When University President Richard Levin steps down at the end of this year, he will leave a Yale far stronger than it was at his inauguration 19 years ago. His understated but brilliant leadership has left a positive impact on everything from Yale’s finances to its place in New Haven, to its international outlook. The News and others have sharply criticized Levin in recent years, notably in regard to Yale’s venture into Singapore. But we should remember Levin for all his accomplishments at Yale’s helm, and those will rank him among the University’s greatest leaders.
Levin assumed the presidency as a wonkish professor of economics many knew little about. He has not strayed from that approach since he took office: He has very quietly dreamed very big — and followed through.
Yale has transformed from a nationally prominent institution to a leader in the globalization of higher education with a reputation as one of the world’s best universities. West Campus, the new School of Management campus and the 12 renovated residential colleges are evidence of a physical renaissance. Levin has pushed for the improvement of Yale’s science departments, dramatically increased financial aid, replaced student loans with student grants for undergraduates and resolved the labor disputes that once crippled campus. The endowment has grown from $3.2 billion to more than $19 billion under his watch.
Many students are unaware of Levin’s profound impact on Yale. It doesn’t help that the president engages directly with students only rarely. Undergraduate institutional memory is short, and it is easy to forget that Levin assumed the presidency only two years after town-gown relations hit their low point with the murder of Christian Prince ’93 on Hillhouse Avenue.
For all Yale’s progress under Levin, some questions remain. The University’s commitment to free speech has been inconsistent in recent years. As Yale-NUS prepares to open, it remains unclear whether issues surrounding freedoms of speech and association in Singapore will outweigh the good the new college will do for Yale’s footprint abroad and liberal arts education in Asia.
In a speech several years ago, Levin called Charles Eliot, who led Harvard from 1869 to 1909, the greatest university president ever. In Levin’s telling, Eliot transformed Harvard from a college into a modern university — and Levin’s record reflects similar ambitions. The Yale he leaves behind is a global leader that has adapted expertly to the changing landscape of the digital age. Eliot reduced Harvard’s curricular requirements and broadened the school’s regional reach; Levin looked to China, Singapore and the Internet. Like Eliot, Levin has worked to make his university universal.
Levin’s memory is built into Yale’s landscape. He leaves an imprint on our campus, Yale’s global reputation and its future that we should not forget when he leaves Woodbridge Hall. Students will live in Levin’s Yale for many years to come.