Polak brings economic expertise to new role

From left, Provost Benjamin Polak is congratulated by University President-elect Peter Salovey and President Richard Levin.
From left, Provost Benjamin Polak is congratulated by University President-elect Peter Salovey and President Richard Levin. Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

Economics professor Benjamin Polak has spent the past few nights lying awake in bed, contemplating his role as Yale’s next provost.

“I guess I’ve got about until tomorrow morning to learn how to fly,” he told the crowd of administrators and faculty in Luce Hall Monday afternoon, just moments after President-elect Peter Salovey announced that he had tapped Polak as his successor as provost, effective immediately.

Polak, who serves on the University Budget Committee and has been chair of the Economics Department since 2010, will assume the duties of provost at a time when the University continues to face a lagging budget deficit and is in the midst of an extensive review of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. While Polak was quick to acknowledge the challenges he will face in his new position in the coming months and years, faculty and administrators interviewed said that he is well-suited to the job of the University’s second-highest ranking administrator because of his strong relationships with colleagues and keen grasp of the financial challenges facing the University.

“He has a deep understanding already of the University budget,” Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard said. “There probably is not anyone who is better prepared for this job.”

Polak’s appointment will allow Salovey to continue working closely with a respected economist, as he did with University President Richard Levin, who also served as chair of the Economics Department. Though Levin told the News he does not believe it is “central” to have an economist in one of the top two positions at the University, he said Polak’s expertise will strengthen his partnership with Salovey, adding that the two have “complementary skills and yet their values are greatly harmonized.”

In his speech on Monday, Salovey said Polak has already shown great leadership on the University Budget Committee and is thorough and systematic in his approach to decision-making. Salovey told the News that Polak emphasizes the “fundamental values of Yale” and is known as an excellent teacher on campus.

Polak stepped into his position as Economics chair in 2010, a year after a nearly 25 percent decline in the value of Yale’s endowment tore a roughly $350 million hole in the budget. He had to lead his department through tight financial circumstances in response to the administration’s across-the-board budget cuts, working to maintain programs that lost considerable funding such as the Undergraduate Research Opportunity in Economics fellowship program in 2011.

Polak said he expects the position of provost to involve similarly difficult, and sometimes unpopular, decisions. While the endowment has achieved positive returns in recent years, Levin and Salovey announced last January that Yale would face a projected $67 million deficit this fiscal year.

“There are going to be times when I have to say ‘no,’” Polak told the crowd. “I don’t want to go in saying it’s going to be ‘green lights’ from here to eternity.”

He added, however, that he does not want these decisions to be made “just from the top” and will seek input from the faculty. Polak’s colleagues praised his commitment to reaching out to professors in his department, a trend he promises to continue as provost. In his speech, Polak said he will spend much of his time over the next six months learning about areas of the University in which he has less experience, such as the Classics Department and the School of Nursing.

This knowledge will prove crucial from the beginning of his tenure, as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is undergoing its first academic review held at the University in two decades. Salovey appointed an academic review committee in August, following a proposal outlined in a faculty report on resources last spring, to be tasked with recommending changes to the allocation of faculty positions across departments. In his speech, Polak said he hopes to build on the work of this committee and new faculty forums introduced by Salovey in the fall to make the University governance and decision-making more transparent.

Polak, who was born in Britain and maintains dual British and American citizenship, joined the faculty in 1994 and has held a number of administrative positions during his time at Yale, including the director of undergraduate studies in the Economics Deparment from 2007 to 2009.

Many administrators and faculty extolled Polak’s sense of humor, which Economics DUS Tony Smith described as a “British understatement.” Smith recounted how Polak downplayed his relocation to Warner House last night when one of Polak’s undergraduate advisees emailed him to schedule a meeting about course selection. Smith said Polak responded to the student that he was “starting a new job in the provost’s office tomorrow,” directing the student to Smith instead.

“I had to email back that ‘Professor Polak is a tad too modest since his new job is as the provost himself,’” Smith said.

In his almost two decades at Yale, Polak has collected numerous teaching awards, including the Economics Department Teaching Prize and Graduate Advising Prize in 1998, the William Clyde DeVane Medal for undergraduate teaching and scholarship in Yale College in 2005 and the Lex Hixon ’63 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences in Yale College in 2006.

Yale College Dean Mary Miller said she thinks any student who has taken a class with Polak will understand why he has been tapped as the new provost.

“How do you both grow and change while maintaining some of the fundamentals that characterize the teaching and research mission of the University?” Miller asked. “These are all marvelous questions for a provost like Ben Polak.”

Polak, who normally teaches the popular lecture “Game Theory” during the fall semester, said he will forgo continuing teaching for now, which he said will be “tough to give up.” He added that, had he known he would step into the provost role this term, he may have finished his last course differently.

“I would have written a better exam,” Polak said. “It was crummy. It got hammered on the course evaluations.”

Polak is married to English professor Stefanie Markovits ’94 GRD ’01. She said after the Monday announcement that she is excited and a bit terrified about Polak’s new position, which she said was unexpected. She said Polak is attentive to details while also exhibiting an unusually broad sense of the University, especially concerning the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“He is a perfectionist and he is a really hard worker and he doesn’t like to see things done shoddily. That’s good for Yale,” Markovits said, “[but] not necessarily good for me, because I’m anticipating long hours and much stress.”

Polak and Markovits live in New Haven with their three young children. Markovits’ brother is Law School professor Daniel Markovits ’91 GRD ’00.

Polak graduated from Cambridge University in 1984 and earned graduate degrees in history and economics at Northwestern University and Harvard University, respectively. His research and teaching interests include microeconomic theory and economic history.

Jane Darby Menton contributed reporting.

 

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