Special assistants key to Levin’s leadership

University President Richard Levin’s three handpicked special assistants advise him on matters ranging from public relations to international affairs.
University President Richard Levin’s three handpicked special assistants advise him on matters ranging from public relations to international affairs. Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

When University President Richard Levin makes major decisions, he often consults his special assistants — three people outside the President’s Office whose titles far belie their importance to University leadership.

With titles shrouded in vague possibility, the special assistants to the president — Jonathan Edwards College Master Penelope Laurans, Chief Communications Officer Elizabeth Stauderman and Ted Wittenstein ’04 LAW ’12, executive director of the Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy — were handpicked by Levin throughout his tenure to advise him on their varying areas of expertise. Their roles as special assistants are not clearly defined, so the three are in regular contact with Levin about a range of University affairs, quietly influencing Yale’s top administrator. But with the University in the midst of a presidential transition, it remains unclear whether the special assistants will stay “special” when President-elect Peter Salovey steps into the role.

“The ‘special assistant’ title signifies a counselor of matters at the highest level,” Levin said.

No precedent has been set for new presidents to preserve their predecessors’ special assistants in the long term. Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 told the News in a Feb. 28 email that the “character and number” of the president’s special assistants change from presidency to presidency.

Salovey, who was named Yale’s next president on Nov. 8, said the transition process has started so recently that he is only beginning to identify new staffing needs for when he assumes office on July 1. He added that he is looking forward to collaborating with Levin’s special assistants, having been very impressed with their work.

While Levin chose his current special assistants, he said he “inherited” two special assistants from his predecessor who left their positions soon after he took office in 1993: Deputy Provost Lloyd Suttle, who moved back to the Provost’s Office after working for interim University President Howard Lamar, and another who wrote speeches for University President Benno Schmidt and left to work at another college.

He said he then had the opportunity to bring in his own people, naming Laurans his first handpicked special assistant approximately 20 years ago. Laurans, who also teaches an English class on versification, has been involved with numerous campus offices and committees and previously served as Yale College associate dean — a range of credentials that make her well-known within the University. Laurans said she writes and edits drafts of speeches and letters for Levin, who said Laurans typically handles projects like planning the University’s Class Day celebration and staffing the Committees on Yale College Education and Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tenure and Appointments Policy. Levin called Laurans a “fixture” on campus.

“Everybody knows Penny,” he added. “She is herself a Yale tradition.”

Yale’s chief communications officer, a position that Stauderman currently holds, has served as a special assistant to Levin since he appointed director of the Office of Public Affairs Gary Fryer in the first year of his presidency. Stauderman said her role includes vetting the venues at which Levin speaks and advising him on especially public issues for the University. She worked intensively with Levin in the days leading up to the announcements of his resignation and of Salovey as his successor, adding that she has reviewed his speeches and drafts of emails as well.

Wittenstein is the newest special assistant, having taken on the role after receiving a J.D. from Yale Law last spring. Levin said Wittenstein, who worked in the State Department after graduating from Yale College and before enrolling in Yale Law School, helps Levin prepare for speeches or panels requiring research, as he is very knowledgeable about international affairs. Wittenstein was also the principal assistant to Levin in editing a book of Levin’s speeches over the last 10 years, which the Yale Press is publishing in April. Wittenstein said he helps recruit high-profile speakers and people to teach in the area of international affairs, as well as works on other public affairs issues — always something “new and fun,” he added.

Wittenstein said he does not want to speculate about his future as a special assistant to the president. He said he met Levin when he staffed President Barack Obama’s Iraq Intelligence Commission, on which Levin served, adding that he contacted Levin again in 2009 when he enrolled in the Law School. Wittenstein served as an assistant to Levin and Vice President Linda Lorimer almost full time during his last year of law school.

Laurans said in a Feb. 28 email that she is still busy with her work as special assistant this year during the presidential transition, and that it is “too early to know exactly how things will sort out for the future.”

Stauderman said she expects her role as special assistant to continue, though she added that Salovey will ultimately pick his own staff. She has worked closely with Salovey since he served as provost, and Levin said Stauderman is the only special assistant who has helped Salovey with planning and preparation for his leadership.

In addition to his special assistants, Levin has a staff of administrative assistants who work within Woodbridge Hall.

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