The University appointed its first openly gay residential-college master Wednesday, tapping acclaimed singer Richard Lalli MUS ’86 to lead Jonathan Edwards College beginning next year.
He will be joined by his partner, Michael Rigsby MED ’88, who will add the designation of associate master to his current title: medical director of Yale University Health Services. Lalli, an adjunct professor of music, has taught at Yale since 1982; both are already JE fellows and freshman advisers in the college.
“This is a great occasion. It’s probably the greatest occasion of my life,” Lalli said to JE students after University President Richard Levin announced his appointment over dinner Wednesday night in Commons.
“We will not just pay attention to the doctors and the musicians,” Lalli promised. “We’ll pay attention to all of you.”
Lalli’s appointment ends a three-month search for the successor to current JE Master Gary Haller, a professor of engineering and applied science and chemistry who is finishing his 11th year at the helm of JE. Haller announced last year that he would not return after this year so that he could devote more time to his academic research.
But JE, Haller said Wednesday night, will be in good hands.
“Basically, all I want to say is how pleased I am,” he told the assemblage of students. “Welcome them.”
Levin selected Lalli from a handful of candidates recommended by a search committee charged with finding Haller’s replacement. In his remarks, the president called Lalli “a fabulous teacher, a wonderful director and music coach and a spectacular performer.”
“Richard Lalli is a leader in undergraduate arts, and JE has this long tradition of arts as a centerpiece, so it just was a perfect fit,” Levin said in an interview Wednesday night. “I know from personal experience, because I often have his students perform at University functions, just how much interest he takes in his students and just how thoroughly invested he is in them.”
The committee could not have agreed more. Levin specifically instructed committee members — four faculty members and six students — not to rank one candidate over another when making recommendations, but in the end, almost none of them could help it, recalled Meg Urry, chair of both the Physics Department and the committee.
“We said, ‘Really, Richard stood out,’” Urry said. “His name just came up over and over and over again. People rave about Richard Lalli. They just think he’s wonderful.”
In their conversations with students and faculty members, she said, the refrain about Lalli was constant: He was an extraordinarily accessible professor and showed a special care for his students, not to mention a strong commitment to the arts.
Lalli and Rigsby will be the first openly gay couple to lead one of Yale’s residential colleges. Neither Levin, Haller nor Lalli made specific reference to that milestone in their brief remarks Wednesday. But when Levin introduced Rigsby as Lalli’s partner, students could be seen turning to each other, wide-eyed, as they realized the announcement marked a historic moment.
Historic moment or not, that possible milestone did not influence the search committee’s deliberations, Urry said.
“We didn’t discuss it,” she said. Still, Urry added, “I think it’s a wonderful thing to break down another barrier that shouldn’t matter.”
Levin echoed that sentiment. “We’re long beyond the day when that matters,” Levin said in the interview. “He’s the most qualified person for the job.”
Nor did it matter, Levin said, that the appointment of a same-sex couple to the helm of a residential college would mark a milestone for the University.
“I have to say, it’s just not been a factor in my mind, in this case or in previous ones,” he said.
Still, in an interview Wednesday night, Lalli said he was “very proud” to be Yale’s first openly gay master.
“I’m not a terribly political creature, but I’m going to learn how to be, because I do realize how important it is to be a spokesperson,” he said.
Lalli said he does not imagine his sexual orientation would become a point of controversy — “except from maybe some disgruntled old alums,” he admitted — and that Levin, almost immediately when he first offered him the job, said: “If there are any problems, I’m behind you 100 percent.”
Told of the appointment, Ben Gonzalez ’09, coordinator of Yale’s LGBT Co-op, praised the choice but emphasized that Lalli’s appointment should be viewed as a function of his qualifications for the job, and not that the University felt the need to appoint a gay master.
Still, he said, of the future master: “I’m obviously happy to have some sort of representation.”
In JE — or, more precisely, in their Swing Space exile — on Wednesday night, students described the reaction to Lalli’s appointment as overwhelmingly favorable. But the Haller era, Daniel Edeza ’10 said, should not be forgotten.
Edeza cited in particular the JE Culture Draws, when Haller would hold raffles at the beginning of each semester to distribute tickets for operas, plays, musicals and ballets in New York. These outings, usually for four JE students per performance, would include lavish meals at restaurants in the city, all on the JE tab.
To say that Lalli has a background in the arts is an exercise in understatement.
“I do think it’s important both for JE and for Yale at large to have a continuation of Master Haller’s legacy,” Danny Jimenez ’09 said. “It seems to me that the selection of [Lalli],” he added, “was really great for the preservation of that tradition because he was really into the arts scene and keeping it going.”
Haller, meanwhile, will be leaving later than he and other University administrators had planned: JE is closed for a $61 million renovation this year, and Levin announced Wednesday he has asked Haller and his wife, Associate Master Sondra Haller, to stay on until Jan. 1 in order to oversee the move back into JE and help students familiarize themselves with the overhauled college.
“I really can’t say enough good things about the work the Hallers have done,” Levin said. “Suffice it to say that the energy and vitality and the total commitment to students that they have brought to the job is admirable, and is widely respected throughout Yale College.”
The crowd of students, who had been summoned by Haller for what he called in an e-mail earlier in the day an “important announcement,” burst into applause when Levin announced that Haller and his wife would be staying on just a little bit longer.
But the attention quickly turned back to Lalli, who sported a new, JE-themed scarf as he took the podium. He seized the moment.
“I’ve always wanted 405 children,” the new master exclaimed, before catching himself a moment later and backpedaling.
“Don’t worry — I realize you’re not children,” Lalli said. “That’s the last time I’ll say that.”
Haller, sitting nearby, interjected.
“You just wait,” he said.