Presidency is being left in the right hands. “About a month into my year, I had to fill an important administrative post,” Lamar recalls, “so I appointed a search committee to be chaired by Rick.” According to Lamar, Levin made hundreds of telephone calls, held hours of committee meetings, and within four days had identified a candidate. “It was then that I realized he and I should switch jobs,” Lamar says.
Marie Borroff, a professor of English who served as counselor to the search committee (see page 44), says it was a combination of attributes that sold her on Levin. “He knows the University, his specialty is economics—which will be invaluable to Yale at this time—and he’s a wonderfully warm, balanced person,” she says.
Levin’s appointment also raises to four the number of presidents of Jewish descent at Ivy League institutions—Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and now Yale—that once limited the number of Jewish students they admitted. “It shows how far we’ve come,” Levin told the Yale Daily News. “We’re a meritocracy. People with ability are judged on their ability, not their backgrounds. That’s something I’m very committed to preserving.”
Despite a seemingly unanimous chorus of approval on its outcome, the Presidential search—which lasted for 40 weeks and involved a total of 837 interviews—was not without obstacles. The fact that three other universities—Duke, Columbia, and Chicago—were all hunting for presidents at the same time only intensified the pressure to fill the post before the “ideal” candidate was snatched up by another school.
The search was conducted by a 12-member committee comprised of eight trustees and four faculty members. (No previous Presidential search had ever included faculty representation.) The committee was chaired by Robert Wood Lynn, ’52BD. In keeping with traditional search etiquette, this one was conducted in secrecy. But the dearth of public information only served to fuel the rumor mill, at one point producing a dizzying array of names of would-be contenders. Some of those included: George Bush, ’48, George McGovern, Mario Cuomo, Paul Tsongas, ’67LLB, Oklahoma senator and Yale trustee David Boren, ’63, University of Michigan president James Duderstadt, ’64E, Indiana University president Thomas Ehrlich, and Carnegie Institute president Maxine Frank Singer, ’57PhD. From within the University, the most-mentioned names were provost Judith Rodin, Law School dean Guido Calabresi, ’53, ’58LLB, Larned Professor of History Gaddis Smith, ’61PhD, and economics department chairman William Brainard, ’63PhD.
When three informal deadlines for naming the new President were missed, rumblings began in the press that the search was in a “troubled” state, even in a “shambles,” and that at least one candidate had turned an offer down. During the press conference held to announce Levin’s appointment, Senior Fellow Vernon R. Loucks Jr., ’5’, and Lynn took pains to refute these charges. Loucks stressed that Levin was “the first choice,” “the best choice,” and “the only choice,” while Lynn insisted that the only “trouble” associated with the search was encountered by frustrated reporters, who, he declared, had failed to “penetrate the confidence of the search committee.”
Those statements did little to squelch the suspicions of some undergraduates. Says David Leonhardt, a Yale junior and editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News: “Obviously, Levin wasn’t the corporation’s first choice, and their defensiveness made it all the more clear that he wasn’t. It doesn’t take ten months to find someone sitting under your nose.” The newspaper’s published report that the job was turned down by Stanford history professor David Kennedy has never been formally challenged.
Regardless of whether Levin was the corporation’s leading choice, on July 1 he officially took charge of Yale’s affairs, and the growing sentiment seems to be that he is the right man at the right time. As the country’s third-oldest university has evolved from a cozy academic fortress into a billion-dollar educational enterprise, Yale has developed requirements for a leader that could not have been imagined by Presidents as recent as A. Whitney Griswold, who served from 1950 to 1963. Levin’s combined talents as a respected scholar and a savvy economist, a shrewd administrator, and a trusted insider, are seen as just what Yale needs to lead it into the 21st century. And just as parallels between Levin and Giamatti were eagerly drawn, so too are people quick to play up the contrasts between Levin and his predecessor, whose six-year tenure was widely regarded as a disappointment.
Unlike Schmidt—who was criticized for a remote style of management, nonacademic agenda, unpopular appointments, and frequent absences from New Haven—Levin is seen as a consensus-builder, a friend of the faculty, and a solid local citizen. When Schmidt last spring unveiled his controversial plan for restructuring the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, it was Levin who was credited with helping to defuse the tension among faculty members. It has also been pointed out that unlike Schmidt, who holds a law degree, Levin has a PhD, which is generally regarded as a basic ticket for a President to have punched.
Borroff says that Levin’s wife and four children, who live in New Haven, are a welcome bonus that comes with his appointment. (Jane Levin earned a PhD in English from Yale in 1975 and teaches literature courses in the College.) “These may sound like old fashioned values, but we could use a dose of that after the last six years,” she says, alluding to the fact that Schmidt’s wife and daughter remained in New York, giving rise to complaints that Schmidt’s was a commuter Presidency. Indeed, trying to schedule a Saturday interview with Levin proved difficult, not so much because of his added professional obligations, but because his appointment book was filled with family commitments: His 8-year-old daughter Becca had a cello lesson in the morning, followed by a soccer game; in the afternoon, son Daniel, 17, had a lacrosse game. “These are things I don’t want to lose touch with,” Levin says.
There seems little doubt, then, that Levin possesses many of the qualifications and attributes desirable in a Yale President for the 1990s. But whether he can solve the lingering problems that plague the 11,000-student campus is unclear, and given the size of the task, even his most ardent supporters are tempering their enthusiasm with caution. Will he, for example, be an effective fundraiser, as was Schmidt, lauded even by his detractors for his wizardry at bringing in $590 million during a recession? Given Levin’s lack of experience running a large organization and as a national spokesman, his talents in those vital areas are also largely untested.
Sheila Wellington, who was appointed Yale’s secretary by Schmidt and left office last month, says that in addition to the obvious problems—a projected $22-million budget deficit in 1993–94, diminished federal funding, the highest tuition and fees in the Ivy League ($25,110), the need for campus renovation, and the persistent social and economic problems of New Haven—Levin faces some overarching challenges. “For starters,” Wellington says, “he must preserve Yale’s intimate family feeling, which makes it unique. Kingman Brewster used to say that everyone wants to see the head waiter. Well, that’s very time-consuming, to maintain that intimacy of involvement with faculty, students, staff, and the city.” Beyond that, Wellington says the greatest challenge of the Presidency is to avoid getting lost in the thicket of day-to-day responsibilities. “You’ve got to stay focused on the larger issues,” she says.
Although Howard Lamar has been widely praised for rebuilding a sense of collegiality at Yale during his year as Acting President, he was faulted by his critics for what they saw as an overeagerness to preserve harmony. Evidence that Levin is willing to weather opposition and take tough stands when necessary can be found in his handling of the Graduate Students and Employees Organization (GESO), which last spring demanded health benefits and higher wages for some teaching assistants. When these demands were turned down by the dean, the group sought to file a grievance, a move that Levin also blocked.
“Frankly, I’m quite surprised by the position he’s taken” says Corey Robin, a political science graduate student and GESO chairman. “I worry that the true colors of the new administration have really been revealed. He could have sent a message of respect and fair treatment if he had let this process go forward, but he chose instead to obstruct it.” Levin counters that GESO was seeking an inappropriate way to solve its problems. “They were trying to take an issue of policy and subject it to the grievance procedure,” he says. “We can still discuss the issues if they want, but the grievance process is not the right channel.”
Tough talk. But as Levin well knows, a dust-up with GESO shrinks in comparison with the other problems he’ll face as President. Beyond those mentioned by Wellington lies the fundamental question of whether Yale is losing ground to some of its competitors. Just three years ago, Yale ranked number-one in U.S. News & World Report’s annual rating of America’s top universities. Those ratings are widely ridiculed by educators who criticize their methodology, but administrators and applicants concede that they can make a difference in an institution’s image. This year’s poll placed Yale third behind Harvard and Princeton. And whatever the validity of the ratings, Harvard and Dartmouth both enjoyed hikes in the number of applications this year, while Yale experienced a 1.7 percent drop in the overall number of applicants, and a 12 percent drop in applicants for early admission.
Adding to the image problem, Vernon Loucks Jr., who in addition to his role on the Presidential search committee is spearheading Yale’s $1.5-billion fundraising campaign, has been drawn into a very public controversy. In March, Baxter International, Inc., the company Loucks heads, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of violating the U.S. law against cooperating with the Arab boycott of Israel. Although Loucks himself was not charged with any wrongdoing, student groups and the mediagenic Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz, a 1962 graduate of the Yale School of Law, have called on him to resign his Yale posts.
Sitting in his austere office in the Hall of Graduate Studies, Levin exudes a soft-spoken confidence that he’s up to the task of meeting these and any other challenges that may be thrown in his path.
“First of all, you will not hear anybody saying, ‘Where’s Rick?’ I intend to be very much a fixture on campus,” he says, referring to the campus taunt, “Where’s Benno?” that bedeviled Schmidt throughout his administration. Although Levin says he recognizes the importance of fundraising, he says he plans to involve the University’s officers and administrators to a larger extent so that he won’t have to take as many trips away from campus.
His top on-campus priorities include picking up where Schmidt left off on renovating many of the campus buildings. He also hopes to eliminate the budget deficit within five years by reducing support services and administrative operations and downsizing several departments as recommended by last year’s restructuring committee. “The whole process will involve lots of people and widespread discussions, not orders coming down from on high,” he says.
Working with New Haven officials to help solve some of the city’s severe economic problems is another of Levin’s goals. The importance he places on fostering constructive town-gown relations was made evident during the April 15 press conference. Asked by a reporter what his first act would be as President, Levin replied that it would be to shake the hand of New Haven mayor John Daniels, who had been invited to the event. In light of the facts that a Yale undergraduate was murdered two years ago, that New Haven’s poverty continues to affect the security of the Yale campus, and that all of New Haven’s problems are reportedly making it harder for Yale to recruit both faculty and students, that gesture took on more than diplomatic importance.
But Levin also hopes to be an advocate for Yale specifically and higher education in general outside the confines of New Haven and Connecticut. “There’s a mood of anti-intellectualism out there that I want to challenge,” he says. “I want to send a new message about the value of higher education. In a poor economy there’s a tendency to think colleges should be more vocationally oriented, training students for specific jobs. But the burdens of being a responsible citizen with a real breadth of knowledge and the ability to think critically are greater now than ever.” He also hopes to be a strong voice for increased federal funding for research universities: “I believe the case needs to be reasserted that the cutting that has taken place in the past few years is very shortsighted.”
It’s an ambitious agenda, even without factoring in the countless unanticipated issues that will inevitably crop up to divert an administrator from his course. For example, Levin will immediately have to turn his attention to filling some high-level administrative posts. He has to name a new secretary of the University, a new vice president for finance and administration, and he’ll have to find someone to replace himself as dean of the Graduate School.
Nevertheless, Levin supporters say he’s up to the task. “A real mensch” is how Craig Albert, a fifth-year graduate student for whom Levin serves as a doctoral adviser, describes the new President. “He’s a substantial person. He’s been here long enough and seen the problems that have developed over the last six years. I think he’ll do a good job.”
Gerald Jaynes, professor of economics and chairman of African and Afro-American studies, played softball with Levin for six years and coached Little League with him. “You really get to see a person’s temperament, what kind of man he is, when you play ball with him,” Jaynes says. He describes Levin as “very competitive, while always maintaining fairness.” Jaynes recalls that, as a Little League coach, Levin was under pressure from parents to give the best athletes more playing time. “But Rick stuck by his guns,” says Jaynes. “He made sure all the boys got equal time.”
While nearly everyone on the campus seems optimistic about Levin, many add that he has received a tremendous boost from Lamar, who expended great energy over the past year calming the waters after Schmidt’s turbulent tenure. “Lamar has done a good job of improving morale and pulling this place out of its funk,” concedes the News’s Leonhardt.
Lamar himself says he’s pleased that he was able to accomplish some goals and not serve merely as a caretaker President. He notes that he took about 15 major fundraising trips and that by June, the capital fund drive was slightly ahead of schedule and had already passed its halfway mark of $750 million. Lamar also named Richard Brodhead, ’68, to serve as dean of Yale College, appointed a search committee for a new athletics director to replace the retiring Edward Woodsum, and empaneled an urban advisory committee to develop ideas for revitalizing New Haven.
In many ways, the avuncular Lamar—who speaks in gentle tones of “civility,” “leisured excellence,” and “traditional Yale”—represents the old style of university president. Levin, who attended college during the upheavals of the 1960s and whose field of expertise is rooted in fiscal reality, could well represent the new.
How effective that new style will be in dealing with the weighty problems confronting Yale remains to be seen. It will undoubtedly be a massive job, but in taking it on Levin may be aided most of all by an attitude he expressed at the news conference announcing his new responsibilities. Having begun his speech by saying, “I am honored to accept the invitation of the Yale Corporation to serve as Yale’s President,” he concluded by dparting from his text and adding, “I love this place.”
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