When Richard Levin assumed the office of University president in 1993, Yale had seen three presidents in three years.
In the 20 years since, Yale’s administration has stabilized — with Levin selecting nearly every top official. All 14 deans of Yale’s schools are Levin appointees, and Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson is the only remaining officer who preceded his era. The Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, has inevitably changed its entire membership under Levin because of term limitations.
Just as Levin has shaped the Yale administration, he has also helped shape the leadership of other universities. Over the course of his tenure, eight Yale administrators have left the University to serve as presidents of nine other institutions — Cambridge, Carnegie Mellon, Colgate, Duke, MIT, Oxford, Swarthmore, U-Penn, and Wellesley.
By all accounts, Levin’s presidency has been one of stability. But that stability may have come at a price, as experts say the top administrators who anchored the Levin presidency may very well depart with him.
The average tenure of Yale’s officer corps — the president, provost and vice presidents at the top of the administration — is 13 years, excluding two new appointments this year. By the same standard, the average tenure of an officer at Harvard is five years and at Princeton seven.
Recruited, trained and largely unified around a single president, will the Levin brain trust survive his departure in June? And if the University’s top administrators leave, how will Levin’s successor — the one administrator he can’t recruit — find their replacements?
AN UNSTABLE BEGINNING
On May 25, 1992, then-University President Benno Schmidt ’63 LAW ’66 sat down with the Yale Corporation for Commencement breakfast. To the Yale community’s shock, the University would lack a president by the meal’s end.
In many ways it seemed like another in a long line of crises. In the early 1990s, Yale found itself in a state of disrepair — the University was running a $12 million deficit, allowing buildings to deteriorate and considering significant cuts to the faculty.
Ian Shapiro GRD ’83 LAW ’87, Sterling professor of political science and director of the MacMillan Center, recalled the expansive list of problems Yale faced when Levin took office.
“When I came here in 1978 the buildings were falling down — the result of decades of deferred maintenance. The University was broke; it had one of the worst-performing endowments in higher education. The faculty and educational programs were in desperate need of renewal. Relations with the alumni were poor, and those with the unions and the city were worse. Strikes and confrontation were routine. People were dispirited and fatalistic,” Shapiro wrote in an email to the News. “Benno Schmidt understood many of the challenges, but he lacked the institutional imagination and support of the faculty that are essential for leading Yale. Rick Levin had both.”
Former Yale College Dean and current Duke President Richard Brodhead ’68 GRD ’72 said the original members of the Levin administration emerged from the instability of the early 1990s.
In February 1991, Schmidt and then-Provost Frank Turner tasked 12 faculty members with serving on a restructuring committee to reduce the size of the Yale faculty. In doing so, Brodhead said, those professors made the transition from academia to university administration.
“If you go back to the period, it’s about 1990-’91, it was in one of the many recessions of that time. The Yale administration became convinced that it needed to reduce the size of the faculty, and the number that was first proposed was by 15 percent,” Brodhead said. “Under any circumstances that would be regarded as extraordinarily drastic.”
At the time of appointment, the Committee on Restructuring the Faculty of Arts and Sciences included Levin, chair of the Economics Department; Brodhead, chair of the English Department; Judith Rodin, chair of the Psychology Department; and Alison Richard, professor of anthropology and director of the Peabody Museum.
By 1994, Levin would be University president, Brodhead would be Yale College dean, and Rodin and Richard would have both served as Yale provost.
“The whole administration came off of that committee and the education it supplied,” Brodhead said. “A whole cohort of people who would have never foreseen themselves as administrators found, in a sense, the positive power of administration.”
All four would go onto lead other universities — Brodhead at Duke, Rodin at the University of Pennsylvania, and Richard at the University of Cambridge. Levin would stay at Yale, building his own administration.
AN INEVITABLE RECRUITMENT
As remnants of the Schmidt, Lamar and early Levin administrations left the University, Levin began to recruit successors. Today, he is considered one of the most adept university presidents at identifying administrative talent, said Lawrence Bacow, Tufts University president from 2001-’11 and current president-in-residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“I have to believe [Levin is] someone who’s got a good nose for identifying the right people, the people who have ability, and in part because he’s served in his position long enough, he’s had a lot of experience doing that,” Bacow said.
Four former Yale administrators and current university heads interviewed for this article — Brodhead, Colgate and later-Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp, Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon and Oxford Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton — all said Levin is considered a highly skilled recruiter.
Cohon said that since search committees often take care of finding the individual, the chief task of the president is usually to “sell the candidate on the job” by explaining the university’s vision for a school, office or department.
Those whom Levin appointed recalled that the president explained his goals for Yale in a way that made it hard to decline the offer.
“I would say he has a reputation for being very persuasive and being someone to whom it’s difficult to say no,” Provost Peter Salovey said. “In my case, he didn’t have to talk me into it, but at the same time, I don’t think it really occurred to me that I was going to say no to him.”
Salovey said Levin called him into his office in December 2002, just before winter break, and offered him the role of dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. At that time, Salovey was the chair of the Psychology Department and was serving on the influential Committee on Yale College Education.
When Levin made the offer, Salovey asked to use the winter break to consider whether or not to take the position, but the president refused to wait.
“He said, ‘Peter, it’s 10 a.m. Why don’t you go home, have lunch with Marta [Salovey’s wife], and come back after lunch and give me an answer?’” Salovey recalled.
He took the job.
A year later, Levin would appoint Hamilton to the position of University provost. Hamilton also recalled a strong sell, saying that Levin “made it an inevitability” that he would accept the offer.
“That’s part of the secret,” Hamilton said. “You ask about the influence he has, with his track record with academic leaders, and that is because he engages you very much at the highest level of the future of the University.”
Levin also recruited administrators from outside the University, several times using Yale ties to recruit business leaders considering retirement. In 2004, Levin appointed former Proctor & Gamble CEO and former Yale Corporation Senior Fellow John Pepper ’60 to help improve labor relations as Yale’s vice president of finance and administration — a position with historically quick turnover.
“Here you had a guy who was the head of one of the world’s 50 largest companies, the number one trustee of Yale, and then he’s going to retire from Proctor and Gamble,” University Vice President Linda Lorimer said. “This person had probably not held the title of vice president for 15 years.”
Pepper said he never would have taken the job if not for his regard for Levin, whose “contagious enthusiasm” for Yale made the decision “quite easy.”
Several years prior, Levin recruited Bruce Alexander, a former senior vice president of commercial real estate developer Rouse Company, straight from retirement to serve as Yale’s first vice president and director of New Haven and state affairs. Alexander said in a Wednesday email that he has remained at Yale longer than he originally planned, and will “certainly do whatever [he] can” to help Yale’s next president sustain a close relationship with the New Haven community.
Like many others, Swarthmore’s Chopp said Levin made a compelling pitch when recruiting her as dean of the Yale Divinity School, explaining his hopes for the school and how he thought she would help accomplish those goals.
“I’ve become a big believer in the president taking a proactive stance in recruiting people in the top positions,” Chopp said. “Rick was a big influence on me in that way; I think that had a big impact on me.”
THE LEVIN ‘ACADEMY’
While Levin was an intense, personal negotiator when recruiting, he took a step back once administrators joined his team, those around him said.
Hamilton described Levin’s approach with his colleagues — what he called “the Levin academy” — as one of close collaboration that “drilled down quite deeply to the core issues” but left autonomy to administrators.
“I’d say that President Levin is absolutely not a micromanager — that he gives the people within his senior team considerable authority to take responsibility in their areas, to determine strategic direction, to make decisions where they are needed,” Hamilton said.
Howard Gardner, an expert in leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said successful presidents are generally skilled at “being involved without trying to mastermind.” While Gardner said he is not familiar with Levin’s specific style of management, he said the president’s reputation as a mentor made these qualities seem likely.
“Sure, Rick’s an excellent president, but he’s also an excellent colleague,” Brodhead said. “He’s a strong leader of the institution, but he also knows how to leave people their own space and how to support their good ideas.”
Levin also made sure to offer support when administrators decided to leave the University, several formal Yale officials said.
Judith McLaughlin, who chairs the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents and has worked with over 1,000 college and university presidents, said presidents must be careful not to prevent talented administrators from leaving.
“Every year I say this to a new president: for those who feel like they are inheriting staff that are wonderful, there’s good news and bad news,” McLaughlin said. “The good news is you’ve got wonderful people to start out with, but the bad news is those wonderful people will leave and go on to other jobs — as they should.”
A CHANGING OF THE GUARD?
As Sterling Professor of the Humanities Harold Bloom told the News in January 2011, he and president Levin had an agreement: Bloom would keep teaching until Levin retired.
Reached by email Tuesday, Bloom says he currently plans to continue teaching despite Levin’s resignation. Still, the tongue-in-cheek deal might be indicative of a larger trend at the University — after Levin’s announcement to retire, some of Yale’s top administrators have said they are re-evaluating their own career plans.
“It’s oftentimes [that] senior leaders beside the president, once the president steps aside, see that as an opportunity for them to move,” said Joseph Zolner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who specializes in management development. “They might be thinking, ‘This might be a time for me to look to another position.’”
Given Levin’s influence across the administration, will Yale see change beyond the President’s Office once he is no longer there to hold it together?
University Vice President Linda Lorimer, who also served as University secretary from 1993-2012, said she will consider her future at Yale in the upcoming year.
“It will depend on two things: one, what the new president wants, and two, what I decide I want to do, when I have the chance to catch my breath and think about the next part of my professional career,” she said. “I’ve worked for four presidents at Yale, with four different titles, and very different roles. So I hope to catch my breath sometime this year and think about what I might want to do.”
Robinson, the only officer from before Levin’s time, said she has remained at Yale largely because she enjoys working with Levin, extending a tenure as Yale’s general counsel stretching back to 1986. Asked if she is re-evaluating her own career at the University, Robinson said it is normal to re-evaluate at certain times.
“Everyone considers these things from time to time. I’ve hugely enjoyed my time here — it’s been professionally very rewarding, it’s been a terrific opportunity, and I’m very happy here,” Robinson said. “I think that regardless of this particular event, there are always times when one considers one’s path, and I’m not immune to that.”
RECRUITING THE NEXT RECRUITER
Regardless of which administrators may need replacements in the coming months, the most important appointment Yale will see in the next year will be its president. And for all his influence across the University, the one person Levin can not appoint is his successor.
The Yale Corporation appoints all presidents, and one week after Levin announced his plans to step down at the end of the academic year, Corporation Senior Fellow Edward Bass ’67 appointed a 12-person presidential search committee. Those involved with the search have given few details so far on what traits they will look for in a successor.
Harvard’s Gardner said he thinks Levin’s successor will likely be someone with similar qualities as the president.
“If the community is well-satisfied with the president, it tends to be conservative and to choose someone who will carry on his predecessor’s legacy,” Gardener said. “If I had to make a prediction, I would predict that Yale will pick someone who is much like President Levin was 20 years ago — and hope that history repeats itself.”
Paul Portney, a professor at the University of Arizona who has written on leadership in higher education, said Yale might be more inclined to look outside the University for a successor after nearly 20 years under an internal appointee.
“Because the president is someone who for the last 19 years was somebody who had been a Yale faculty member and chairman of the Economics Department before, because they have had an insider for so long, that might make them a little more willing than other universities might be to look on the outside,” Portney said.
If the Corporation wants both an administrator similar to Levin and an outside perspective, there are at least eight clear candidates: the administrators who left Yale under Levin to head other universities. One of those presidents, CMU’s Cohon, said it would be surprising if the Corporation did not reach out to the eight as part of a global search.
If the Corporation tries to find an internal candidate, it may look to Yale’s most influential academic committees, which identified top administrators of the last two decades.
Nine years after the restructuring committee gave its report in 1992, the University organized the Committee on Yale College Education, which Brodhead said was partially created to train the next generation of leaders within Yale.
“One of the things Rick and I both had in mind was, ‘Maybe we could create a peacetime committee, a non-crisis committee that would give the same kind of education to rising people that we had had on the restructuring committee,’” said Brodhead, who served as chair of the CYCE.
Much like 1992’s restructuring committee, 2001’s CYCE helped identify many successful administrators within the Yale administration — including Brodhead, Hamilton, Salovey, current Wellesley College President Kim Bottomly, Yale-NUS Dean of Faculty Charles Bailyn, and Morse Master and 2012-’13 presidential search committee member Amy Hungerford.
In July 2012, Salovey accepted a recommendation that Yale hold an academic review every 10 years through an appointed committee. By institutionalizing the use of what Brodhead termed “peacetime” committees at least once a decade, the University may have created an avenue to identifying future leaders — or even university presidents.
In the immediate future, the Yale Corporation may look for a successor president with characteristics and experiences similar to Levin’s. But many of the challenges he originally faced have faded since the early 1990s.
Penelope Laurans, Jonathan Edwards College master and special adviser to the president, recalled the expansive list of changes over his 20-year administration.
“When President Levin was appointed, Yale was in great need of stability and long-term leadership. It has received it from him, in spades. He has helped to physically restore the University, transform its relationship to New Haven, hire superb deans and directors to lead its schools, galleries and programs, enlarge its programs and its core faculty, preserve and expand undergraduate financial aid, develop a new partnership with labor, and create a far less parochial University, one which welcomes a more international community to New Haven and generously sends many more of its students abroad,” Laurans wrote in an email. “History will see him as one of Yale’s great presidents.”