In appointing Yale College Dean Peter Salovey as provost last week, University President Richard Levin selected for himself a new right-hand man.
He also may have chosen his own successor.
As Salovey prepares to take office next month, his appointment to the University’s number-two position has raised an unavoidable question among those in Yale’s chattering classes: Will the beloved dean be Yale’s 23rd president?
Time will only tell, and administrators and longtime observers of the University caution against trying to forecast the future occupant of Woodbridge Hall years before Levin will likely step down (Levin has said the earliest he would step down is at the end of the Yale Tomorrow fundraising campaign in 2011). But they admit the 50-year-old Salovey will almost surely be president someday, be it here or at another school.
Earlier this summer, Levin said that in his view, every person he has elevated to the top seat in Warner House had the qualifications to someday move over to his seat in Woodbridge Hall. And his next provost, he said, would be no different.
“Peter Salovey will certainly be one of the people that would be among those who could be candidates for the future, obviously,” Levin said in an interview last week. “He’s done all the key leadership jobs in the University at this point. I have a lot of confidence in Peter, and the Corporation does as well.”
It is little wonder why. After all, the first four provosts to serve under Levin have all gone on to take the helm of elite universities; Provost Andrew Hamilton, who next fall will assume the top position at the University of Oxford, is only the latest example. And Salovey may have a more impressive resume than any of them.
As much as the search for a new provost this summer served as a fascinating melodrama for observers of Yale’s bureaucracy, the search for Yale’s next president will be an event of another order of magnitude. The University has been blessed with remarkable stability in Woodbridge Hall, as the 61-year-old Levin, who marks his 15th anniversary in office this year, is the longest-serving president in the Ivy League. That will make the search for his successor even more suspenseful.
Star on the rise
Salovey, it now seems clear, will be among the most obvious potential successors, based on his resume alone.
After receiving his Ph.D. in psychology from Yale in 1986 and joining the Yale faculty, Salovey quickly ascended up the faculty ranks and received tenure in 1995. Before being named dean of the Yale Graduate School in 2003, Salovey served as director of undergraduate studies, director of graduate studies and finally chairman of the psychology department. In 2004, Levin appointed him dean of the College.
Levin, on the other hand, had less than a year of experience as dean of the Graduate School when the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, named him president.
Since the position was created in 1919, two Yale provosts, Charles Seymour and Kingman Brewster, have been named to the Yale presidency. In 1993, too, the first frontrunner for Yale’s presidency was the provost at the time, Judith Rodin, who would go on to be named president of the University of Pennsylvania. But Rodin — unlike Levin — did not have a Yale degree, which helped take her out of the running, members of the search committee that chose Levin have told the News.
Salovey, on the other hand, is a Yale alumnus. At 50 years old, he’s at the prime age to become a university president. And beyond his administrative expertise, he is a distinguished scholar, known for developing the concept of emotional intelligence.
As William Kissick ’53 MED ’57 EPH ’61, a University of Pennsylvania professor and Corporation member who served on the search committee that selected Levin, put it, “he knows the institution backwards and forwards.”
“Everything looks good,” Kissick said. “He clearly has to be a frontrunner. No question about it.”
Asked about his interest in succeeding Levin, Salovey, for his part, said Tuesday he is concentrating on his job that lies ahead as provost.
“I have not spent much time in my life trying to plot out a future career path and rather deal with opportunities as they present themselves,” he said. “It helps me work more effectively to really focus on the present.”
Too early to tell?
But several other administrators, who spoke on the condition of anonymity when discussing the career prospects of their colleague, said there is no doubt Salovey will someday have the opportunity to take the helm of a top university. Still, they warned against trying to be too much of a fortune-teller as far as predicting Yale’s future is concerned.
“It’s the Obama factor — all of a sudden this guy came out of nowhere,” said one administrator, referring to Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic nominee for president. “Where did he come from? Eight years ago, he couldn’t get a seat at the convention. Four years ago, no one even knew who he was.”
In other words, a lot can change in just a year or two, the administrator said. “It’s just a little early to think about that,” the official put it. “It’s not very productive. Things happen. You never know what. It’s too early.”
Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61, the emeritus history professor and Yale historian, agreed. “It’s virtually impossible to make any type of projections about what kind of a person the Corporation will select when Rick Levin retires,” he said. “It’s sort of like trying to predict the presidential election of the United States two terms from now.”
Indeed, Salovey’s appointment as provost — and the presidential speculation it has engendered — shows just how quickly the conversation about Levin’s successor can shift. If School of Management professor Judith Chevalier ’89, who sources said was closely considered for the position, had been appointed provost, she surely would have been viewed as a frontrunner for succeeding Levin. And if a rising faculy star like Calhoun College Master Jonathan Holloway is appointed dean of Yale College — as some have mused could happen — he could join the presidential rumor mill, too.
Levin, for his part, said he does not intend to appoint an heir apparent of sorts. Rather, he said he hopes to offer the Corporation, which ultimately will decide Yale’s next president, with a pool of experienced administrators who could take the helm of the University.
“I would leave the Corporation with more than one good choice,” Levin said in another interview Tuesday. “There are lots of talented leaders in this institution, and giving a number of them opportunities to demonstrate their talent and broaden their familiarity with the wider university is something I do think about and try to provide.”
Pool of candidates aside, just as Levin pointed out in appointing Salovey that “few in Yale’s history have been so well prepared to become provost,” the same could be said a few years from now if Salovey were to become Yale’s 23rd president.
As Smith put it, Salovey would surely have “extraordinary experience,” the kind virtually unmatched by anyone else on the faculty. And the administrator who spoke on the condition of anonymity did not hesitate when asked if Salovey would continue the streak of provosts taking the helm of top universities.
“Sure, I think so. Why not?” the official said. “You would have to say anyone who takes that job would have to be a likely candidate for a million other jobs.”
Replied another administrator when asked if Salovey, in the administrator’s view, would someday be a university president: “Absolutely, if that’s what he wants to do.”
Hamilton, meanwhile, was diplomatic when asked if he thought Salovey would become the fifth consecutive Yale provost to someday have a university over which to preside.
“I am sure Dean Salovey will get, as I did, great satisfaction from his role as Provost,” he wrote in an e-mail message.
Indeed, for now, any discussion about Salovey’s future beyond Warner House is nothing more than idle speculation. And many interviewed for this story were careful to note that perhaps Salovey could be compelled to accept another university presidency — say, that of Stanford University, his alma mater — if it were to become vacant before Levin decided to retire.
Regardless, there is no question Salovey’s star is on the rise.
In remarks to his classmates at the Class Day festivities in May, Andrew Levine ’08 joked about how he had come to the unfortunate conclusion that a short Jew like himself could never become president of the United States. After Levine finished his speech, Salovey glided to the lectern.
“Short Jews might not be able to be president,” he boomed, smiling widely, “but they can become dean of Yale College!”
It turns out they can become more than that. They can become provost. And, one of these days, maybe president, too.
Contact THOMAS KAPLAN at firstname.lastname@example.org