Amid presidential search, students apathetic

Dressed in a blue sweater and khaki pants, University President Richard Levin stood at the door of the President’s House at 43 Hillhouse Ave. last Wednesday, greeting costume-clad undergraduates who entered the residence for his annual Halloween party.

It was clear from his emails that Levin — who announced on Aug. 30 that he will step down at the end of the academic year after serving 20 years as president — wanted students to attend the party. The invitation came shortly after 2 p.m. on Oct. 30. Levin followed with a reminder around 11 a.m. the next day, and a second reminder came five hours later, at 4 p.m.

The emails did their job: Levin and his wife, professor Jane Levin, spent most of the night greeting the constant flow of students who crowded through the door and filled the bottom floor.

Later in the night, many students crowded around the Levins for photographs with the Yale President. Though students mingled over cups of hot apple cider, desserts and Halloween candy and listened to a performance by the Shades a cappella group, the event did not lend itself to personal conversation with Levin and other administrators present.

“Wait, I don’t even know which one was President Levin,” one student said to her friend after she shook hands with Levin and other administrators upon entering the house.

The Levins’ Halloween Party, which the couple has hosted for the past two decades, is the only regular event when the President’s House is open to the entire undergraduate student body.

Most students in attendance have few other opportunities to interact with the University’s top administrator. Students interviewed said they perceive a disconnect between the Yale President and the student body — and, now, in the midst of the first presidential search in over two decades, the majority of students interviewed told the News they do not care about the search process.

A DISTANT PRESENCE

Since its onset, the presidential search has drawn sharp criticism from certain students on campus, including Students Unite Now, which formed soon after Levin announced his retirement and has advocated for increased student input in the search.

But the majority of the student body is apathetic. Of 30 students interviewed, four said they are invested in the search for the new president, and one, who is a SUN member, said he is deeply concerned about a lack of student representation on the Presidential Search Committee. For the remaining 25 students, the search is of little consequence.

Fifty-five percent of respondents to a News survey on the presidential search last weekend said they have some degree of interest in the search, and the remaining 45 percent said they are not interested to varying degrees.

“I don’t care — not at all,” Ike Lee ’15 said when asked if he is invested in the Presidential Search Process. “There are more important things for me to care about.”

The students said a set of key factors contribute to their apathy. The majority of the students interviewed said they do not fully understand the role of the University president in influencing their daily lives — a problem they said their distance from and lack of face-to-face interaction with the president only perpetuates.

Of respondents to the News’ survey, 58 percent have never interacted with Levin, 27 percent have met the president once, and the remainder have met the president twice or more.

Indeed, for many of the costumed students posing for photographs with Levin on Halloween night, the pictures will serve as a reminder of the only time the undergraduates have come into contact with Levin.

Because Levin is not a visible presence in students’ day-to-day lives, those interviewed said they cannot see how the search for a new president will matter.

“I feel like this process doesn’t have that much relevance to me,” Isa Qasim ’15 said. “Presumably, the [new] President would be charting the course of the University for years to come. I’m interested in that, but it’s not relevant to what my next two years will be.”

THE PRESIDENT’S MANY ROLES

But the president’s job description leaves little time for getting to know undergraduates. In a university with more than 11,000 students across its various schools, Levin is unable to meet everyone.

“Yale College has often felt that the President belongs to them,” said Penelope Laurans, Jonathan Edwards College master and special assistant to the President. “But in fact, he’s the president of the entire University. Every dean and director of every professional and graduate school reports to him, and all the students in all those schools are part of the community of which he is the head.”

Students interviewed said they are largely unaffected by lack of direct contact with Levin. Only two students expressed dissatisfaction over the infrequency of student contact with Levin, and others said they would like to see more of the President, but they understand that his job is not to have a hands-on role with undergraduates.

Apurv Suman ’16 was one of several students to say residential college masters and deans have roles that involve creating personal relationships with students, adding that such responsibilities are not required of the president.

“I never expected at any point during my four years here to sit down and get to know President Levin,” Suman said. “I think it’s really unrealistic that one person be responsible for 5,000 undergraduates in any way that’s actually meaningful. Then it’s not feasible for him to do his job well.”

But not all of Yale’s presidents have been as absent as Levin from students’ consciousnesses.

Bobbi Mark ’76, who worked in the Office of Development and served as chair of the Yale Alumni Fund, said she remembers feeling close with Kingman Brewster, who served as University President from 1963 to 1977. After Brewster stepped down and moved to England, Mark said she reached out to him while travelling in London despite having never interacted with the president during his term at Yale. Brewster hosted Mark and a friend in his office at the time.

“I think he was a really beloved figure on campus,” Mark said. “I must have felt some connection to have the chutzpah to say ‘Hi’ in a letter.”

At other Ivy League universities, the connections students feel with their presidents vary from school to school.

An Oct. 24 article published by the Brown Daily Herald described the student fervor surrounding former President Ruth Simmons, and categorized Yale, along with Columbia University, as schools in which there is less of a personality-cult around the campus leader.

Lincoln Mitchell ’15 said he visited a friend at the University of Pennsylvania last weekend, and said he noticed that many students had pictures with Penn President Amy Gutmann.

“Everyone [at Penn] says the president’s really cool,” he said. “There’s a lot of transparency — you see more of the president and she seems more involved. She’s like a master.”

Forty-two percent of respondents to the News’ survey said the next Yale president should be “somewhat more involved” in student life, 17 percent responded “significantly more involved” and 22 percent said they want the President to have the same amount of involvement as Levin. Eighteen percent were not sure of their opinion.

Laurans said interaction with students is an important part of the president’s job, but she added that many other administrative and public responsibilities to the University must take precedence.

Still, Levin said he has many opportunities to interact with students, including dinners at his home with various student groups and receptions for freshmen and seniors.

“It’s one of the great pleasures of the job, the opportunity to interact with students,” Levin said.

Comments

  • Boogs

    Iif you work for a major corporation, as I do, you would find the executives expressing a similar sentiment as Levin in this article about his time and his role. It is just further proof that he sees Yale through the lens of a business than a community of scholars and students. We will all look back on this era in a generations as Yale’s “soulless” years. The seeds of so many fiascos have been sown by Levin and his ilk these last dew years.

    • ldffly

      I’ll second Boogs’s comment.

      • anon82

        Levin and the Yale Corporation have accepted money from military dictators, so its not hard to imagine them being more generally sketchy. At the same time, universities, like other non-profit organizations, need to manage their revenue streams and budgets. It would be very nice to have a president who does not share Levin’s overt disregard of human rights and political freedom. At the same time I wouldn’t want some flaky humanities professor running the place.

        • ldffly

          I will beat you in arguing for financial responsibility. Absolutely. However, Levin’s success in increasing endowment and income hasn’t always gone hand in hand with responsible spending and standards in managing the academic side of things. Check the quantity of administrators and compare with Brewster and Giamatti. (I was a student under the two of them.) I also am not happy with some of the new academic programs that have been initiated under Levin. I can tell you that particularly under Giamatti, these programs wouldn’t have been floated. In those days, the administration had the easy excuse of “We can’t afford it,” but behind the scenes, he argued against a number of matters on other principles.

          “At the same time I wouldn’t want some flaky humanities professor running the place.”

          Have deconstruction and postmodernism corrupted Yale humanities to that extent? Or what’s the specific problem? In spite of being an English professor, Giamatti did a pretty good job. For what it’s worth, I would have trusted any of the senior members of the philosophy department.

          • ldffly

            I forgot to mention that Levin has not been kind to the colleges. Again, in spite of the extra income. It’s a matter of bad priorities.

          • anon82

            at almost all universities, there is at least a relative shortage of economics and other social science faculty in terms of meeting student demand for the subject, compared to humanities departments, which tend to be overstaffed with senior humanities faculty who don’t do much besides sit on university committees arguing for more professors in their own obscure departments. i’d like to see an english or philosophy professor, as university president, who would cut the size of their department by even one faculty member.

    • dmelakada

      This is an ignorant comment. In the first place, Levin did not express any sentiment or anything else in the article, so the premise is false. More important, based on my contacts with university faculty and leaders around the world, I believe there is a widely shared view, probably a consensus, that Rick Levin has been one of the greatest presidents ever, not just of Yale but of all universities. Although, being human, he has not been perfect, his contributions to Yale have been vast, enduring and indisputable.

  • ystudent06511

    SUN didn’t form “soon after” Levin announced his retirement. Its been in existence for more than a year. ……

  • anon82

    when i saw this headline i thought it was about the actual presidential election.