The search for the next Yale president came to an abrupt end last Sunday night, when Provost Peter Salovey’s phone rang.
“I was so thrilled,” Salovey said of the discovery that he would assume the presidency on June 30, 2013. For Salovey, the past few days have been a “whirlwind,” but many of his colleagues said the news that he will succeed University President Richard Levin came as no surprise.
An administrator with demonstrated leadership ability, Salovey first came to Yale as a graduate student 30 years ago and has since served as dean of both Yale College and the Graduate School before assuming the University’s second-highest position as provost in 2008 — months before the onset of the recent financial downturn. Amid plummeting university endowments and crippling budget cuts nationwide, Salovey was responsible for helping set Yale on a path of recovery, and many professors have said he maintained the widespread trust of the faculty throughout the ordeal.
Salovey has also held major roles in the implementation of some of the largest initiatives undertaken by the University in recent years, including Yale’s partnership with the National University of Singapore in the creation of Yale-NUS and the planning of two new residential colleges.
Edward Bass ’67, senior fellow of the Yale Corporation, said the vote to appoint Salovey was unanimous.
“Peter was the heir apparent for a number of years,” said Roland Betts ’68, former senior fellow of the Corporation. “Nobody knows Yale better.”
A nearly 25 percent decline in the value of the endowment in fiscal year 2009 tore a roughly $350 million hole in the University’s budget, and Salovey was forced to lead implementation of across-the-board budget cuts three years in a row. While the endowment has yet to recover fully to its high-water mark of $22.9 billion, it has seen positive returns on its investments in recent years and is now valued at roughly $19.3 billion. In January, Levin and Salovey announced that Yale would face a projected $67 million deficit in the 2012–’13 budget.
Renowned for his academic work in psychology, Salovey chaired the Yale Psychology Department and championed and developed the concept of emotional intelligence — people’s ability to understand and manage their own emotions and those of others.
In the Presidential Search Committee’s Oct. 9 statement announcing the criteria for selecting a new leader for the University, the committee specified that the ideal president would be a scholar and educator.
“[Salovey] is somebody who has made a real difference in the world of ideas,” said Howard Gardner, an expert on leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Among great universities and colleges, we like people who not only can administer well, but who are respected intellectually because they have made a real contribution.”
Since becoming provost, Salovey has continued to guest lecture for “Introduction to Psychology” classes and has co-taught the experimental residential college seminar “Great Big Ideas.”
As Yale College dean, Salovey led the implementation of several large reforms that emerged from the recommendations of the Committee on Yale College Education, which reviewed the state of undergraduate education at Yale in the early 2000s. But faculty and alumni said they remember his tenure for his focus on students rather than for his policy initiatives.
Salovey conducted the Yale Precision Marching Band at major athletic competitions — a tradition current Yale College Dean Mary Miller has continued. Salovey told the News in 2011 that he believed his conducting brought luck to athletes.
“I said, ‘I’m going to do something to change our luck,’” Salovey recalled. “‘I’m going to go over to the band and ask them if they’ll let me conduct.’”
Salovey’s interest in music extends beyond the football field: Students know him as an aficionado of bluegrass music, which he discovered while an undergraduate at Stanford University in the 1970s, and as a founding member of the band the Professors of Bluegrass. Formed in the early 1990s by Salovey and psychology professor Kelly Brownell, the band has played at many venues, including Toad’s Place, and performed at Levin’s inauguration in 1993, Brownell said.
Band member and banjo player Oscar Hills, a psychiatry professor, said the group no longer practices regularly on Sunday afternoons in the basement of Salovey’s home, but the five core members and various veterans of the group still get together as often as they can, adding that the band has taken several road trips during which they would “camp out in a couple of motel rooms.”
“He always pokes fun at his terrible singing, which of course isn’t really terrible at all,” Hills said.
While Salovey prepares to assume the position of University president in June, one final question looms on his colleagues’ minds: will the mustache he shaved off in 2009 make a return?
Though he said he will not make any promises about the walrus-like mustache that graced his chin for 33 years before its demise, Salovey added that he once told Chief Investment Officer David Swenson that he might consider regrowing the mustache “when the endowment gets back to its high-water mark.”
Fortunately, Salovey will lead a Yale much stronger than the University Levin inherited in 1993: Under Levin’s leadership, Yale has experienced a period of accelerated academic and financial growth, bolstered its relationship with the city of New Haven and solidified its reputation as one of the world’s premier educational institutions.
During one of his search committee interviews, Salovey said he was asked to describe his vision for the University.
“I answered with four phrases,” he told the crowd gathered in the Hall of Graduate Studies Thursday afternoon. “A more unified Yale, a more innovative Yale, a more accessible Yale and a more excellent Yale.”