University Cabinet weighs visions for Yale

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Photo by Alex Schmeling .

In the past eight months, a Yale conference center and a Farmington, Conn. library have played host to a quiet but significant transformation in communication at the highest levels of the University.

Three times since last May, the University’s president, provost, 15 school deans and 8 vice presidents have gathered as part of the newly-formed University Cabinet to discuss broad issues facing Yale. The day-long retreats are in addition to monthly meetings for the little-publicized cabinet — a creation of University President Peter Salovey’s that is among his most important efforts on University governance.

Established by Salovey when he took office in July of last year, the group — whose agenda, discussions and decisions are not public — is designed to provide a forum for confidential and candid discussion among senior officials. The group does not produce reports, but instead seeks to engender a bird’s-eye examination of the University from its most influential players. Since its formation, several members said Yale’s leaders have collectively examined some of the largest issues facing the University: governance, internationalization, budget, the new residential colleges and student well-being.

“It brings academic leadership and the broader leadership of the University together for sustained conversations on important issues. The result is a level of transparency that is important,” Divinity School Dean Greg Sterling said. “I am more aware of University issues than I would otherwise have been.”

But members of the cabinet would not disclose any conclusions at which they have arrived.

Multiple members of the cabinet outlined hopes to continue taking on significant issues in the future, such as setting an academic vision for Yale and considering ways in which the University can better interact with New Haven. Looking forward, the members suggested, the group may well be a forum for Yale to evaluate fundamental questions of its identity as an institution.

Previously, the two groups of senior administrators at Yale — school deans and University vice presidents — met in the separate bodies of the Deans Cabinet and the Vice Presidents Cabinet. The two groups come to the new cabinet with fundamentally different backgrounds, the former being academic and the latter being administrative.

In between his announcement as University president in the fall of 2012 and inauguration in October of last year, Salovey said he planned to prioritize internal communication across the University. To date, the cabinet is Salovey’s most significant step to expand communication across the upper tiers of University administrators.

Deans and University vice presidents described the cabinet as successful in providing a forum for such communication.

“It provides a venue for thoughtful discussion among the University leadership on a range of matters, whether those be emerging priorities, concerns or possible initiatives,” University Vice President for Development Dorothy Robinson said. “Clearly, it is a means of improving communication, staying connected and for the President to be well-advised.”

University Vice President for Student Affairs Kimberly Goff-Crews echoed Robinson’s sentiment. Calling the group a “great innovation” on Salovey’s part, Yale College Dean Mary Miller said that, contrary to expectations, the large size of the group did not impede discussion. Sterling added that he has found the cabinet useful, particularly in having University Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander present for discussions on graduate student housing.

“It helps to develop friendships among key individuals who need to interact,” Sterling said. “It is much easier to do so in the context of an established friendship, especially when there are difficulties.”

Friendships aside, the cabinet does not always reach consensus. In addition to differences between the body’s academic and administrative sides, divisions also appear to have arisen between Yale’s bodies focused on liberal arts — the College and Graduate School — and its professional schools.

Looking forward, Sterling said, the body will need to address Yale’s fundamental identity, either as a college surrounded by professional schools or as a university that gives more equal weighting to its distinctive parts.

“There is a sense in which Yale is a college with a graduate school and professional schools that have grown up around it,” Sterling said. “How can you keep the later developments from feeling that they are step-children?”

Sterling also said the cabinet will need to consider how the University can expand its work in the sciences while also maintaining its traditional strength in the humanities.

The cabinet last met at the end of the fall academic term.

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