With her diminutive frame, pixie-cut salt-and-pepper hair and crisp black wardrobe, Jane Levin does not stand out in a typical Yale crowd.
But as the wife of Yale’s 22nd president and director of undergraduate studies for Directed Studies, the selective freshman humanities program, Levin is a University power player who does more than just stand by her man — although she does that as well.
“She is my conscience, and she always has been for 40 years,” her husband, University President Richard Levin, said.
But backing up Yale’s top man is not always easy. From the brouhaha over the return of a $20 million donation for the humanities in the 1990s to more recent criticisms about Yale’s relationship with China, Richard Levin has endured more than his fair share of media scrutiny since he moved into Woodbridge Hall in 1993.
So how does his leading lady deal with the firestorm directed against her husband and colleague?
“You never want to see someone you care about criticized,” Levin said. “People have different perspectives and don’t fully understand all the factors. But it comes with the territory.”
Still, her husband acknowledged that Levin learned to adjust to the scrutiny that accompanies his position, getting “more used to it over time.”
“She’s an extremely sensitive reader,” Richard Levin said of his wife. “She probably reacts to criticism more emotionally than I do. I’m a bit thicker-skinned.”
But Levin says her primary role as the wife of the president is to help Yale flourish by expressing the University’s appreciation to everyone from freshman counselors to the faculty members.
“Kant said, ‘Of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was every built,’ ” Levin said. “But Yale comes pretty close, and I have the opportunity to see what it takes to make a place like Yale thrive.”
Falling in love in Florence
The road Levin traveled to become Yale’s first lady began in 1964 in a Stanford classroom, where she and her future husband were enrolled in the same freshman English class. By the time of the class’s first paper assignment, Levin had already caught Rick’s attention.
Richard Levin recalled that the professor returned the papers to the students but held the “best” one back to read aloud to the class.
“It was Jane’s,” he said. “This was stunning for me because in high school I had never had the experience of anyone else’s paper being read.”
The spark that ignited during that brief encounter grew into a full-fledged flame when the couple studied together at Stanford’s campus in Florence, Italy, during their sophomore year. The two began as friends and then dated and eventually became engaged their junior year, marrying a week after graduation.
“She has that incredible infectious enthusiasm,” Richard Levin said what first attracted him to his wife. “At that point in my life, I had never encountered a woman that was that intellectually nimble.”
After earning a Fulbright scholarship in 1968, Levin graduated from Stanford with an English degree and headed across the ocean to study at Oxford for two years with her husband.
“Being in Oxford was like being in heaven,” she said. “We missed a lot of the upheaval in U.S. in ’68.”
Still, life at Oxford could be nerve-wracking at times. One day when Levin forgot to wear her traditional scholar’s gown to class, her tutor informed her: “Jane, you are in a state of academic nudity.”
“They were really wonderful,” she said later of her Oxford professors, “but a little intimidating.”
Levin admits that wardrobe has never been one of her primary concerns. From her time as a private-school student at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago to her time at Oxford, she said, she has worn uniforms for most of her life.
“I just don’t have a lot of imagination when it comes to clothes,” Levin said, when asked about her famous all-black wardrobe. She paused, then added, “But sometimes I wear navy.”
‘An active member of the Yale community’
After obtaining her second undergraduate degree in English literature at Oxford, Levin and her husband moved to New Haven to attend Yale as graduate students. At Yale, Levin joined the English Department, where she eventually wrote her dissertation on Jane Austen, while the future president began pursuing his interest in economics.
“I was very confused about what I wanted to do,” she said. “I got into [Yale] law school and decided not to go.”
Instead, she decided to stay at home raising her four children for the next 15 years. Not one to be idle, Levin immersed herself in the lives of her kids, serving as president of the PTA and a member of the at her children’s school. The family still takes yearly trips to the French or Italian Alps, where Levin shares her love of hiking with her kids.
“I loved being a full-time mother,” she said. “I read all the time to the children, and I enjoyed baking and making dresses for the girls. I probably took them to a million sports games.”
But in 1990, with the Levins’ oldest child off to college and the youngest starting kindergarten, Dick Brodhead ’68 GRD ’72, chair of the English Department, offered Levin a position teaching a freshman English course. She accepted his offer, leaving behind the cookie cutters for the classics.
Only three years later, Richard Levin, then the newly appointed dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, was named president of Yale University — a position he said he obtained with the help of Jane’s influence at the University.
“I think the Yale community was very hopeful that the wife of the president would be an active member of the Yale community,” he said. “Their hunger was that the spouse would take a more active role.”
And despite her husband’s rise to such an influential position, Levin decided that she and her family would not move into the president’s residence at 43 Hillhouse Ave. in order to allow her children to continue growing up in their childhood home.
“It was nicer for them to grow up in a regular house,” Levin said. “The thing about 43 is you begin to think that you are the type of person that lives in a house with 28 rooms and your own Renoirs. Quite to the contrary, we live in a completely ordinary faculty house.”
‘Always more to learn’
At the same time that her husband was promoted, Levin received a promotion of her own when she was asked to join the faculty of Directed Studies. Although she had never given a lecture before, Levin threw herself headlong into the program. Then in 1999, Maria Menocal, a friend and director of Special Programs in the Humanities , asked Levin to assume her current post as DUS of Directed Studies.
Levin admitted she had never read most of the books on the DS syllabus when she took the job, but she made a point of reading through all the texts the summer before her first semester and said she continues to reread the same books to this day. Currently on her reading list: John Henry Newman’s “The Challenge to Evangelical Religion.”
Every year, Levin welcomes a new class of DSers to the program with her opening lecture. Speaking in her characteristically quick, enthusiastic spurts about the importance of studying the Western tradition, Levin embodies many of her students’ passions for the humanities.
“I thought that she was just great,” said Rebecca Linfield ’11, who was assigned to Levin’s DS literature section this past fall. “She just brought such enthusiasm to the works of literature. You could just see her passion when we read books like the Iliad and the Aeneid.”
Levin claims she can always be caught reading, even at the kitchen counter, but she admits that sometimes it’s U.S. Weekly magazine — not Dante or Dostoevsky — on which she spends her time.
“There are a couple of features in there that I really like,” she said. “I like the ‘Fashion police: why were they wearing that?’ page and I like to see ‘Who wore it best?’ ”
Levin said she now enjoys reading books to her grandchildren, who know her as “Nana,” after the Saint Bernard in “Peter Pan.” Watching her children as adults and watching her grandchildren grow up are what Levin said she enjoys most in her life now.
She also said she might like to publish something later in life, but for now, she is focused on her position in Directed Studies and her duty to the University.
“It is so satisfying to be a part of a program like DS where there is always more to learn,” she said. “You also get to see the relationship between the part and the whole and to be able to take a step back from that.”
Indeed, Levin said she often marvels at what she says are the huge strides Yale has made during her husband’s 15 years at the helm of the University.
“From where I park every day I can see where the Bass Library just got rebuilt with the Thain Family Café, where the first African-American donated $1 million,” she said. “On one side is the Leigh building for the music school. Stoeckel is being renovated. Silliman just got totally rebuilt, and the Whitney got renovated. Everywhere I look, I know everything that is happening and everything it took to make those things happen. I’m just happy to be a part of that.”