VAZQUEZ: For Yale, but not of it

When President Rick Levin began his term at Yale in 1993, close to half of the undergraduate student body had yet to be born and Yale was quite a different place. As I’ve heard from alumni of the 1980s and 1990s, our facilities and dormitories were in absolute disrepair and New Haven was an awful place to live.

In less than two decades, his administration has spearheaded several significant transformations. All the residential colleges have been renovated and two new ones are in the process of being built. Yale transitioned from a place purely dedicated to the liberal arts to a research university in which STEM majors occupy an equally important place in the intellectual community.

Yale’s place among the world’s universities became ever more prominent. We are no longer just an important American university in Connecticut, but rather a player on the global stage. Yalies began to study abroad at an unprecedented rate; programs were no longer limited to learning Italian in Siena but included such far-flung ventures as astronomy research programs at observatories in Chile. Closer to home, Yale’s transition from a northeastern bastion of liberal arts education toward an institution that attracts students from countries as varied as Mauritius and Argentina has been an amazing accomplishment. Not only that, but international students can also get financial aid, allowing for those students from abroad not all to be from the most privileged backgrounds.

In New Haven, Levin has improved a town-gown relationship that was in shambles in the wake of peaking crime rates and the urban decay of the early 1990s. These efforts have been struck through partnerships with private developers and University Properties that have helped revitalize and make the town-gown relationship not simply a one-way street but a true collaboration.

We should applaud these accomplishments. They have gone a long way toward making Yale the community where we’ve learned and made some of our best friends.

But some of these changes have come at the cost of making Yale an increasingly top-down institution with an impersonal bureaucracy. This is something I’ve become more conscious of after speaking to alumni who attended Yale in the Giamatti and Brewster years, when the administration was less corporate. I heard from many alumni that previous University presidents were always visible leaders, visiting the college dining halls and interacting with the student body on a regular basis — something entirely unlike the Levin style of administration and interaction with the student body.

Much of this can be a result of the fact that Levin was not a Yale undergraduate. His perspective of the Yale experience is that of a graduate student, perhaps explaining why much of the residential college system has lost much of its autonomy: He wasn’t a product of it.

He didn’t have the Yale experience of watching the hockey team play at the Whale or tailgating the Game as undergraduates do. Many of the complaints from alumni come in the form of a lack of understanding as to how important these programs are to the undergraduate experience.

At times, the policies pushed by the administration annoyed students. On many occasions, I remember talking to a group of friends with absolutely no interest in China, and our disdain for the constant bombardment of East Asian languages that began during our freshman year continues to be a sore subject. Other policies — like the new Yale-NUS College — many of us strongly disagreed with. This in particular might tarnish Levin’s otherwise spectacular presidency, not only for being a project that students are not too keen on but also for his lack of regard for the opinions of the faculty.

The next president of our University must lead in a manner that balances the ability to lead an operation as massive and corporate as modern Yale with the intimacy warranted of a small liberal arts college.


  • ProfessorSullivan

    I was one of Rick Levin’s students in the 1980s. He was one of the most effective and memorable professors I had as a student at Yale.

    He has done great things for Yale over the years.

    I remember the times of Bart Giamatti and the parties in front of his house — and how he used to greet the students on his daily walks. President Giamatti was also an excellent president of Yale.

    President Levin has turned the place around in many ways. He has been a superb President of Yale. Yalies should be thankful to have had him.

    Everyone has a different management style. Leaders sometimes have to make difficult strategic decisions. That is the nature of leadership.

    The bottom line is Yale has improved itself over the Levin years. That will be a major part of his legacy.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Mr. Levin is a good president, and amazingly accessible. He is Yale’s first digital CEO. And CEO he is, not CIO (Chief Intellectual Officer).

    Yale’s greatest President was A. Whitney Griswold, who, in a sweep of the pen, ABOLISHED Yale’s Graduate Department of Education, saying “It is not necessary to teach teachers how to teach.”

    This was leadership.

    No one listened.

    Education has been ceded to the left brain wonks (Bill and Melinda Gradgrind) who see teaching NOT as an intuitive art (as Griswold evidently did) but as a mechanical, quantifiable, science: Do X, Y, and Z to students and you will produce Q which can be captured on a bubble sheet, entered into a computer, and analyzed endlessly to make the adults using the bubble sheets feel important.


    Paul D. Keane

    M. Div’80

    M.A., M.Ed.

  • neplusultra

    can you explain what this means:
    “On many occasions, I remember talking to a group of friends with absolutely no interest in China, and our disdain for the constant bombardment of East Asian languages that began during our freshman year continues to be a sore subject.”

    • BR2013

      I think the point being made here is that undergraduates at Yale with interets in studying abroad are constantly being told to study in Asia even if they are not interested in the region. Nearly every speech that Levin gave before a large audience of undergraduates involved mentioning China in some way and the opportunities that Yale provides there, this is usually followed by excessive eye-rolling on the part of Art History and Classics majors.

      • PaulKeenesCampaignManager

        Hm, I don’t think so. I’ve spoken extensively with the author of this piece and I’m pretty sure that he thinks that Levin doesn’t talk ENOUGH about Asia.

  • gradstudent16

    It’s wild that Vazquez thinks the basic problem with Levin is that he thinks too much like a grad student. There’s no community on campus less pleased with the corporate university he’s built, I’d wager, than the graduate students.

    • BR2013

      I think that the graduate student part was thrown in to reflect on his lack of understanding for the college system rather than the fact that he has been looking out for graduate students. In fact his structure has made it worse for graduate students to really interact across disciplines and with undergrads.

      • PaulKeenesCampaignManager

        I think you may have misread. What I think Mr. Vazquez is trying to say is that Levin understands the residential college system better than any previous president. He was so approachable and relatable precisely because of his graduate student experience!

  • ldffly

    This was a good article, but I think you might have been too generous in your understanding of Levin’s dealings with the College. Levin might have reflected outright disdain rather than lack of sympathy born of never having been a Yale College student. Once I entered the graduate school, I started hearing not a few faculty express envy at systems like Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago, places that valued research and lack of contact with undergraduates. Some compared their plight at Yale to being a saleslady at Macy’s. Yes, some felt demeaned in having to interact with college students term after term. Could Levin have walked into Woodbridge Hall with the same understanding?

    I never had much sympathy with this view and thankfully neither did the Brewster or Giamatti administrations. The USA can only sustain so many graduate school/research centered institutions. You can’t have good graduate and professional students without top notch colleges. Because of the uniqueness of the living and learning situation, Yale College has always been a source of top graduate and professional school students. I hope the next President is not one who believes in smothering college education.

  • ldffly

    I think a number of us have been upset about the growing level of detritus both in the college curriculum and in college life over the last 20 years. We can all argue about which courses are gut courses, which programs are ideologically motivated programs of study, and so forth. However, that this has been going on is almost universally acknowledged. Let’s not forget the growing intrusion of petty bureaucrats into business that ought to be that of the college students themselves and their organizations. Need I cite examples?

    This is indeed the sign of a President who has his mind on something besides college life, besides the task of building intellectual prowess and character. I can tell you directly that on occasion, the faculty of Yale can think up bad ideas. At least in the early Giamatti years, Bart Giamatti himself was there to say no. Brewster and Giamatti themselves were there to stifle the bureaucrats and keep their numbers in check. Indeed, back in early ’79 or ’80, Pres. Giamatti fired Mr. Stephens (a financial advisor) who relentlessly advocated raising college enrollment to 6000 and beyond as a means to raise revenue. What are Pres. Levin’s plans?

    My hope is that the trustees hire a man or woman who believes in the College, it’s uniqueness in American education, and its importance for American professional life and culture. That’s not asking too much.

  • The Anti-Yale
  • terryhughes

    “previous University presidents were always visible leaders, visiting the college dining halls and interacting with the student body on a regular basis”

    I was a student at Yale during the early 1970’s, and I do not recall seeing Kingman Brewster in our dining hall (TD) even once in all four years. I liked Brewster, and I continue to have fond memories of him. He seemed a very good person, wasn’t willfully remote, and he did emerge from the President’s house to bless the Bladder Ball each year. But I didn’t think of him as particularly “accessible” (why did I need to access the president?). Nor was he more “‘visible” than Levin… who is pretty darn visible on campus.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Mr. Brewster had to placate the alumni for Yale’s visible anti-war positions from Doonesbury to William Sloane Coffin. He didn’t have much time for dinners at JE, I suspect.