At the office with Big Rick

It’s 6:15 a.m., and Rick Levin is already carrying considerable weight on his shoulders.

Yale President Richard Levin is many things to students — the man who addressed them at their freshman assembly, the name student activist groups hiss at during protests and the person behind important, but infrequent, e-mails.

He’s also the man who makes financial aid decisions, controls the allocation of Yale’s $10 billion endowment and determines if AIDS drugs can reach African countries.

Still, most people don’t even know what the “C” in his e-mail name stands for: Charles.

But a walk through a typical day with Levin reveals a man who is both confident and shy, powerful and modest.

“He’s here.”

By the time Levin arrived at 9:02 a.m. at his Woodbridge Hall office last Monday, he had been awake for three hours — stationary biking at his Everett Street home (not Hillhouse, that one is for show) for 30 minutes, lifting weights and breakfasting on toast.

When his car pulls up within 10 feet of his office on Wall Street — though parking isn’t always so easy for Yale’s chief — assistants in Woodbridge Hall scurry around saying, “he’s here” and “he just pulled up.”

It’s a micro-microcosm of perhaps another certain president from Yale, minus the motorcade.

“The coffee scene”

There’s something austere yet endearing about a man in a rocking chair.

But the 200-year-old relic, the chair that was former Yale President Ezra Stiles’ favorite place to rest his feet, squeaks constantly as Levin rocks it gently during meetings.

His first move on Monday was to call Jeffrey Orleans, executive director of the Ivy League — and to grab some coffee.

“What’s the coffee scene?” Levin asks Regina Starolis, the executive assistant to every Yale president since Kingman Brewster Jr.. A Yale mug with black coffee is set before him instantaneously.

Levin doesn’t multitask. Fully engaged in his conversation, he talks to Orleans about cutting back the number of football recruits accepted to Yale and at the other Ivies next year.

“Hunter, George and I are in consensus. So is Judy, I think. But I haven’t talked to Larry yet,” Levin said to Orleans, rattling off the names of his presidential colleagues at Dartmouth, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania and Harvard.

His tone is calm and his speech pace is always moderate — no frustration when Kemel Dawkins, associate vice president for facilities, cancels his morning appointment with him.

Even presidents get stood up.

Levin uses his unexpected extra half hour to review paperwork at his desk, which is lined with pictures of Levin with his wife Jane, a Yale professor, and his four children. Jonathan, Daniel, Sarah and Becca have enough degrees to rival the Yale Class of 2001.

The pictures on the wall indicate that being a president of a major university is a great way to acquire fine art and to meet people — U.S. presidents, Nobel Laureates and Paul Simon.

Economic journals line his bookshelves. But it’s been nearly a decade since Levin was an economics professor at Yale, and his dusty books indicate he doesn’t have much time anymore to pursue his studies.

The public v. private persona

Being president has its perks, but Monday afternoon at the Nursing School parking lot seems to be one of the exceptions.

Levin’s green Volvo doesn’t command an air of importance, so it isn’t all that surprising that the parking attendant took a few minutes to lift the gate to the lot.

But he knows when to pull rank. After stating calmly “Hi, I’m President Levin,” the stubborn gate quickly opens.

Once inside, he takes his place at a lunch table of about 20. In an estrogen-heavy environment, Levin is a standout.

Maintaining composure and cracking a few jokes, he moves gracefully through a series of questions on topics ranging from town-gown relations to midwifery.

It takes a formal speaking engagement to make Levin sweat — right through the armpits of his crisp, blue shirt.

Earlier in the day, at a speech at the Medical School, his body temperature may have been staggering when he addressed more than 100 members of the Med School’s faculty, but his composure — save a few fidgets and some awkward hand gestures — did not.

He fielded challenging questions with relative ease, but his relief at the program’s end was noticeable.

But like his car, which has a modest exterior but a classy interior — leather seats and wood paneling — Levin is at his best when he opens up in the company of friends.

Back behind closed doors with the “brain trust” — Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead and Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman — Levin comes alive. As the three sip Diet Cokes and attempt to create a speakers’ list for an upcoming lecture series, the meeting becomes an intellectual free-for-all among three veracious readers.

Simply put, it’s nerd heaven. Yale’s elder statesmen seem to know the nation’s op-ed pages the way 10-year-olds know baseball cards — and delight in them with equally boyish enthusiasm.

Working with students

On Monday afternoon, the Yale College Council officers settle into Levin’s office.

His sidekick — Nina Glickson, special assistant to the president — copiously takes notes on the students’ issues. Levin remains attentive as the students voice their concerns about the Yale Corporation’s election process, the tercentennial events and the University’s sordid past with slavery.

But attentive doesn’t always mean responsive. In his eight years as president, almost every student group on campus has criticized him, accusing him of being too right-wing and catering only to big donors. Campus activists have taken him to task on issues ranging from sweatshop labor, union negotiations and investment ethics.

But even though Levin doesn’t bend to these groups’ demands, he doesn’t mind more discussion. He agrees to the YCC’s request that he attend another open forum, particularly in light of the upcoming labor negotiations.

While he’s not scared of tough questions, he has some reluctance to give firm answers.

When asked by a Medical School professor earlier in the day if Yale would give educational scholarships to World Trade Center victims’ families, he dodges the question slightly. It’s clear that hasn’t been decided yet, and he hesitates to speak too soon.

But his office clock is always ticking as when one meeting ends, another group is waiting outside his door.

“Some things on his calendar are booked a year in advance,” Glickson said. “And we try to book his lunches with the various student groups a few weeks in advance — those are in high demand.”

Always a pragmatist, Levin distills the “action items” from each of his meetings — the things he actually can do something about and has his assistants write them down.

Student groups did not color his entire Monday. After the YCC leaves, he meets privately with Joseph Roach, the theater professor who is head of the search committee for a new dean for the Yale Drama School. It’s been one-and-a-half years since current dean, Stan Wojewodski, announced his departure, but the search remains fruitless.

Growing into the job

The new Bob Dylan CD blasts from Levin’s car stereo, an unexpected music choice for a straight-laced economist.

An official close to Levin said he’s become more confident as his tenure evolves — and cooler. Sometime in the mid 1990s, he ditched his thick frames for chic metal-rimmed eyeglasses.

And he can schmooze, comfortably, with just about anyone, including the British Petroleum bigwigs that sponsored an exhibit opening at the British Art Center Monday night.

With his wife at his side the entire time, Levin walks around the lobby of the art center — sans drinks — moving, but not flitting, from group to group.

At the end of the tour, Levin is faced with perhaps the biggest challenge of his day: a 9-foot by 5-foot naked woman of monstrous proportions.

He looks up, he looks down and he looks up again. He chuckles.

Nothing fazes Rick Levin.

His day begins with stationary biking. But by mid-afternoon, Yale President Richard Levin is meeting with Yale College Council officers Ryan Sheely '04 and E.B. Kelly '03 inside his Woodbridge Hall office.
Elyssa Folk
His day begins with stationary biking. But by mid-afternoon, Yale President Richard Levin is meeting with Yale College Council officers Ryan Sheely '04 and E.B. Kelly '03 inside his Woodbridge Hall office.

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