Levin at 15 years: Yale’s greatest?

Fifteen years ago today at his inauguration, a young Rick Levin stood on the dais of Woolsey Hall to receive the symbols of his new office. The head of the Yale Corporation placed the president’s bejeweled collar on Levin’s shoulders, while his incoming secretary, Linda Lorimer, stood behind him to secure the precious necklace. The thousands in the audience waited. The clasp, it turns out, would not latch.

It was only a mere moment of apprehension — with a pat on the shoulders, Lorimer finally fixed the collar a second or two later — but the omen seemed fitting. It might seem unimaginable to today’s crop of students, but in the Yale of 1993, it seemed as if everything that could go wrong would go wrong. The school’s top choice to be president didn’t want anything to do with the job. Faculty morale was in the doldrums. An undergraduate had been murdered just a few hundred yards from the President’s House. Buildings were literally falling apart.

Richard Levin was inaugurated as president of Yale 15 years ago.
Richard Levin was inaugurated as president of Yale 15 years ago.

“Yale was a troubled university,” said Anthony Kronman GRD ’72 LAW ’75, dean of the Yale Law School from 1994 to 2004. “Those of us who knew Rick thought, ‘Well, gee, this is a great appointment but good luck — you’ve got your hands full.’ ”

Levin knew it, too. The 46-year-old possessed little administrative experience, little recognition and little gravitas.

One thing he did possess was a grand challenge. Either he would be the one to turn Yale around, or he would be the one to preside over it as it fell out of American higher education’s elite ranks.

To say there was much on the line would have been an understatement. “There is not a state upon the continent, but would account such a seat of learning, in whose hands so ever it might be, as an illustrious ornament to their community,” Yale’s greatest early president, Ezra Stiles 1746, once said of Yale.

Today, in his stately Woodbridge Hall office, Levin holds court in a rocking chair once favored by Stiles himself. And it was in that chair that young Levin piloted his alma mater away from the brink.

There is no doubt, today, of Yale’s greatness. And the 15th anniversary of the inauguration of the president credited with restoring it, professors, administrators, longtime observers of the University and college presidents around the country have no doubt of Levin’s greatness, either.

Shootings, resignations and strife

The fall and rise of Yale begins early one Sunday morning at the foot of what Dickens called “the most beautiful street in America.”

It was 1:15 a.m. on Feb. 17, 1991, and Christian Prince ’93 was headed to his off-campus apartment on Whitney Avenue after a night that included dinner at Mory’s and a stop at a party in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall. At the base of St. Mary’s Church, no more than a block from the traditional residence of Yale’s president — then Benno Schmidt ’63 LAW ’66 — Prince was accosted by an armed robber. A few minutes later, the varsity lacrosse player was found bleeding. Before sunrise he would be dead of a single gunshot to the heart.

The troubles did not end there. Some Yale administrators like to point to a 1991 New York Times article, replete with four bullet points noting various shootings of interest, that neatly summarizes Yale’s seeming transformation from a storied university into a treacherous battlefield. Said one Yale student at the time: “I live in the South Bronx, and I feel more scared here than I do there.”

The doubts about New Haven’s decline infiltrated Yale’s most intimate circles. “Maybe New Haven is not an ideal place for a world institution,” one former Corporation member confided at the time, according to an account later published in the Yale Alumni Magazine.

At the same time, Yale’s physical infrastructure was decaying, town-gown relations were fraying and students tended to parade around campus asking, “Where’s Benno?,” referring to Schmidt’s propensity to retreat to his Manhattan home on weekends. To make matters worse, by the next spring, Yale faced a $12-million deficit. Administrators proposed cutting the faculty by 10 percent and excising entire programs and departments. Faculty members revolted.

First, the provost announced he would resign. A month later, the dean of Yale College said he planned to step down. And finally, a month after that, over breakfast with the Corporation on the morning of commencement, Schmidt abruptly threw in the towel.

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

Levin, for his part, was nothing more than the chairman of the Economics Department. In the fall, as the history professor Howard Lamar GRD ’51 took the reigns as acting president and a search committee got to work looking for a permanent successor, Levin would take the helm of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

In interviews this fall and in April at the anniversary of Levin’s appointment as president, this much became clear: the search committee didn’t want him.

Young Levin was simply too green. “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,” recalled Lorimer, who was then president of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and, as a member of the Corporation, one of a pair of search committee members to first interview Levin.

Levin went about six months without hearing back from the members of the search committee. But their reported top candidate, David Kennedy GRD ’68, a historian at Stanford, was said to have pulled out of consideration for the job, and the search dragged on. In February 1993, the committee finally contacted Levin again. Two months and 24 interviews later, he was announced as Yale’s 22nd president.

The vision

Once Lorimer finessed the clasp on the presidential collar 15 years ago, it was smooth sailing for young Levin at his inauguration. Thousands poured into Woolsey Hall, including dignitaries such as former New York City mayor John Lindsay ’44 LAW ’48 and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance ’39 LAW ’42. Representatives from more than 100 other colleges and universities attended.

For a University plagued by such turmoil, it was a long-awaited (if fleeting) moment of hope. The dean of the Law School, Guido Calabresi ’53 LAW ’58, called it a more joyous occasion than any other presidential inauguration in the latter half of the 20th century. Levin, for his part, remembered it as a “slightly out of body experience.”

“It seemed a little surreal,” he said in an interview this week.

The highlight for students was that Levin forewent a black tie dinner and, instead, had a reception on Cross Campus — open to everyone, even those outside the University — complete with ice cream bars. That night, on Old Campus, 5,000 people partied to the music of the Professors of Bluegrass.

But there was something else notable about that inauguration. Levin’s inaugural address had the intellectual weight befitting such an occasion; he began with quotations from the Antigone and waxed poetic on the “Jeffersonian conception of the role of higher education in our democracy.” But more notably, the speech also foreshadowed Levin’s administration.

He spoke about the need for universities to invest in the sciences (“We neglect its support at our peril.”). He talked about making Yale a global university (“As we enter the 21st century, we must aspire to educate leaders for the whole world.”). He promised to strengthen New Haven as a community (“We must do more … if we are to continue to recruit students and faculty of the highest quality.”).

Levin stuck to the plan. In his first five years, he said, his goal was stabilizing Yale’s vital signs by overhauling campus facilities and patching up Yale’s relationship with New Haven.

With that foundation set, Levin laid out a plan for his next 10 years. No longer was Yale on life support. Instead of trying to keep the University afloat, Levin thought it was time to move it forward. And his goals were the same ones he had laid out five years earlier: namely, internationalization and investment in the sciences.

“I thought I would give people some sense of what I thought were the priorities for Yale in the coming years,” he said of his inaugural address. “And I tried to pursue all of those directions in the last 15 years — and then some more.”

A new kind of president

Rick Levin may not have been missing an agenda, but there was one thing he lacked. He simply didn’t have the look of a university president.

In fact, William G. Bowen, the president of Princeton from 1972 to 1988, had lobbied Yale’s search committee to consider Levin — whom Bowen, also an economist, had previously tried to recruit to Princeton — early on in their search. To his frustration, they simply were not interested.

“They said, ‘But he isn’t sort of famous and well-known all over the place!’ ” Bowen recalled in a telephone interview last week. “And I said, ‘Please! Please! That’s not the question. The question is can he lead the university. And the answer is he can lead it brilliantly — and if he does, he will be known.’ ”

The committee eventually agreed with Bowen, but not before heading in another direction for six months. Committee members, as one person involved put it last spring, had been looking for “a magnificent figurehead, a great orator and very handsome man.”

The soft-spoken Levin was not atop their list.

While highly respected within the Yale faculty, Levin did not have a national stature. He was perceived in some corners as something of a technocrat — a capable administrator, for sure, but perhaps not someone with the kind of vision to lead a great university. And in the interview this week in Woodbridge Hall, he admitted he didn’t see himself as a university president. He saw himself more of a provost-type. In fact, he said he was at first “intimidated” about the idea of being president, because he didn’t think he could live to the public presence he thought the job required.

“I had the image of the imperial president — Kingman Brewster, or Bart Giamatti, who, it seemed to me, lived in kind of a different stratosphere than the rest of the faculty in their jobs — and I knew I would never be like that,” Levin said, referring to the two presidents who preceded Schmidt. “But I learned that you don’t have to be.”

Levin, most agree, does not have Brewster’s charisma. He does not have Giamatti’s eloquent tongue. His speeches are more professorial than emotional. And while Brewster publicly sparred with a sitting vice president of the United States and made national headlines about his views on the news of the day, Levin is extremely cautious in choosing when to speak out.

His aides say that style is what prevents the kinds of alumni discontent that flared up when Brewster was speaking out on the issues of the day. But there is a downside to Levin’s strategy, too.

When asked about their view of Levin in interviews this fall, undergraduates tended to offer something about his affection for China, and perhaps a reference to the bling necklace he wears at Commencement. But beyond that, the closest contact they said they have had with Levin was when they shook his hand in the receiving line at Beinecke Library after the Freshman Address.

Some students said they wouldn’t even recognize him on campus.

“I don’t feel that I know him all that well,” Kate Selker ’11 said, “and wish he had a more human face to the student body.”

It was clear from the start that Levin was not of the Giamatti and Brewster mold; he was a new kind of Yale president. That was not disputed. The question was: How would it work out?

Bowen, for his part, did not doubt that Levin’s lack of glad-handing ability would hold him back.

“All of this business about ‘hail fellow well met’ is really much overdone,” he said. “A lot of this is myth, and people imagine what it was like in some golden day that maybe never existed, and that’s not the coin of the realm. That’s just not.”

The results

The Wall Street Journal columnist David Wessel was among the first national writers to shed light on Levin’s transformation when he wrote a column about the University last spring. He compared him favorably to former Harvard president Larry Summers, a fellow economist who established a national profile that dwarfed Levin’s.

“Mr. Levin is less prominent an economist than Mr. Summers and less prone to penetrating insights and politically incorrect one-liners, less visionary but more politically agile at changing an organization designed to resist change,” he wrote. “His 15-year tenure offers a case study in expanding and redirecting a venerable institution that, along with public and private peers, is vital to American prosperity.”

The transformation Levin has wrought in 15 years is hard to miss.

On campus, he has poured $3 billion into Yale’s physical infrastructure, overhauling, one by one, each residential college and many academic buildings. He launched a $1-billion program to invest in Yale’s science, medicine and engineering programs. He made “sustainability” a buzzword at Yale, and beyond, and launched a strategy to aggressively reduce the University’s carbon footprint.

In the community, with Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who took office at the same time as Levin did, Levin invested $150 million in the city and turned Broadway from a shooting gallery to a chic shopping strip. Just down the interstate, he acquired the West Campus, the former Bayer HealthCare site that, overnight, increased the size of the Yale campus by 50 percent.

In the broader world, he pushed Yale toward becoming a global university. He made it possible for every Yale undergraduate — on financial aid, or not — to study abroad at least once during his or her time at Yale. And, of course, the relationship Levin has built with China and its regime is famously documented.

Such a list might read like a brag sheet from the Office of Public Affairs, but the extent to which Yale has elevated itself under Levin’s administration is quantifiable.

The University has raised nearly $5 billion during Levin’s presidency — an amount more than 50 percent larger than the size of the entire Yale endowment at the time he took office. The number of applications for admission to Yale College has increased 113 percent over his reign. Turnout at alumni reunions in New Haven has increased 55 percent. The number of international students brought to Yale has more than doubled. So has the number of female members of the faculty.

“He has really transformed Yale in so many dimensions,” Susan Hockfield, a former Yale provost and the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a telephone interview. “There’s hardly a place you can look across the campus or the city and not see the eye, hand and mind of Rick Levin.”

The rest of the higher education world has noticed, too. “He has a deep appreciation and understanding of the world of a research university,” John L. Hennessy, the president of Stanford, said of Levin. “That has permitted him to create a vision for Yale that’s been compelling and to maintain good working relationships with the many diverse constituencies that make up a modern university.”

Speaking by phone from Palo Alto this week, he summed Levin’s term up simply: “President Levin has done a remarkable job.”

There have, of course, been low points along the way. Levin has been criticized as recently as last winter about being soft on human rights when it comes to China. The University, under his watch, fell into an ugly labor dispute in 2003 that ended in a highly contentious three-week strike. And while he later abandoned the idea, Levin for a time wanted to raze part of the decaying Yale Divinity School, ruffling feathers to the extent that the renowned history of art professor Vincent Scully ’40 GRD ’49 threatened to quit if Levin had his way with the demolition.

But none of that compares to the notorious Bass Affair, to which Levin admits he “didn’t give sufficient attention” until it exploded into a full-blown scandal. Asked in separate interviews about the biggest misstep of the Levin administration, both he and his wife, Jane Levin GRD ’75, the director of undergraduate studies for Directed Studies, immediately offered the Bass Affair as the biggest misstep of his presidency.

In 1991, Lee Bass ’79 donated $20 million to the University to launch a program for the study of Western Civilization, but Yale administrators and Bass could never agree on a way to hire professors and implement it. Eventually, after the standoff became a media spectacle, Yale returned the gift.

Levin was assailed, Benno Schmidt-style, by critics. The Boston Globe called his handling of the gift a “sorry tale of incompetence and failure of communication.” Levin, for his part, calls the ordeal a deeply painful and embarrassing episode.

“There was just no reason for this donor … to turn sour on the University apart from my own inaction and inability to get this thing going quickly enough,” Levin said. “I learned a lesson.”

While he willingly takes the blame for that scandal, Levin won’t take credit as easily for the job he has done of the last 15 years. He deflects praise to the people around him. He cites his officer team, a close-knit group of the sort who sit at home on Saturday night and write e-mails about University business. He cites Yale’s chief investment officer, David Swensen GRD ’80, who for the length of Levin’s tenure has delivered the highest investment returns of any large university fund.

“For Rick, it’s not about himself,” Jane Levin said. “That’s the thing: It isn’t about him. It’s about Yale. It’s about helping Yale thrive and flourish.”

Still, others do not hesitate to give Levin his share of credit.

“First you say, ‘Hmm … interesting choice as president,’ ” Kronman said. “And then you say, ‘He’s doing an awfully good job.’ And then you say, ‘This is a terrific presidency; it might really amount to something.’ And then you say, ‘This is one of the great Yale presidents.’ And then you say, finally, ‘I can’t imagine Yale without him.’ ”

Levin at 15

Today’s anniversary is a milestone for Levin, but even more so, it is a milestone for the University. The last Yale president to reach the 15-year milestone was James Rowland Angell, who served from 1921 to 1937.

Levin is also the longest-serving president in the Ivy League. His time in office is almost double the 8.6-year average tenure of the average American college or university president, as tracked by the American Council on Education.

And the president said he is still going strong. While he previously indicated he could retire as early as 2011, the end of the Yale Tomorrow capital campaign, he seemed to back away from that statement in the interview this week.

“I’ve got ideas and programs and initiatives underway that are going to carry us another five years, at least,” he said. “There’s plenty to do. I don’t feel any shortage of ambition remaining.”

After all, there is work to be done. Levin, his wife says, lives by the words of Rabbi Tarphon: “We cannot complete the work; neither are we free to desist from it.”

Professors and other administrators often remark in amazement about Levin’s stamina. The demands of his job are legendary: long hours, frequent travel and even more frequent headaches. In the first 10 years in office, for instance, Levin traveled more 1,051,857 miles on University business. He and his wife hosted 1,101 events at 43 Hillhouse Avenue, their ceremonial residence.

It helps, Hennessy said, that Levin obviously loves his job so much.

“That makes it a lot easier to do it, because all of these leadership positions come with certain headaches and times where you wish someone else was as in the job,” Hennessy said.

What is notable about Levin, too, is that after all these years as Yale’s most powerful figure, his friends say he remains exactly the same person who rose out of the Economics Department 15 years ago. He picks up his own dry cleaning, runs annually in the New Haven Road Race and answers his own e-mail. On Sunday, for instance, as he balanced preparations for this weekend’s Corporation meeting and the search for a new Yale College dean, he conducted meetings via speakerphone as he drove to an orchard in Guilford to buy apples needed in a recipe Jane was preparing to make.

“I’m like, ‘No, no, no, you’re busy, it’s going to take you an hour to go out there!’ ” she said. “And Rick is like, ‘No, you stay here. I’ll just go and get the apples.’ That’s how Rick is … nothing is ever too much for him. He just always makes time.”

“He’s just being himself, basically,” is how his eldest son, Jonathan Levin, a professor of economics at Stanford, explains it. “That’s how he was before he became president, and that’s how he’s continued to be.”

Professors and administrators praise Levin as an excellent listener, someone who brings a palpable serenity to what normally would be a job prone to pandemonium. Neil L. Rudenstine, the president of Harvard from 1991 to 2001, described Levin as “the most outstanding and far-sighted” of all Yale’s leaders in recent memory.

“He listens, takes advice, but then acts decisively,” he wrote in an e-mail message this week. “He is virtually always right, and commands the greatest respect throughout higher education. What more could one ask for?”

The legacy

Richard Levin’s legacy only comes into sharp relief when viewed in the context of Christian Prince, Benno Schmidt and the chaos Levin inherited. Just take the April 1994 issue of the magazine GQ.

“The Death of Yale,” the headline read on the cover. Inside, in an epic article assailing the University, the magazine proclaimed: “Once the bulldog of the Ivy League, Yale University now finds itself riddled with debt, doubt and denial.”

The article was devastating. It quoted a retired Sterling professor musing on Yale’s “glacial slide” into oblivion. It described librarians throwing tarpaulins over books during rainstorms to protect Yale’s priceless collections. New Haven, it said, “has turned into a war zone of poverty, crime and drugs.”

Levin didn’t just have to run a university: He had to save it. “No one at Yale today could easily imagine how decrepit and dispirited Yale was at the time when Rick came to office,” said Richard Brodhead ’68 GRD ’72, the president of Duke and former dean of Yale College. “During his early years, it was exciting to see these facts turned around in a decisive way. But then came something even better: not just the restoration of greatness, but a time of new ambitions and initiatives on many fronts.”

And that’s what makes him so impressive, said Robert M. Berdahl, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, former president of the University of Texas at Austin and current president of the Association of American Universities.

“He put Yale right back at the top of its game,” he said in a telephone interview this week. “I don’t think that any of the concerns that one might have had 15 years ago about Yale … are concerns any longer, and that’s due in large part to the really brilliant leadership Rick has given.”

Levin’s legacy will exist both on campus and off. His protégés are at the helm of many of the world’s elite universities: Hockfield at M.I.T., Brodhead at Duke, former provost Alison Richard at the University of Cambridge and, as of next fall, former provost Andrew Hamilton at the University of Oxford. And while it is clear Levin’s career here is not over, the mark he has left on campus has come into focus in recent years, too.

Greatness is hard to quantify, and even harder to quantify when a president is still in office, but it is a word increasing attached to descriptions of the Levin administration. “There’s no question,” Hockfield said, “that his legacy will place him among the most transformative presidents Yale University has ever had.”

Smith, the Yale historian, calls Levin’s tenure “brilliant.” Even as much as Brewster revolutionized Yale, it is Levin, he said earlier this year, that has altered Yale most drastically of any of its leaders in modern history.

“He certainly has changed more than any other president,” Smith said. “He’s got an incredible memory, and he’s willing to take some risks — but risks that are worthwhile.”

Smith, for years, considered Stiles and Brewster as Yale’s greatest presidents. He said he now considers Levin part of that pantheon.

Former University Secretary Sam Chauncey ’57 agreed. “I think you have to say that historians of the future will have a very hard time not putting him the greatest president Yale has ever had, or at least in the top two or three,” he said. “Levin is the man who has made this place the great university it ought to be.”

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