When University President Richard Levin steps down in June, he will leave behind a transformed relationship between Yale and New Haven.
Levin assumed the presidency in 1993 in the midst of what many alumni, administrators, city officials and local residents consider to be the lowest point for the University’s relationship with its home city. Between 1970 and the early 1990s, Yale neglected its surrounding home, and decades of disconnect left students wary of venturing beyond campus and New Haven residents distrustful of an expansive neighbor. But Levin’s inauguration marked a change in Yale’s attitude toward New Haven at the highest level — he made engaging New Haven an institutional priority, leading to numerous educational, economic development and outreach efforts over the past 19 years.
“It was a conscious effort by the Yale Corporation to choose Rick and grow a collaborative relationship between Yale and the city,” said Mayor John DeStefano Jr. “If you look at his policies one at a time, you are missing the arc of the accomplishments — Rick’s leadership and collaboration redefined healthy university growth and engagement in a host community.”
At the level of University governance, Levin institutionalized the importance of building a strong relationship with the city early in his tenure by establishing the Office of New Haven and State Affairs (ONHSA) in 1996. The office, a liaison between Yale and the city, is charged with “supporting public school and youth programs, revitalizing neighborhoods, creating a vital downtown and fostering economic development,” according to its website. A vice president position was created to oversee the office, and in 1998, former real estate developer Bruce Alexander ’65 was appointed to the post.
Alexander said the creation of the vice president role marked a pivotal change in town-gown relations, since being a part of Levin’s “cabinet” meant that “whenever a major decision on behalf of the University was made, there was input from the community.”
“Rick and I tried to get Yale out of the quid-pro-quo relationship with the city. We tried to develop a partnership,” Alexander said. “I spent a lot of time listening to members of the community, and because I knew what Rick and the trustees were doing, I could speak credibly on behalf of the University.”
This partnership between the University and the city resulted in an array of outreach and community development initiatives, many of which target New Haven public schools, said Claudia Merson, the director of public school partnerships for ONHSA. Prior to Levin’s tenure, she said, strained relations between city school officials and Yale administrators inhibited collaboration on youth learning projects.
“I went into the job in 1995 and was astounded that people were very mistrustful — it was clear that there was not really a good and amicable relationship between the University and the town,” Merson said. “In the earlier days there was obviously a lot of residue from an earlier time.”
But over the years, ONHSA established many youth programs and partnerships with public schools in the Elm City, Merson said. In 1997, Yale partnered with the Hill Regional Career High School and enriched the school’s programs through several initiatives such as allowing the schools anatomy and physiology class to perform dissections alongside second year medical students twice a week. During the summer, Yale operates a residential summer science program to expose public school students to fields in science and technology, and the University’s partnership with the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School on College Street gives students the opportunity to write and produce a play with the help of professional playwrights.
Throughout Levin’s tenure, Merson said the new youth programs have impacted “thousands upon thousands of students.” This past summer alone, more than 750 children participated in programs organized by Yale.
“If you look at the last 20 years, an enormous amount has been accomplished,” she added.
Yale’s education outreach efforts under Levin culminated in 2011 with the unveiling of New Haven Promise — a Yale-funded program that awards college tuition scholarships to high-achieving public high school students who matriculate to in-state universities.
DeStefano lauded Levin’s “investments in human capital,” citing Promise as well as his efforts to improve relations with Yale’s labor unions. Despite strikes in 1996, 2002 and 2003, Levin managed to end a history of bitter confrontations with the unions, Locals 34 and 35 of the international union UNITE HERE. Last June, Yale administrators and union leaders announced they had agreed on new four-year contracts after a year of negotiation. Those contracts included the establishment of a jobs pipeline program allowing New Haven residents’ to more easily attain entry-level positions at Yale.
REAL ESTATE INVESTMENT
Aside from a renewed focus on New Haven education and jobs programs, Levin has worked to funnel millions of dollars into city real estate investment. Under the ONHSA, he founded University Properties (UP) — an office that manages Yale’s portfolio of residential and commercial real estate holdings. The University held several properties along Broadway as far back as the 1930s, and Yale acquired a large bloc of real estate on Chapel Street from the FDIC at the request of the City in 2001.
Since the founding of UP, Yale has spent millions of dollars acquiring properties while renovating existing spaces to attract new, “high quality” tenants, UP Director Abigail Rider said. Having amassed a network of over 100 retail tenants and 500 residential holdings, UP now owns nearly the entire Broadway shopping district as well as parts of Chapel Street and pays over $4 million in annual property taxes. The university has been able to leverage its real estate and financial weight to attract national tenants including Apple and J. Crew.
“Our downtown retail environment is alive because of Yale investing in New Haven,” said Claire Criscuolo, owner of Claire’s Corner Copia on Chapel Street. “I only hope that whomever fills the position of president will love and care for this city the way President Levin did.”
One of Levin’s first initiatives as president was the Yale Homebuyer Program, established in 1994, through which University employees are given an income benefit if they purchase a home in the Elm City. The program notched its 1,000th participant last December.
BUMPS IN THE ROAD
While Levin’s reign as president has rebuilt a strained town-gown relationship, the path to improvement has not been without rough patches. Tensions grew strained in 2007 when Yale announced it would build a new science campus, now known as West Campus, in West Haven rather than in New Haven. Discontent among Yale’s service employees occasionally flares up — just last year, dining hall workers went on strike in opposition to altered dining hours. And UP’s downtown retail development efforts have elicited criticism for driving up rents and forcing local stores out of business.
Still, DeStefano and Alexander both said the city and the University have weathered tensions during Levin’s tenure by bearing in mind that the partnership is more important than any single issue of contention.
“You’ve got to learn to see things from each other’s self-interest, and if you don’t have complementary interests you just try to find a place that’s palatable for both,” DeStefano said. “Over time, our partnership has become defined by being open and absolutely transparent and never letting disagreement interrupt that, which I think has become easier since we’ve worked together for a while.”
In an interview with the News, Levin said he “hope[s] the commitments [Yale has] made to New Haven are irreversible” regardless of whether his successor makes the University’s relationship with the city a priority.
Alexander said he believes the University’s dedication to the positive relations with the city is here to stay.
“There has been such tremendous progress made in terms of our relationship with the city and in terms of improvement in the city,” Alexander said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the University finds great value in this new set of relationships.”