In 1993, a search for one to put the wheels back on

Fifteen years ago today, a 46-year-old economist put on a fine suit, tucked a speech in his pocket and headed to the Sterling Memorial Library. Richard Levin, the newly appointed dean of the Graduate School, was getting another promotion.

His new title: President of the University. And as Levin put it Monday, “It was quite a thrill.”

Before becoming president, Richard Levin worked his way up in the Economics Department. Former President Giamatti once predicted “Some day, he’s going to be president of Yale.”
Michael Blank
Before becoming president, Richard Levin worked his way up in the Economics Department. Former President Giamatti once predicted “Some day, he’s going to be president of Yale.”

In the life of an institution as old as Yale, April 15, 1993, could be one of the most significant turning points in University history. At the time Yale was engulfed in turmoil; the campus was decaying and a multi-million dollar budget shortfall had driven administrators to consider reducing the size of the faculty. Under fire from all corners of a restive campus, President Benno Schmidt ’63 LAW ’66 had quit abruptly over breakfast with the Corporation on the morning of commencement in 1992.

When the Yale Corporation gathered in Sterling Memorial Library’s Linonia and Brothers Reading Room 11 months later to announce their choice of the man who would serve as Yale’s 22nd leader, much was on the line.

In the spring of 1992, Yale faced a $12 million deficit — so severe that administrators had proposed slashing the faculty by some 10 percent and excising entire programs and departments. Professors were not pleased.

“The wheels were coming off this place,” Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 reflected over a decade later.

***

Historian Howard Lamar GRD ’51, a longtime professor and former dean of Yale College, was tapped by the Corporation to take the reins as acting president. Then began an epic search — one eyeing a leader that the Corporation hoped would soothe the disquieted faculty, balance the budget and send away the dark clouds that were gathering over Yale.

The Corporation’s search committee — comprised of both Corporation fellows and members of the Yale faculty — set out over the summer months to canvass eminent educators and University administrators to find out what Yale needed in a president. Among the 680 professors, students, alumni and other leaders in higher education interviewed was a young Richard Levin, who had served as the chairman of the Department of Economics for five years and in the fall would assume the post of dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Linda Lorimer LAW ’77, who was then president of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and a member of the Corporation, was one of a pair of search committee members to sit with Levin for an interview as part of that first canvas.

“I can remember how impressed I was with him at that juncture,” said Lorimer, whom Levin asked shortly after his appointment to serve as vice president and secretary of the University, a position she still holds.

More than a decade earlier, as legend has it, then-Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti ’60 GRD ’64 declared of Levin, “Some day, he’s going to be president of Yale.” But Lorimer admitted she did not leave that meeting thinking Giamatti’s prediction was about to come true.

Young Levin seemed exactly that — too young.

“At that point in time, initially there was some thought that we should look for perhaps someone who had greater experience, was already a sitting president or provost,” Lorimer recalled.

The interviews and ensuing nominations ultimately yielded a list of 371 candidates, which the search committee began to scrutinize in the late fall. This time around, the committee members wanted the search process to be thorough.

“Benno Schmidt’s presidency was not a good thing, and there was some question about whether his appointment had been vetted thoroughly enough,” explained Marie Borroff GRD ’56, now the Sterling Professor Emeritus of English who served as the faculty’s counsel to the search committee. “In the selection of the president who would succeed him, it was thought that the absolute maximum of care had to be taken to look at everybody — and not to overlook anyone who could possibly be right for the job.”

***

Levin was on the list, committee members said, but he was not exactly one of its bold-faced names. In fact, as the search progressed, Levin’s name was not frequently mentioned as one of the leading candidates for the presidency, like Judith Rodin, the provost at the time; David Kennedy GRD ’68, a historian at Stanford; and James Duderstadt ’64, then the president of the University of Michigan. The search committee began winnowing down its list of candidates, narrowing it to 16 individuals by December.

Levin himself was busy with his new appointment as dean of the Graduate School, his first administrative post outside of the Economics Department. In an interview Monday, Levin said he thought he might have a chance someday to be provost. That seemed like a logical position for him to shoot for, he said.

“I didn’t really imagine being president,” Levin said.

And he had no reason to believe he was about to get the job, either. After his initial meeting with Lorimer, Levin did not hear once from the search committee for about six months. Not an invitation for another interview. Not even a telephone call.

But committee members kept hearing about Levin, especially from his peers on the faculty. And they also were shifting their view of the ideal candidate for the job.

“It was in the spring that the realization began to dawn, at least on me, that what we wanted was not so much a magnificent figurehead, a great orator and very handsome man, that sort of thing,” Borroff said, “but what we wanted was someone with the right temperament and the right brains.”

From Smith’s view, the committee wanted to find a man who was an answer to the faults of Yale’s three previous presidents. Kingman Brewster ’41, though iconic, was deficient at managing a large organization and irked alumni. Giamatti struggled to handle the psychological strain of the presidency. And Schmidt had cut and run — not to mention the fact that he lived in Manhattan because his wife refused to move to New Haven when he accepted the job.

“Here was Rick,” replete with his economics expertise, deep roots in the Elm City and steady demeanor, Smith said.

So in February, Levin was summoned by the search committee for what would be a grueling examination. He bought a few new suits.

“I was well-equipped,” he said. (That shopping spree would come in handy at his appointment ceremony: He didn’t need to rush to a tailor beforehand or buy anything new, he recalled Monday.)

Over the next two months, he would sit for 24 separate interviews. Eventually, officials in the Graduate School began to wonder why his schedule had become so overbooked. By April 1993, the News was reporting that he had emerged as the leading candidate for the position — seemingly out of nowhere. Then, a week into April, Levin received an assignment from the Corporation.

“I was given a broad hint,” Levin recalled, “that I better write something.”

An acceptance speech, maybe.

“So I got to work on that,” he said.

The next week, Levin and the Corporation formally hammered out the terms of his contract, and on Wednesday, April 14, Yale’s public affairs staff began alerting the media that an announcement was imminent.

***

The next morning, a banner headline stretched across the front page of the News, spanning two full lines. “Richard Levin, Dean of Graduate School, Will Be Named … Yale President Today,” it read.

That morning, with his wife, Jane, and four children looking on, Levin was introduced as Yale’s 22nd president. “The greatness of this institution humbles me,” he told the assembled dignitaries. “I am honored to accept the invitation of the Corporation to serve as Yale’s president.”

Levin said he was excited. But he was even more excited at everyone else’s excitement, he said.

“I was a pretty familiar face to the faculty, having been around for a long time, knowing a great many of the people on the faculty,” Levin said. “They obviously had anxieties about some outsider they didn’t know, some unknown quantity coming in.”

News reports described the reaction on campus as one of extreme optimism. Levin was a long-time faculty member, a long-time New Haven resident, an insider who appreciated the University’s culture.

“I have this vague memory of people feeling relief,” said Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, who at the time was a mere associate professor of psychology. “The situation had been unstable for a while, and a president with many years of a career still in front of him had been selected. I think everyone was looking forward to the opportunity to make sustainable progress on long-term challenges.”

Richard Levin was not the only Levin who mattered, either. Not lost on search committee members was that Jane Levin was a Yale alumna and professor who happily lived in New Haven — in marked contrast to Schmidt’s wife.

William Kissick ’53 MED ’57 EPH ’61, a former Corporation fellow and search committee member who spent his career as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, recalled saying as much to Jane Levin after the appointment.

“I said, ‘You should know, we really wanted you, instead of Rick,’ ” Kissick quipped.

Among those partaking in the celebratory mood was Lamar, and not just because the Corporation had decided, in recognition of how he had righted a listing ship from his temporary quarters in Woodbridge Hall, that the “acting” label in his title would be removed for the rest of his one-year term, making him officially Yale’s 21st president.

“When he was being considered for the presidency, he was my first choice back then,” Lamar said Monday, referring to Levin. “And,” Lamar added, “he has never disappointed me in anything he’s done.”

***

And he has done it for an almost unfathomably long time in this era, when the average presidential tenure is under nine years, according to a recent study by the American Council on Education. Levin is Yale’s longest-serving president since World War II; of presidents who took office in the 20th century, he is only surpassed by James Rowland Angell, who served from 1921 to 1937.

The more public milestone of the 15th anniversary this October of Levin’s inauguration should give pause for reflection of his tenure. Levin’s milestone was honored by the Corporation at a dinner last weekend, to which all of Yale’s former trustees were invited. But no public acknowledgement of his anniversary is planned today, aides to Levin said; when asked if they were planning anything privately to celebrate the milestone, some administrators admitted they didn’t even realize the occasion. One aide contacted a reporter to alert him of the date, noting that the always-modest Levin would never mention the anniversary.

Back in the winter of 1993, students and faculty alike expressed concerns that something had gone awry as the extended search dragged on after a number of Yale’s rival schools had selected new presidents of their own. Now, with history to judge him by, many observers of Yale agree that Levin was worth the wait.

Kissick recalled a conversation with the head of the search committee, Robert W. Lynn DIV ’52 at a ceremony honoring the 10th anniversary of Levin’s appointment, held in SML in 2003.

“After we greeted each other and chatted for a bit, he looked at me and said, ‘You think we did a good job?’ ” Kissick recounted with a chuckle. “I said, ‘Bob, who are you trying to kid?’ ”

Borroff, for her part, calls the search one of the happiest chapters of her life — both for the personal enjoyment of the task, and, perhaps more importantly, the legacy of the epic search.

Nothing short of the future of Yale hung in the balance. As she put it, “A bad choice would have been disastrous at that point.”

As he reminisced Monday, Levin, for his part, was most ebullient when recalling the reactions of his peers on campus on that fateful day 15 years ago.

“There was a lot of happiness among my colleagues,” Levin said.

He paused for a moment.

“Fortunately,” he added, “that goodwill has endured for 15 years.”

Comments

  • Redofinto76

    Congratulations, President Levin! From where I sit as the parent of a 2011 Yalie, a job very well done!Especially appreciate the new financial aid changes. Enjoy the occasion.

  • Anonymous

    this article is ridiculous. how about thinking about the fact that levin's tenure hasn't been so rosy for labor relations, human rights in china, and humanities education. how about the fact that he is an uninspiring "leader" who's more concerned with fund-raising than education.

    15 years is long enough. it's time for "rick" to step aside.

  • Anonymous

    Being the president of a private university has got to be one of the hardest jobs around. You have so many intelligent but cranky constituencies you have to balance: faculty, alumni, New Haven politicos who don't have a clue how lucky they are to have Yale there (what would New Haven be without Yale? Zero. DeStefano should be kissing Yale's posterior every chance he gets like the mayor of any other place would do if he was lucky enough to have Yale in his town), and students (the most reasonable and tractable of the bunch).

    Witness the 2:10pm poster as proof of crankiness. There is always going to be some controversial issues. Rick seems to have handled them very well.

    So good job President Levin.