With an impending Presidential race between two candidates who possess Yale degrees, the tradition of the political Yalie will continue at the highest level for at least one more term. Yale President Richard Levin is one of many Yale presidents whose governmental involvement demonstrates that Yale alumni are not the only University representatives connected to the White House.
In February, President George W. Bush ’68 appointed Levin to an independent commission to investigate possible intelligence failures in the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Levin’s acceptance of the position stirred controversy and raised questions about the role of the University president as a political voice for the institution and as a link connecting Yale to the White House.
“It is certainly a matter of pride for Yale that we’ve had our graduates serve as Presidents, and as president of the University I do my best to maintain active relationships with [them],” Levin said.
Bush’s ties to Levin and Yale — Levin was one of the first people Bush hosted in the White House — caused some to protest Levin’s appointment. Critics said the appointment was inappropriate in light of Levin’s lack of experience with national intelligence. But Levin said his role on the commission is one of neutrality.
Levin’s most recent government appointment is not his first nor is it the first of its kind in the history of Yale presidents. Often amid controversy, Yale presidents have taken political stances and have been governmentally involved with issues of the day, walking the fine line between acting as citizens of the United States and as representatives of the University.
A presidential balancing act
Yale historian and professor emeritus Gaddis Smith said the responsibilities and activities of a Yale president have historically extended beyond the University walls.
“A president of a university should not be bound to say ‘I swear I will not do anything except any assignment in the University itself,’” Smith said.
Levin’s appointment to the Iraq commission and the controversy it incited is not unprecedented, Smith said. In addition to many presidents serving on various corporate boards, he said, they also lend their expertise and influence on government committees.
Before becoming president of the University in 1921, President James Rowland Angel (1921-1937) was head of a national research council during WWI.
Angel’s successor, Charles Seymour (1937-1950), was also governmentally involved before he assumed the Yale president role. He was asked to be a member of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace after the First World War, and in the process he became a close friend of Colonel Edward M. House, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s advisor.
During his tenure, Seymour, an outspoken proponent of U.S. involvement in World War II, experienced a backlash from the faculty when he agreed to establish the Army Air Force Technical Training School at Yale in 1943. While Seymour felt he was providing a necessary service for national defense, faculty members said Seymour was abandoning Yale’s devotion to education.
In an article in Yale’s Alumni Magazine from the 1940s, Yale historian George W. Pierson wrote a critique of Seymour’s involvement of Yale in the war effort.
“[Can the University President,] unaided, somehow convert the University to the all-out service of the nation without, by that very act, destroying its usefulness for future generations?” Pierson said.
As President, Seymour had to balance his personal stance on the war while ensuring that morale at Yale did not suffer. Though he did not abandon his plan to mobilize the campus for war, he did make a statement in 1941 dedicating himself to the humanities and faculty.
“Otherwise, it will not profit us to win the war, for we shall have lost the values essential to the national soul,” Seymour said in his report.
Yale President Kingman Brewster (1963-1977) was a navy flier during WWII, and while he was Yale president he served on a committee on Selective Service and the draft.
At the beginning of his presidency, Brewster believed in the neutrality of the University in political affairs, Smith said. But as the civil rights movement became increasingly apparent, Brewster abandoned his neutral stance.
“Brewster said when he began as President, we had to maintain institutional neutrality but we couldn’t maintain institutional neutrality on civil rights,” Smith said.
Eventually, Brewster became open about his disagreement with the Nixon and Johnson administrations and was outwardly against the continuation of the Vietnam War, Smith said.
Brewster’s tenure was particularly influential in molding the policy of Yale presidents’ involvement in political issues, Smith said. The political environment surrounding the Vietnam War complicated Brewster’s views on the appropriateness of a university president’s having a political voice.
By making the personal decision to speak out against the war, Brewster alienated many of the conservative Yale alumni, Smith said. Though he was acting on his own personal convictions, Brewster still felt the effects his stance would have on the entire Yale community.
A Yale president is always, in some way, a representative of the institution, Levin said. In serving on the Iraqi intelligence commission, Levin said, he will be acting individually, but he also recognizes his constant connection to Yale.
“My thinking on the committee is personal, but — I’m always the president of Yale — I can’t fully divorce myself from that,” Levin said.
“Civic responsibility” or “compromised” objectivity
But Levin’s inability to act without implications for the University is a cause for concern for some members of the Yale community. Around 20 protested outside Levin’s Woodbridge Hall office after he held a press conference announcing his acceptance of Bush’s appointment to the Iraqi intelligence commission in February. The critics claimed Levin is using his political ties to the disadvantage of the institution.
Sociology professor Andrew Schrank questioned the legitimacy of Bush’s choice given Levin’s inexperience in the field of intelligence and his relationship with Bush.
“I think he’s not an expert, he’s not neutral,” Schrank said at the rally. “I don’t think he should accept this position while he’s at Yale.”
After Levin was a White House guest of the Bushes, Levin returned the favor by hosting Bush in May 2001 when Yale awarded Bush an honorary degree.
Joshua Eidelson ’06, who was also at the rally, said Levin’s appointment underscores the interconnectedness between the University and Washington leaders.
“I believe [Levin's] objectivity is compromised,” Eidelson said.
But Smith said he does not question the objectivity of the commission as much as its ability to find out the facts especially when considering the implication findings might have on the approaching election.
Levin said he accepted Bush’s offer out of a sense of civic responsibility and does not feel serving the commission should be controversial.
“I was asked to make a commitment to do some part-time public service,” Levin said. “It’s a public responsibility, so I accepted.”
As president, Levin said he encourages students to be civic-minded. Part of the mission of Yale is to mold its students into leaders and participants of their communities, Levin said.
“I’m always encouraging students to be concerned about the workings of society,” Levin said. “This is just practicing what I preach.”
In the assignments he has taken on for the government, Levin has veered away from controversy and partisanship, Smith said.
Throughout his tenure at Yale, Levin also has served on a commission on the U.S. Post Office in 2003 — also a Bush appointment — and the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Baseball Economics in 2000.
“The assignments I’ve taken on were bi-partisan, independent positions,” Levin said. “They were set up to be independent of the administration and I don’t see any conflict there. We’re not being asked to carry out policies of the government.”
[The nature of Levin's relationship to Bush and Clinton: business and pleasure]
While presidents of universities are often called upon to contribute their intellects to a particular task, during Levin’s tenure having two U.S. presidents who hold Yale degrees has naturally strengthened the relationship between the University and the White House, Smith said.
“When the president of the United States is a graduate of Yale, it’s probably a little bit easier for the president of Yale to get through on the phone,” Smith said.
There have been five U.S. Presidents with degrees from Yale, four serving in the last 30 years, Levin said.
Levin said one of his obligations as Yale president is to maintain ties with Yale alumni and parents. With Bush — who is both — in the White House, this responsibility has fostered a connection with a political leader that can at times have a personal aspect, Levin said.
“He’s a Yale alum and parent so there’s a personal dimension,” Levin said. “And because I’m an economist who has served on his committees, there’s something of a professional dimension.”
Presidents with connections to Yale are also more likely to visit the University or hold it in high esteem, thereby strengthening the relationship between Yale and the White House, Levin said.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton LAW ’73, have strong ties to the law school, Levin said. Clinton values his Yale experience and has visited the campus several times, Levin said.
While Levin said he had not met Bush before Bush was elected president, Levin and Clinton’s relationship hails back to when they studied at Oxford together from 1968-1970.
“We’ve had many conversations both on Yale issues and public policies,” Levin said of his interactions with Clinton.
Experience and expectations
Though the students and professors who protested outside Woodbridge Hall said Levin’s appointment to the Iraqi intelligence commission was solely based on his White House connections, Smith said Levin’s skills and experience with other government commissions will be useful to the committee.
“He has some considerable analytical ability as an economist and he knows something about the international transfer of technology which is implemented in weapons of mass destruction,” Smith said.
Levin also said that he was chosen because of his ability to be objective and his lack of political outspokenness.
“They were looking for people in the group who were not strongly associated with national politics, who would be impartial,” Levin said.
As members of the Postal Commission, another bi-partisan committee, Levin and the eight others determined the financial viability of the U.S. Postal Service.
Levin’s background as an economist had direct relation to the mission of the committee, Postal Commission member Donald Cogman said.
“[Levin was chosen] first, because of his economic background. The postal service is the second largest business in the world,” Cogman said. “Second, [because of] his reputation and status as president of Yale.”
In addition to serving these two commissions, Levin also sat on a committee to find ways to “pump life into the patent system,” for the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy is chartered by the Federal government to work on science-related issues.
Spokesman for the National Academy of Sciences Bill Skane said Levin was selected because of his experience administrating.
“What probably played into it was his experience with larger organization and large organization programs,” Skane said.
Levin said he and the University are also often involved in lobbying issues related to education. Over the past year, Levin has been an advocate of the issue of student visas and making them more available to international students who want to study in America.
“We definitely get involved in political activities related to issues that are very important to the University,” Levin said.
Throughout Yale’s history a University president was expected to be mindful of the nation’s current political climate.
In 1950, when a committee convened to choose a successor to then-president Seymour, committee member Wilmarth Lewis outlined the characteristics he believed a Yale president should possess. In his statement, Lewis said a president should be politically aware.
“He must be a man of the present with knowledge of the past and a clear vision of the future,” Lewis said. “He must not be too far to the right, too far to the left, or a middle-of-the-roader. Poised, clear-eyed, informed, he must be ready to give the ultimate word on every subject under the sun from how to handle the Russians to why undergraduates riot in the spring.”