University President Peter Salovey’s first year in office has been defined as much by his predecessor as by himself.
Since assuming the presidency in July, Salovey has played a role in pushing forward some of the most significant changes at Yale in decades, notably a shift in the University’s faculty governance structure. But much of his job has revolved around carrying out initiatives — such as the new residential colleges and globalization initiatives — that are holdovers from former University President Richard Levin, who departed last summer after 20 years at Yale’s helm.
No administrator was as closely involved in the latter years of Levin’s presidency as Salovey. Salovey served as dean of the Graduate School, Yale College dean and then provost, all under Levin. On many of Levin’s largest initiatives, Salovey served as a close adviser.
“I’m not ashamed to now embrace them as my own,” Salovey said.
Over the past several months, Salovey has spent substantial time travelling the globe to complete fundraising for the $500 million residential colleges, one of Levin’s signature projects. Once fundraising is complete, Salovey and the Yale College dean will be tasked with overseeing the construction of the largest capital project at Yale in decades and the addition of approximately 800 new students to the ranks of Yale College.
The colleges are just one of an array of projects Salovey inherited from Levin, including major renovations to buildings across campus and a push to invest in the sciences.
This year, Salovey has also overseen the beginning of the most significant change in Yale’s governance structure in decades. This summer, the University will add a dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the largest change in the structure of the Yale administration in decades. The University is also on track to add a faculty senate.
In his October inaugural address Salovey laid out four goals for his presidency: embracing a revolution in teaching and learning, improving access to a Yale education, continuing to build partnerships with New Haven and creating a more global and unified University.
English professor Wai Chee Dimock GRD ’82 said the upcoming changes in faculty governance are “affirmative implementations of President Salovey’s call for a Yale that is more unified, more accessible.”
“I’m proud of the amount of thinking that we’ve been able to stimulate on campus concerning the organization of leadership, especially for the FAS, and in general on governance issues,” Salovey said.
Both Salovey and faculty interviewed though, were quick to note that changes in faculty governance did not originate with Salovey. Salovey and faculty interviewed pointed to a range of causes. Among them were the presidential transition, the hiring of a large number of faculty from 2000 through 2008 and an array of controversial issues, notably Yale-NUS College.
When asked which of his goals he has made the most progress on, Salovey pointed to a more unified University. He said this unity has come in the form of collaborations between different parts of the University, such as the Network Science Institute, the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural heritage, the Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design and a number of projects through the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute.
Of over a dozen students interviewed, however, only April Koh ’14, who is involved in the YEI, mentioned the University’s recent collaborative projects and focus on entrepreneurship.
Still, faculty and students interviewed agreed that Salovey is substantially different from his predecessor in at least one way: style. All said that Salovey has made an immense effort to make the presidency more accessible to the Yale community.
“I have seen [Salovey as] a president who is chattier,” history professor Carlos Eire said. “He sends us messages, he tells us what he’s doing. He’s got a more conversational, collegial style.”
Eire noted that when he recently sent the president an email, he was surprised how quickly Salovey — who receives hundreds of emails every day — responded.
Among the efforts Salovey has made are biweekly “Notes from Woodbridge Hall,” which are short messages to the Yale community on a variety of topics.
“He’s done a very good job of making the presidency seem like a more accessible position,” Tristan Sechrest ’15 said.
In a similar vein, physics professor Priyamvada Natarajan said Salovey has shown he is “thoughtful about diversity and inclusion.”
Though faculty members and students said Salovey may be different in style, they said his substance is effectively the same.
“I have not firsthand witnessed any changes at Yale from Levin to Salovey,” Alan Zhang ’16 said.
Most students said they pay little attention to policy changes in Woodbridge Hall. Anna Griffin ’16 said she does not see how policies from the president’s office impact her. Rayer Ma ’17 said most issues that impact her day-to-day life are determined in the Yale College dean’s office.
Still, faculty and students said continuity with Levin’s administration is not necessarily a bad thing.
When Levin moved into Woodbridge Hall in 1993, Yale was in the midst of a crisis. Relations with alumni were in disrepair, as were the University’s finances and facilities.
Two decades later, Salovey inherited a Yale that despite challenges, is a largely healthy institution.
“Other than [the budget deficit], I don’t see anything that can in any way compare to what Rick Levin faced in 1994,” Eire said. “It’s hard to think of Salovey handling crises or solving great problems. He’s basically standing at the helm during a relatively calm period … the University’s in a very strong place.”
Nevertheless, there are challenges ahead. One potential stumbling block will be negotiating the ongoing consequences of the 2008–’09 financial crisis on the University’s balance sheet. Although the primary responsiblity for the budget falls on the shoulders of University provost Benjamin Polak, Salovey is involved in major strategic decisions for the University.
Similarly, several students said the outcomes of ongoing discussions about mental health, the role of Yale in New Haven and policies regarding sexual misconduct could influence Salovey’s legacy.
Salovey’s experience as a top adviser to Levin may serve the University well as it moves forward, some students and faculty suggested.
“People should not demand change for the sake of change,” said Dhruv Aggarwal ’16, a former staff reporter for the News.