News’ View: In downturn, an opportunity for Yale

Few generations have witnessed economic wreckage of the severity that lies around us today. The nation’s unemployment rate stands at 7.2 percent. Investors have lost billions in financial markets. The nation’s leading universities have implemented budget cuts and hiring freezes in response to double-digit endowment declines.

Yale, too, has been hit by financial difficulty. President Levin announced last month that the University’s endowment had likely declined 25 percent since July. In many ways, the University’s response has mirrored that of other schools: delayed capital projects, a freeze on salary increases and substantial projected budget cuts.

But Yale did not, as other schools have done, announce a freeze on faculty hiring — a wise move. In fact, today’s recession may hold great opportunity for Yale: as other schools batten down the hatches, the University should use its financial cushion to recruit as aggressively as ever.

At its core, the work of a university is to produce knowledge. The strength of a university’s faculty is critical to this pursuit: It is professors who mill the intellectual grist for the next generation of scholars, politicians and businessmen. In turn, their work lifts the mantle of the University to new heights.

But with the halls of academe bracing for further collisions with financial markets, an entire generation of scholars waits in a holding pattern. The job market for Ph.D.s will weaken. Academic job offers made will come only after intense scrutiny from provosts across the country. If today’s economic climate lingers, the nation’s universities face a period of intellectual stagnation.

The forward-thinker sees opportunity in this situation. Although it has sustained massive financial losses, Yale remains in a dominant position among the nation’s universities. The size of our endowment is only eclipsed by Harvard, and the prospects for our fund are arguably unmatched, thanks to the brilliant management of David Swensen.

When he was named provost in August, Peter Salovey stressed his ambition to redouble efforts to recruit top scholars, calling Yale’s faculty “the key to the greatness of this very place.” It is clear Yale will need to pick its spots while finances are strained, but that attitude — that a top-10 department could be made a top-5 department, that a top-5 department could become the best in the world — should remain.

This mindset will require Yale to prioritize faculty salaries over capital projects — a difficult choice given the comforts and opportunities afforded by modernized facilities, but one that rightly seeks to optimize the University’s contributions to “lux et veritas.”

Yale officials recognize the wisdom of this approach. “We see the possibility, with so many schools freezing hiring, to do some terrific recruiting,” Levin said in a recent interview. “We didn’t see any advantage in a freeze.”

Call it a shrewd move by the Yale administration, and one we hope is more than just rhetoric. After all: New colleges and classrooms can be built in a few years, when the University’s endowment again posts generous returns. But the chance to attract the next John Gaddis, Ray Fair or William Nordhaus — all of whom received Ph.D.s in a single two-year span — may only come once.

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