Levin keeps his distance in leading Yale

Earlier this month, Yale President Richard Levin sat down in a closed-door meeting with Yale College Dean Peter Salovey and a handful of professors and administrators who had been charged with finding a new dean of undergraduate admissions for the University.

Although Levin had called a lengthy national search for a replacement for former Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw, who left for Stanford, the committee returned to Levin two months into their search and recommended Association of Yale Alumni director Jeff Brenzel, a Yale insider and newcomer to college admissions, for the post.

Levin immediately approved Brenzel’s appointment.

Brenzel’s speedy appointment is unusual for most dean searches, which sometimes last as long as a year, but it belies the energy and authority Levin exercises over each dean search at Yale. Dean searches for the School of Public Health, the School of Art, and the School of Music are ongoing, and Levin has appointed six new deans in the past year.

Several faculty members throughout said Levin makes it his prerogative to appoint deans he believes are fit to lead, even if that means sometimes rejecting committee choices. Levin prompted outcries of protest in 1998 when he ignored committee recommendations for a new dean of the School of Architecture and appointed his own choice, Robert A.M. Stern. Despite the controversy, Sterm eventually received acceptance and widespread acclaim.

“[Levin] is the spiritual head of the University,” outgoing Art School Dean Robert Benson said. “All the committee does is make a recommendation.”

Levin’s method for filling deanships — at times distancing himself from the search committee and entrusting their nominees while at other times becoming more personally involved — embodies his approach to running many aspects of the University. He takes many issues at Yale into his own hands from dean selections to engineering public service programs with New Haven. But Yale faculty members, officials and figures in the New Haven community said they have experienced Levin’s laissez-faire approach as well, and Levin himself said he has chosen to remain personally distant from conflicts with local unions, acting instead through other Yale officials.

“I think he’s hands-on about the issues he wants to be hands-on about, and he’s not hands-on about the issues he doesn’t,” New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said.

His quiet, but involved management style has earned him high marks in national higher education circles and among faculty and alumni, but some students and New Haven leaders said it leaves them feeling too distant from the man who has occupied Yale’s presidency for nearly 13 years.

Dodging controversy

During a 1984 labor strike, President A. Bartlett Giamatti (1977-1986) became personally entangled in the strike to the point where he would walk up to picket lines and speak with striking workers, said history professor John Merriman, a close friend of the late president. Many faculty members said Giamatti left Yale broken by the strike. But Levin has generally steered clear of picketers, and has taken labor issues less personally.

“Rick’s style is a little more managerial, but very effective,” Merriman said.

Compared to Levin, some past presidents received public attention for engaging and even courting controversy. Levin is a more recognizable figure in China — where he is considered a “rock star” — and has campaigned for admissions and visa reform at home. But due to his more subdued demeanor, he has received less attention than his predecessors, said Paul Bass ’82, former editor of the New Haven Advocate and longtime Yale watcher.

Bass said he thinks Levin works well behind the scenes to further his agenda, but has more difficulty articulating his greater vision to outsiders.

“I just think he’s a technocrat,” Bass said. “It doesn’t come as naturally to give an inspiring speech or give a broad view of academia as it did to Kingman Brewster.”

Yale has a history of presidents, including Brewster (1963-1977), who had relatively vocal and involved leadership styles.

Yale President James Angell (1921-1937) gained a reputation as a moralist for addressing moral crises facing young people. During Prohibition, he once warned students in a Freshman Assembly address that they would be dismissed if they were found with alcohol.

In contrast, Levin appointed a committee to address the University’s alcohol policy and report back to him with recommendations last year.

At the zenith of a 19-day strike of about 4,000 University employees in 2003, Levin’s approach was different from Giamatti’s. While Levin was the visible face of the University throughout negotiations with union leaders and DeStefano, he has been less likely to meet personally with local labor leaders.

“I have many broad responsibilities,” Levin said. “[Vice President for Finance and Administration John Pepper] is the person with direct responsibility in the area.”

Local 35 President Bob Proto said labor relations with Yale management have improved since 2003, but his union would prefer more direct involvement with Levin.

Brewster is remembered for publicly expressing his opinions on controversial issues affecting the country at the time. During the 1960s and 1970s, he alienated some conservative alumni with his public stance against the Vietnam War and with his support for civil rights, said history professor emeritus John Blum, a close friend of Brewster.

Blum said he thinks Levin has fostered good relations with alumni because, unlike some of his predecessors, he has not been outspoken on contentious political issues of the day, which has kept most Elis satisfied with their alma mater. And because most alumni considering a major donation expect to meet with the University’s head, Levin has made maintaining personal relations with alumni a priority, Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach said.

But sometimes Levin has refrained from speaking out on controversial issues in the academic community, even if many of his peers do so.

Last year, Harvard President Lawrence Summers ignited a media frenzy when he suggested “innate differences” might be responsible for the lack of female science and engineering professors. Harvard’s faculty gave Summers a vote of no-confidence, and presidents at universities such as Princeton and Stanford publicly denounced Summers. Levin repeatedly refused to discuss Summers’ comments, and remained undeterred when over 100 graduate students staged a protest at his office.

But the detached reputation may be undeserved. Association of American Universities President Nils Hasselmo, who works with over 60 top university presidents, said Levin is the most involved educational leader on the national scene that he knows.

Levin said he thinks the larger-than-life personalities afforded to many past university presidents is often exaggerated. Past presidents such as Giamatti and Brewster seldom made eyebrow-raising, Levin said, and were in reality more focused on day-to-day management of the University. He said today’s university presidents are more involved on the national scene, but usually with specialized issues such as college admissions policy and visa reform for foreign students — issues for which Levin has become a national spokesman.

“I think it’s kind of a bum rap today’s university presidents get,” he said.

Struggling to connect

Aside from the controversy he created, Brewster was also a public figure on campus in less controversial ways, Blum said. He went out of his way to make himself not only approachable to faculty, but also to students, often walking his labrador and golden retrievers around campus with his wife Mary Louise, stopping to visit with students who called to them from their dorm room windows, Blum said.

“He was always approachable,” Blum said. “I think it was more a projection of this man’s temperament and personality than it was a function of the times.”

But some students interviewed said they would not be able to recognize Levin if he strolled by them on campus. Many said they have only seen Levin a handful of times during their years at Yale and have difficulty connecting Levin with an educational policy, a broad vision, or even personal characteristics.

Levin said his inability to meet with students more frequently is a function of his broad responsibilities. He still manages to hold office hours for students who want to meet with him, and he hosts various dinners at his home for student groups.

“I try to make contact, but it’s true that I certainly don’t interact with Yale College students nearly as much as Dean Salovey, but that’s inevitable,” Levin said.

On campus, Levin said his closest contact with students is through meetings with the Yale College Council executive board. In several meetings last year, Levin showed a special interest in student initiatives to increase Yale’s energy efficiency and improve financial aid for students, former YCC President Andrew Cedar ’06 said.

While Cedar said he thinks many student-related issues are not in Levin’s purview and are better delegated to Yale College officials, he said Levin usually appeared open to student concerns at their occasional meetings. But Cedar said he is sympathetic towards other students who may not have the same access to Levin as YCC officers.

Christopher Rhie ’07, who has attended some of the YCC open forums with Levin, said he understands that Levin’s responsibilities prevent him from dealing with students on a daily basis, but still feels that Levin intends to distance himself from students.

“In the sense that he can kind of be able to make decisions and kind of view things from the seat of an office of the president, he maintains a distance from students, like he would from any other group on campus,” Rhie said. “But I would like to see him engage more with students and be more accessible.”

At a forum this past February on financial aid, Levin interacted directly with students. But many in attendance said they were discouraged by what they saw as Levin’s inability to address their concerns and sympathize with their situations. The News was flooded the day after the forum with letters from students expressing this sentiment.

“During his brief appearance, Levin demonstrated a profound lack of understanding of the difficulties many Yale students face, which is almost as disappointing as his lackluster commitment to opening a true dialogue with students on necessary financial aid reforms,” Christine Slaughter ’07 wrote in her letter to the editor.

But Levin said he takes student concerns seriously, and he and other Yale officials are “acutely aware” of students’ individual situations and the difficulties they may have as students on financial aid. Levin said the University is committed to crafting a competitive financial policy, and he or his staff always respond to frequent e-mails his office receives from students.

“Of course we’re willing to listen to concerns that will be raised,” Levin said.

A few weeks after the contentious open forum, the University announced its new financial aid policy which eliminated the parent contribution portion of financial aid for students from families earning under $45,000 and reduced it for parents earning between $45,000 and $60,000.

But other students said they do not hold Levin’s lack of visibility against him and expect him to focus on macro-managing the University. It is the Yale College dean’s job, not Levin’s, to work closely with students, Kara Benson ’06 said.

“I just think that there’s a general understanding among most students that there’s a distinction between the dean and the president, and that [Levin's] job is less student-oriented, Micah Landau ’07 said.

Staying hands-off

Following in a long tradition of Yale presidents, Levin has exercised little authority over the makeup of the Yale faculty, even though he has the constitutional authority to do so. Instead, the board of all full professors in the University’s faculty of arts and science has the final say in faculty hiring decisions. Levin entrusts the faculty to create its own academic vision and usually remains a more removed leader though there are instances, such as dean searches, when he has used his authority to take a more active and decisive role.

Many faculty members said they have sometimes disagreed with Levin during his 12 years at Yale’s helm, but those disagreements are usually confined to institutional and budgetary decisions, such as funding levels for various departments, faculty vacation time or, more recently, how to best implement recommendations from the 2003 academic review.

History Chairman Paul Freedman compared such faculty grievances with undergraduates’ complaints with food in Commons and said they do not affect the larger dynamic between Levin and the faculty.

“You’re going to have a hard time finding any controversy dealing with Rick Levin,” said English professor emeritus Traugott Lawlor, who retired at the end of last year.

But some of Levin’s proposals have ignited larger protests from members of the Yale community, including some outspoken faculty members.

In 1996, Levin unveiled a proposal to demolish several buildings in the Yale Divinity School, prompting a public outcry from some Yale faculty members and New Haven preservationist groups. Renowned history of art professor Vincent Scully threatened to consider leaving Yale if the University followed through with the demolition. After months of debate, the University rescinded the controversial plan and instead undertook a plan to make structural repairs to the buildings.

“The administration dug its heels in; it wasn’t going to change,” Scully said. “President Levin was really marvelous to be able to change his mind like that in public. I am sure there were other administrators who didn’t want him to do it.”

Levin said he has no set method for when to hold his personal stance on issues that raise controversy and when to give into opponents’ protests.

“You have to have a feel for what’s really going to work in the long run, what the issues are that may seem controversial in the short run,” Levin said. “If you’re pretty confident that you’ve thought it through, you’ll go ahead. But if there’s a lot of controversy and you actually listen to the opposition, sometimes you decide they’re right.”

But Levin said he cannot always bow to opposition.

“I think that my job is more to set direction, define objectives and develop strategies for reaching them,” Levin said. “One takes account of the various constituencies in both shaping that agenda and persuading people about it, but if the primary goal were just balancing off the different interests of people, that would make the job pretty uninteresting.”

President Richard Levin speaks with Jacob Hacker, a professor of political science. Levin has been noted for his more managerial style.
YDN
President Richard Levin speaks with Jacob Hacker, a professor of political science. Levin has been noted for his more managerial style.

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