Kennedy, once on Woodbridge shortlist, returns to receive Cross medal

When David Kennedy GRD ’68 arrived in New Haven to work on his doctorate in American studies, he did not expect to return to Yale several decades later to receive the Wilbur Cross Medal, the graduate school’s highest honor, he said at a talk on Tuesday.

But Kennedy probably also did not imagine at the time that he would be a top contender to become Yale’s 22nd president.

A week after the 15th anniversary of the inauguration of Richard Levin in that position instead, it is an odd twist of fate that has brought Kennedy, a history professor at Stanford University, back to Yale.

Back in the early 1990s, Yale was in desperate straits, with a decaying campus and a multi-million-dollar budget shortfall, and in desperate need of a new leader. After then-President Benno Schmidt ’63 LAW ’66 quit abruptly over breakfast with the Corporation on the morning of Commencement in 1992, an epic search to find Yale’s next president began.

While Levin’s name did not appear on the shortlist of candidates at the beginning of the search, the News reported at the time, Kennedy’s did — and then suddenly, his name disappeared from discussion.

The News reported at the time, citing sources familiar with the search, that Kennedy had been the Yale Corporation’s top choice before withdrawing his name from contention.

After conversations with the search committee, Kennedy said on Tuesday, he and the committee members came to the mutual agreement that he and the presidency weren’t a good fit for each other.

“The job was never offered,” Kennedy emphasized in an interview with the News yesterday, explaining that he liked his arrangement at Stanford — which he attended as an undergraduate — and was loathe to give it up.

Several months and many interviews later, Levin emerged as the leading candidate for the position, and in April 1993, he was formally offered the job.

And, in the end, the situation hasn’t turned out too shabbily for Kennedy, Levin or Yale.

After 15 years, Levin is being hailed as one of Yale’s most successful presidents, credited with overhauling Yale’s physical infrastructure, investing millions of dollars in New Haven and pushing Yale toward becoming a global university.

Kennedy, on the other hand, has stuck with academia, collecting a Pulitzer Prize for history in 2000, in addition to being a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1981 and the recipient of numerous other literature and history awards.

Had Kennedy become Yale’s 22nd president, his outstanding personal qualities would have served him well, said Sterling Professor Emeritus of History John Blum, Kennedy’s thesis adviser when he was a graduate student. But in Blum’s mind, Kennedy was right to stay where he was.

“He’s such a good historian,” Blum said. “The profession would have missed him.”

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