Salovey embraces his new pulpit

Peter Salovey
Photo by Maria Zepeda.

Since assuming Yale’s presidency on July 1, Peter Salovey has already publicly addressed three major national issues, and he said he plans to continue speaking out.

On July 31, Salovey signed an open letter with other university presidents to urge government to close the “innovation deficit” by increasing federal funding to research efforts in higher education. Six days later, he released a statement supporting an immigration policy intended to promote economic growth by streamlining the green card process and making nonimmigrant visas more accessible. And during his Aug. 24 address to the freshman class, Salovey discussed the ways in which wealth inequality threatens the American dream — a conversation he described as “one of the last taboos among Yale students.”

Salovey said he inherited the responsibility to advocate for certain issues facing higher education from his predecessor, Richard Levin, who prominently fought for student visa reform in 2004 and addressed tax issues throughout his 20-year tenure that ended this summer. Salovey takes Yale’s helm at a time when college and university presidents face internal and external pressures to remain silent on potentially controversial issues, but he said his new job comes with a pulpit, whether he “wants one or not.”

“I don’t take the responsibility involved with having a pulpit lightly, and so you won’t see me speaking out on just any issue,” Salovey said. “Rather, I will try to focus on ones that are most important for higher education.”

Salovey said he plans to coordinate his statements with deliberations in Congress, and will release them at “opportune times.”

Salovey’s statement on immigration reform came on the heels of Senate efforts to reform immigration laws in July. Prior to announcing his views on the matter, Salovey met with many of the 18 congressmen with Yale ties in Washington, D.C., to discuss topics including immigration issues affecting international students and “DREAMers,” or noncitizens who grew up in the U.S.

With both his statement on immigration reform and the open letter that he signed, Salovey aligned himself with the work of the Association of American Universities, or AAU, a group connecting 62 universities in an effort to shape national policy. Yale joined the AAU at the association’s founding in 1900.

AAU President Hunter Rawlings said he expects Salovey to take a leading role in advocating for immigration reform and increased research funding, following Levin’s example.

Rawlings said Salovey’s relationships with Yale faculty and administrative experience will give him the necessary base knowledge to start leading other universities in advocacy, a role that “goes with the territory” of the Yale presidency.

“He’s going to be an effective voice,” Rawlings added. “I have no doubt about that.”

Rawlings said he expects Salovey to issue statements about other issues affecting Yale and higher education, not just limiting himself to the focuses of the AAU. But Rawlings said leaders of large research universities can rarely stray too far from education politics, because modern institutions are too complex and nuanced for their leaders to take strong stances on national issues without risking the loss of funding or the alienation of important contacts.

But during the University’s earlier years, presidents would speak out on a range of issues. President Timothy Dwight, who led the University from 1795 to 1817, once lambasted the War of 1812 from his literal pulpit in the chapel, while President Arthur Twining Hadley, who served from 1899 to 1921, encouraged students to join the National Guard and student reserves during World War I.

But last December, when over 350 colleges and universities signed “College Presidents for Gun Safety,” a letter urging the federal government to pass tighter gun-control regulations after the Newtown shootings, the names of all Ivy League presidents were absent.

Joseph Zolner SOM ’84, a specialist in higher education administration from Harvard, said university presidents can often struggle to take positions on any contentious issues without offending important individuals in their school communities.

Rawlings added that universities with ties to the business industry and high levels of internationalization are becoming more like corporations. Leading an increasingly complex institution inhibits some presidents from speaking out as much, he said, “which is a shame.”

Speaking too freely has proved problematic for presidents of peer institutions. Larry Summers, who is widely speculated to be a candidate for the next chair of the Federal Reserve, resigned from the Harvard University presidency in 2005 in part due to backlash over comments he made concerning women in science and engineering fields.

“The president has to find a happy medium between remaining silent and speaking out on every issue,” Rawlings added.

Using the president’s pulpit has traditionally been important to the position at Yale, Chief Communications Officer Elizabeth Stauderman said last spring, but Salovey will have to decide how vocal he wants to be.

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