When asked to share an anecdote that characterizes Peter Salovey’s four-year tenure as dean of Yale College, Deputy Dean Joseph Gordon does not describe a time when the dean delivered a rousing speech, hosted a fundraising event or recruited a coveted faculty member. Instead, he points to a regular day at the office.
Salovey was using a paper shredder, Gordon remembers, and somehow managed to get his tie stuck in the shredder’s teeth.
Then, for the rest of the day, Salovey “walked around with the shredded tie … so he could tell the story,” Gordon said. “He’s so self-deprecating.”
But the self-deprecating dean that has become a staple at football games and undergraduate performances is moving on. On Oct. 1, he will leave the deanship and replace current Provost Andrew Hamilton as the University’s new number two — responsible for overseeing all of Yale, not just the College.
Interviews with faculty members, administrators and staff in the Dean’s Office make one thing clear: at Yale College, Salovey will be missed. His colleagues all but sing his praises, citing his efficiency, intellect and ability to manage tense situations.
“I think he’s one of the great deans in the history of Yale,” said Benjamin Foster GRD ’75, a professor who in his 40 years at Yale has seen many deans come and go.
But some also worry. While professors rarely doubt his ability to succeed in his new post, they question the toll the job will take on him. The provost, after all, often has to make unpopular decisions about allocating resources to programs and departments.
“It’s not true, but it’s often said that a provost’s job is saying no,” said Graduate School Dean Jon Butler, who has worked closely with Salovey throughout this deanship. But, he went on, “To the extent that it’s true, it’s very nice to be told no with a smile.”
To Salovey, his new position is “an opportunity,” a chance to broaden his perspective beyond Yale College to the entire university. He will be able to zone in on faculty issues, like recruitment, that he devoted energy to even as dean. But becoming provost will also mean a major change: the dean who, upon his appointment to provost was called “student-friendly” by Yale President Richard Levin will be practically removing himself from the undergraduate world.
“I’m sure he’ll still be coming to hockey games and going to student performances and being a presence around campus — he won’t disappear,” Levin said. “But it won’t be quite the same.”
Since moving from the Graduate School Dean’s Office into the Yale College Dean’s Office in 2004, before which he was chairman of the psychology department, Salovey has overseen the implementation of a new curriculum for Yale College, significant expansion of financial aid for undergraduates and the decision to expand Yale College enrollment by 15 percent.
“He really cares about the undergraduate mission,” said Joseph Altonji, an economics professor who, since 2002, has served with Salovey on several committees. “He has the respect of all the faculty. He has very high aspirations for Yale College — and for Yale.”
And, Altonji continued, “I’ve seen few people with better personal skills than Dean Salovey.”
Perhaps Salovey’s social ease is to be expected. In 1990, the psychologist helped coin the term “emotional intelligence,” which describes his and colleague John Mayer’s term for the ability to perceive, integrate, understand and regulate emotion.
Economics Department Chair Christopher Udry noted that Salovey’s low-key demeanor contrasts with that of his predecessor, Richard Brodhead, who is now president of Duke University. Udry said Brodhead tended to intimidate others with his nearly perfect spoken speech, honed during the years when he studied and became an expert on 19th-century American literature.
“Peter is someone I can relate to a little bit more on a personal level,” Udry said.
Foster said although the deanship could elicit pretentious behavior in others, Salovey always remained natural and maintained personable relations with the faculty members with whom he interacted.
“He brought an informal kind of personal style to the deanship that I like,” Foster said. “That shows a real strength of leadership and force of character.”
Salovey’s assistant, KC Mills, for example, said on the day Salovey offered her a job in the Dean’s Office four years ago, Mills found a lump in her breast that turned out to be cancer. She approached Salovey about finding another assistant so she could attend to her health. But Salovey refused to give her job away, and instead let Mills take off as much time as she needed for a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.
“He said, ‘We hired you, we can work with this,’ ” Mills said. “He believed in me. The entire office worked with me.”
And two years ago, Salovey, who is a justice of the peace, officiated Mills’ wedding.
A behind-the-scenes man
In just four weeks, Salovey will make the move from the corner of Grove and College streets to the Provost’s office on Hillhouse Avenue. The visibility of the Dean’s Office to students heading up Science Hill or streaming out of Commons reflects the approachability and access that have marked Salovey’s tenure as dean.
Salovey said he hopes to maintain the same level of contact with students in his new role, although others noted that he will necessarily have less time to do so.
“In this position, as with being dean of Yale College, I’m very involved with setting policies and making decisions that impact students,” Salovey said. “So I’m going to want to hear from students and be open to what students have to tell me.”
With the provost’s job, Salovey is undertaking a broader role that will have him overseeing the allocation of funds for everything from new buildings to expanded majors to increased recruitment across Yale College, the Graduate School and the professional schools. His experience heading both the Graduate School and Yale College has given him intimate knowledge of the two largest arms of the University. Several joint appointments at the School of Management and School of Public Health give him at least some experience with the professional schools.
Those who have worked with him, though, said the inherent conflict built into the relationship between the provost and the faculty — who clamor for limited University funds that the provost ultimately has the power to hand out — might be almost painful for Salovey to get used to.
“There’s a structural tension between the provost and everybody else,” Udry said. “He’s going to make all sorts of choices that didn’t come up as dean … I suspect he’s going to suffer partially as a consequence because the job’s already really tough.”
Foster agreed, noting that the provost has to be familiar with and make decisions regarding obscure parts of the University he or she has never even heard of.
“The provost has to be all things to all people,” Foster said. “Previous provosts have varied enormously.”
And, he continued, Yale’s fortunes could change in coming years, making the provost’s job even harder.
“At the moment the trough is overflowing,” he said. “Who’s to say investments won’t tank in 15 years? They have to think about these things.”
But Salovey said the provost’s position at Yale is more collaborative than at other universities, and that many of those high-level decisions involve a team including the provost, his staff and the deans of the appropriate schools.
“I may have a little different perspective now and I may be coming at it from a bit of a different vantage point,” he said, “but I’m still a part of the very same decision-making processes that I was a part of as dean.”