I remember being called into Linda Lorimer’s office in October of last year, still processing the news I had heard minutes earlier: that University President Richard Levin had decided to step down as Yale’s president after twenty years.
Linda got right to the point, passing along a request from Ed Bass ’67 ARC ’72 — then-Senior Fellow of the Yale Corporation — that I serve as Student Counselor to the Presidential Search Committee (PSC) for Levin’s successor.
In that first meeting, I learned that this was the first time in Yale’s history that a student would play a formal role in the search process. I would have faculty, staff and alumni counterparts; additional faculty would serve as voting members of the PSC. I would not be an official member and instead act as a conduit between students and the committee — a representative of sorts, tasked with soliciting input from diverse constituencies, organizations and groups and then conveying it to search committee members and the Yale Corporation.
Among the first things I asked Linda was why faculty members were given a vote on the committee while students were not afforded the same privilege. She responded that in the 1993 search for Levin, students and staff had played no formal role in the process; in fact, that year marked the first time faculty members were included on a presidential search committee. The 2013 search was a step in the right direction — students had a voice, however muted it was. Linda ended that initial meeting by issuing a challenge: demonstrate to the Yale Corporation that students can add value to the committee in ways that no administrator, faculty or staff member can. If we did that, we’d be making the best possible case for giving students a magnified voice next time around.
I’m writing now because we collectively succeeded in rising to that challenge. The fact that two students will serve as active, participatory, deliberative and voting members of the deans’ search committee is something many of us would never have expected a year ago and reflects reciprocal engagement by both students and administrators. Yale is a slow-moving institution entrenched in historical precedent; it took 312 years for students to be formally involved in a presidential search. The fact that it has taken only 12 more months for students to sit as full members on a committee of this magnitude shouldn’t be discounted. It serves as an early predictor of Salovey’s constructive relationship with the student body.
I recognize that some students are displeased with the way the undergraduate representative was selected by the YCC, and others will be frustrated with however the GSA selects its graduate representative. Many of these same students were upset when I was appointed by Ed Bass to advise the PSC. Those concerns remain fair. But I’m writing to urge everyone — supporters and detractors alike — to put aside structural and procedural critiques and make the most of this opportunity.
In many ways, the deans this committee ultimately selects will have a more profound impact on our daily lives than does the president. During the presidential search, many of us — myself included — struggled to articulate what we wanted to see in Yale’s next president because it wasn’t entirely clear how the goings-on of Woodbridge Hall affected us. It’s far easier to see how policies pertaining to grading, dining, transit and mental health — all parts of the dean’s portfolio — shape our Yale experience.
In the spirit of reflection, I wanted to share some thoughts that might be helpful. For the two student search committee members: Seriously engage as many people as you can. Talk to athletes, musicians, scientists, writers and slam poets; religious, cultural and residential community leaders; members of Students Unite Now and the presidents of fraternities and sororities. If people don’t come to you — your office hours, your town halls or whatever else you decide to do — go to them. It’s easy for all of us to get locked into the one or two versions of Yale we each experience on a day-to-day basis; fight against that and seek myriad perspectives.
And students: It may be that many of you don’t care about this process. It may also be that some of you care deeply about the process but communicate that to your student representatives in ways that to them seem infuriating and counterproductive. Fighting the process makes a point, up to a point; but then it begins to reflect on all of us in a way that, during last year’s search, made some administrators and Corporation members wonder why we students were seemingly squandering our opportunity — however minimal that opportunity might have appeared to us — to respectfully engage with the search committee and provide meaningful feedback.
Today, it seems that folks on both sides of the aisle have compellingly aired concerns about the composition of this deans’ search committee. But let’s not forget that we are far better off now than we were twelve months ago, and our discourse throughout this process — and the extent to which we engage — remains under the microscope.
And so, I challenge us all in the same way Linda challenged me: Let’s confirm to President Salovey that students can add unique value to this committee and this process as a whole. Hopefully we’ll have an even greater voice next time around.
Brandon Levin is a senior in Davenport College and former president of the Yale College Council. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.