ZELINSKY: Remember the institutionalist

On Point

First, let me say outright: I like President-elect Salovey. While not an undergraduate alumnus, he was an exceptional dean of Yale College. And he has … spunk. Experience and personality make a potent combination. I expect that Salovey will not just administer, but also truly lead, the University.

We’ll have plenty of time to see what Salovey does as president, so there is little point in prognosticating about his presidency. We should instead examine President Levin to discover why we, as a university, should actively preserve his legacy.

President Levin did great things for Yale. He fundraised. He renovated. He tied us to the world. I grew up in New Haven, and watched the downtown turn from seedy to posh in two decades. While I might disagree with some of Levin’s more specific and recent policies, the bottom line is that he grew the University in tremendous ways.

But I am afraid that time will forget him.

Levin is an institutionalist. He runs campus not by the force of his character, but through persistent and effective management. Unfortunately, history often remembers the flashy few. In the Pantheon of great Yale presidents, Kingman Brewster and Ezra Stiles occupy Zeus’ seat as kings of them all. Why? These men certainly ruled admirably in times of difficulty. Even more, though, their unique personalities made them stand out as memorable figures. By any account, President Levin does not have the biographical presence to endure in Yale’s historical memory.

Why must we sustain Levin’s legacy? For one, as gratitude for his tremendous service to his alma mater. As a community, we can offer no higher reward than posterity.

More importantly, however, we risk losing the significant lesson Levin’s tenure has taught us: Sometimes, universities need institutionalists.

In remembering the Brewsters of the past, we run the risk of unduly fetishizing the presidents who govern Yale through force of personality. In the process, we blind ourselves to the drawbacks of such men — they can inspire, but they also can have trouble executing plans that span decades and require dogged persistence. At the end of his time in Woodbridge Hall, Brewster famously left classrooms and residential colleges in physical shambles.

Right now, we need a president who can articulate a vision for Yale and, chiefly, for Yale College. In Peter Salovey, we got that kind of leader. And if his tenure as provost says anything, we’ve got a great manager, too. Thanks to his time as provost and his personality, Salovey might defy binary categorization.

A time will come, though, when Yale will need another builder — someone who can reorganize the multibillion-dollar corporate beast that is a modern university. That future president will need a model, both to know what to do and what to not to do. He or she will find such an example in Richard Levin.

How do we preserve legacies in general — and Levin’s in particular? That’s the truly tricky question. Call me a sucker for things archaic, but a statue might do the job. I know: non-abstract public art is way out of vogue — but hey, picking a white man for a university president isn’t hip either. If the Corporation can permit political incorrectness in its presidential appointments, perhaps it can also commission an art installation that depicts a person.

For the statue’s inscription, one simple line: “He rebuilt Yale.” Place the statue somewhere central, so all the tour guides talk about Levin’s accomplishments. (Can it replace that horrid Alexander Calder sculpture on Beinecke Plaza?) Maybe, then, we’ll remember the institutionalists, for all their strengths and flaws.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu .

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