Last December, rumors abounded that University President Richard Levin, who has held the job for nearly 18 years, might leave to accept a post in the Obama administration.
In the weeks before the holiday break, questions flooded campus: Would Levin leave Yale? Who would replace him? And what might a new president mean for the University?
At the time, Levin was quiet about the rumors and told the News only: “I love my job, and I’m not looking to leave.”
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Ultimately, Levin did not leave Yale for the White House, and he declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding the appointment in an interview this week. Members of the Yale community may never know how close the University came to a sudden presidential search, and Levin remains at Yale — the Ivy League’s longest-serving president and one of the country’s most highly regarded university leaders.
A feature published by the News Oct. 2, 2008, the 15th anniversary of Levin’s inauguration, reflected on his track record and placed Levin among Yale’s greatest leaders. By that time, Levin had restored Yale’s relationship with the city of New Haven, rebuilt the campus’ deteriorating physical plant and raised the University’s standing with the rest of the world.
Three years and a $7 billion decline in the endowment later, Levin continues to pursue an ambitious set of goals for the University: some new, some old. He purchased Yale’s West Campus in 2007 and proposed two new residential colleges, plans for which remain underway. Though progress on both projects slowed during the recession, administrators say growth will soon resume. Earlier this year, Levin announced a separate new project: a liberal arts college to be jointly run with the National University of Singapore, slated to open in 2013.
In the past, Levin has said he will not leave Yale before the conclusion of the University’s capital campaign, Yale Tomorrow. The fundraising drive will end this summer, but with more and more unfinished business on Levin’s plate, it is clear, even by his own measure, that his presidency is not yet done. But in the twilight years of a long — and by all accounts successful — term, why keep adding more ambitious projects to the agenda?
A DIVIDED PRESIDENCY
By 2005, when the University began preparing for the launch of Yale Tomorrow, Levin had already crossed off a long list of accomplishments.
Levin hired Inge Reichenbach as vice president of development in April of that year, and she recalled that he told her, “My first years were dedicated to putting out fires and [improving] the infrastructure of Yale. With this campaign I want to implement the dreams I have had for this university: my academic and institutional goals.”
Reichenbach said Yale Tomorrow was intended to raise the money to make Levin’s goals for the University a reality, and the campaign focuses on his top priorities: Yale College, the arts, the sciences and international efforts.
Though Yale Tomorrow began relatively late in Levin’s term, he said in an interview last week that its guiding aims were part of his original plan for Yale when he took office in 1993.
To Levin, the large expansions of recent years are not radical additions to Yale’s agenda — for the most part, he calls them “logical extensions” of interests he had from the start. When he delivered his inaugural address, he listed being a “world university” and supporting the sciences among the objectives he would pursue.
But before Levin could address those goals, he had to tackle other issues: repairing relations with the city of New Haven and rebuilding Yale’s campus.
Looking back on his tenure as president, Levin said he divides his work into roughly three phases, with each building on previous work. When he first took office, Levin said, he immediately set to work on repairing the University’s relationship with New Haven and preparing to renovate roughly two-thirds of Yale’s campus. In a second phase, beginning around the turn of millennium, Levin said he began to focus on the sciences and international outreach efforts. Only recently did Yale enter a third phase, defined by “the idea of expansion,” which began with the decision to build two additional residential colleges, Levin said.
‘LONG TERM AND STRATEGIC’
Despite these phase divisions, Levin says even his most recent initiatives — such as Yale-NUS College and the West Campus — have been natural continuations of the work that filled his early years as president.
When he took office, Levin faced a campus on the brink of a crisis. Relations between the University and New Haven had reached a low point, marked by the 1991 murder of Christian Prince ’93 on Hillhouse Avenue. Decades of neglect and “deferred maintenance” had allowed the campus to degenerate. Relationships between administrators and faculty had soured over a plan to cut the size of the faculty by 10 percent to bridge a deficit and rebuild the physical plant.
Still, Levin said he consciously attempted to address these problems in a way that would set the University up for future growth.
“I wouldn’t think of our New Haven strategy or rebuilding plans as putting out fires,” he said. “The thinking behind them was long-term and strategic, not dealing with a crisis.”
Levin may have begun by focusing on town-gown relationships, but he says now that improving ties with the city laid the foundation for all the work that followed.
“It sort of enabled everything,” Levin said in an interview last week. “[We reversed] Yale’s declining reputation due to New Haven’s decline at the time, and [our improved relationship] enabled expansion without argument.”
In a panel discussion earlier this year that included both Levin and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., Levin said the improved relationship resulted from “enlightened self-interest.” By assuring city leaders that the University’s growth was in New Haven’s best interests, Levin said last week that administrators enabled expansion that would happen years later. For example, Yale’s construction of two new residential colleges and a new campus for the School of Management both require approval from the city.
Other current initiatives also have their roots in early priorities. Levin said the purchase of West Campus furthers Yale’s 2000 pledge to invest over $1 billion in the sciences, and Yale-NUS College develops Yale’s internationalization efforts, which began with a 1996 decision to increase the percentage of international students on campus. Although they were both announced in the past five years, these two initiatives are “logical extensions” of the goals he announced in “phase two,” Levin said.
Even the idea of adding two residential colleges originates in a 1972 plan to construct two new colleges between Temple Street and Whitney Avenue, Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 said.
Smith, Yale Corporation Senior Fellow Roland Betts ’68 and two higher education experts interviewed all said that Levin’s consistent and clear set of objectives has been key to his success. Each of Levin’s successes has laid the groundwork for the next major initiative, said former Provost Andrew Hamilton, who now serves as vice-chancellor of Oxford University.
“There’s actually a pattern that every three or four years a very major issue of strategic importance for the University is tackled,” Hamilton said in a Wednesday phone interview. “Every single one of them has been very effectively advanced for the University such that three or four years on, a new major project can be taken on.”
Throughout most of Levin’s tenure as president, strong investment returns have enabled seemingly boundless growth, Betts said.
“The agenda of the Corporation correlates very highly with the performance of the endowment. When the endowment was growing by leaps and bounds, anything we wanted to do was possible,” Betts said. “You layer on the capital campaign and the limitation on the [Corporation] was our imagination.”
When the University first began its process of renovating Yale facilities early in Levin’s term, the budget for capital projects was $150 million a year, Levin said. By the time the endowment hit its peak in 2007, that fund had quadrupled.
But in the last three years, as the economy has plunged, the falling endowment has forced Levin to table his goals for the University. Smith said the recession hit Yale hard in part because Levin’s ambitions were so grand in scope — perhaps too grand.
“I think Yale overextended a lot of its efforts to do things which collided with the collapse of the American economy and the decline of the Yale endowment,” he said. “Until the U.S. economy really ran off the road everything looked terrific — maybe too positive, too optimistic — but who predicted how bad it would be?”
The exception, Levin said, is Yale-NUS College, which has full financial support from the Singaporean government. Since Yale did not have to commit funds to the project, the University was able to sign on even during a period of cuts, he said.
Levin’s plans for physical plant construction, in particular, have been put on hold in many cases. The recession paused construction of the new residential colleges, much-needed facilities on Science Hill and a building for the Yale School of Drama. The opening of the colleges has been delayed to 2015 at the earliest, and Levin said he hopes at the very least to see them begun before he leaves his post.
With the value of the endowment on the rise and the close of Yale Tomorrow bringing a surge in funds, Levin and the Yale Corporation will again have the resources to pursue objectives — like the School of Management campus — that were placed on hold, said Kim Cameron GRD ’78, a professor of management and education at the University of Michigan.
“The capital campaign [funds] give him resources to do new things,” Cameron said. “The reason a capital campaign works is because you have a vision about things you’d never be able to do without these donations.”
With the University back on the path toward financial prosperity, administrators have an opportunity to put long-term plans back on the track. With many ideas left unfulfilled, how long will Levin stay to see them through?
Those close to Levin say they do not know how long he plans to stay, and Levin says he has not decided when the right time to leave will be. For now, however, Levin says the University has a “pretty clear agenda of unfinished business.”
When asked last week how long he planned to stay at Yale, Levin declined to put a timetable on his departure.
“Who knows? There’s plenty to keep me busy for the next few years that I’m already committed to,” Levin said. “The time is certainly right if you run out of new ideas and new initiatives.”
The ability to keep an innovative vision for that long of a time sets Levin apart from the vast majority of American university presidents, Cameron said. In many cases, presidents retire after completing a small set of objectives or step down when they are unable to come up with new directions for their schools, he said, adding that Levin has fit neither pattern.
“The environment passes [many university presidents] by and the new environment doesn’t suit [their] strengths,” Cameron said. “President Levin has broken the mold in that sense — Yale has remained vibrant and innovative.”
More than anything else, experts said this aspect of Levin’s presidential approach explains his decision to expand in his final years on the job. Having established the foundation, he will continue to build on it, they said.
Levin’s decision to retire is likely a personal one at this point, Cameron said, and not about the University. Apart from the potential job in the Obama administration, Levin’s reputation has probably already given him several opportunities to take other jobs, he added.
Betts said he thinks very few job opportunities would outweigh the sense of responsibility Levin feels to Yale. No other university would interest him, nor would a corporate position, Betts added.
“When you are in [Levin’s] position, there are really not a lot of [appealing] options,” he said. “I think if something were to get to him, it would be government.”
But as long as Levin remains president, Betts said, he will continue to focus on the University’s future, adding that Levin would not be comfortable as a “caretaker” for the status quo.
With nearly 18 years on the job, Levin is now the longest-serving Ivy League president in either the 20th or 21st centuries. (Arthur Twining Hadley, appointed in 1899, served for 22 years.) As a long-term president, Levin’s new initiatives come from a refined sense of what fits the University’s extended interests, said Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute.
“If you have this extraordinary president, he is not worrying about building his legacy — he is worrying about what is in the long-term best interest of the university,” Ehrenberg said. “Extraordinary presidents keep focusing on the long-run interests of the university, almost up to the date they leave.”
But even as he continues to introduce new ideas, Levin said that unfinished business would not necessarily lock him into staying at Yale.
“No matter what time I would leave the job, there would inevitably be unfinished projects,” he said. “There’s always a long list of things to do.”