The cult of Peter Salovey

The hippest president in the land!
The hippest president in the land! // Karen Tian

On the night of the 2009 Yale Symphony Orchestra Halloween Show, the lights are dim inside a packed Woolsey Hall. Students look up towards a large projection screen which displays a dark-haired boy in an Aladdin costume. As the boy rubs a bronze lamp, a dancing Provost Peter Salovey, attired in genie garb, rises from the digital blue flames. His appearance is greeted with loud applause and cheering from the crowd, an audience that is accustomed to seeing Salovey in dramatic roles.

Since the University administration announced on Nov. 8 that Salovey will replace University President Richard Levin as the next leader of Yale, support for the Yale Corporation’s choice has emerged from various corners of campus, from undergraduate students to faculty, program directors to deans. He has been described as “compassionate,” “charming,” “humorous” and “personable.”

Junior Class Council President Caroline Smith ’14, who is currently enrolled in Salovey’s much-discussed seminar, “Great Big Ideas,” said the president-in-waiting is “this incredible combination of both thoughtfulness and brilliance that is really rare.”

But just as much as Salovey is recognized for his service to the University and his scholarly work, he is defined by his quirks: his bluegrass band, his acting flair and the mustache he sported for over three decades.

This is not a new phenomenon: jokes about Salovey have been a part of the Yale zeitgeist for years, becoming increasingly common as his visibility grew. He began courting undergraduates with his folksy charm and silver mane after he moved from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to the Yale College Dean’s Office in 2004. While he has been more removed from students since he became provost in 2008, the presidential announcement inspired renewed attention on one of Yale’s most caricatured administrators.

Today, the same idiosyncrasies that have made this University’s future president a recognizable figure on campus are also those that have rendered him more persona than person.

“I really don’t know anything about him other than that he used to have a mustache,” Christofer Rodelo ’15 remarked.

Had the Corporation chosen a figure from outside the University, she would have arrived on campus as an unknown quantity, a blank slate onto which students could project new expectations, new jokes, new identifiers. But undergraduates already have an opinion about Peter Salovey. What they don’t know is how that image could change with a new role.

SALOVEY IN THE SPOTLIGHT: A CLOSE SHAVE

Few undergraduates can explain what a provost does, but ask one to paint a picture of who they think Salovey is, and you’ll immediately get an eccentric image: a bespectacled middle-aged man holding a psychology book on emotional intelligence in one hand and a bass bow in the other. His walrus-like mustache glints in the sunlight, giving him an aura of both whimsy and wisdom.

Salovey emerged as a campus figure in the late 1980s, when he started teaching the popular “Introductory Psychology” course as a young professor.

Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 called the class “marvelous.”

“It filled up Battell Chapel — hundreds of people took that course.”

At the same time, Salovey could also be found onstage in a different capacity: as a musician. A bass player, he founded the group Professors of Bluegrass in 1990, and the band has since traveled to several music festivals, competed in Yale’s annual Battle of the Bands and even played at Toad’s Place.

Once Salovey was appointed dean of Yale College in 2004, he began to play to an audience larger than that in the concert or the lecture hall. Faced with his new constituency, he made a concerted — and successful — effort to be an even more visible presence.

“He’s hands-down the most student-friendly administrator I’ve experienced,” then-Yale College Council President Andrew Cedar ’06 told the News shortly after Salovey was appointed dean.

Indeed, much of the praise directed toward Salovey has been rooted in his connection to students. School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern credited Salovey’s tenure as dean of Yale College for his understanding of “the undergraduate psyche.”

But even as he took on more direct responsibility for Yalies’ lives, Salovey continued to be defined in frivolous terms — such as by his iconic mustache. Once described on his Wikipedia page as “Groucho Marxesque,” the fearless facial hair began to eclipse the fame of its owner and develop a persona of its own.

A mock diary entry in the April 2004 issue of the Yale Record, a veritable campus humor magazine, read: “Everything has fallen into place. With my host body in control, I can finally take over the world!” It was signed, “Dean Salovey’s Mustache.” The human appendage seemed to have no will of its own.

Students panicked during the summer of 2007 when a convincingly Photoshopped picture of Salovey-sans-‘stache emerged online. A News report noted that Salovey received several emails from sorrowful Yalies that summer and several more missives in the fall congratulating him for supposedly regrowing the mustache, even though it had never actually disappeared.

Their relief was short-lived. Two years on from the false alarm, students were hit with the real deal. As they arrived back on campus blissfully unaware that Salovey’s upper lip was now bare, Yalies found an offensively clean-shaven provost. In the press and on the stage, members of the Yale community collectively mourned the death of Salovey’s 33-year-old mustache.

Daniel Carvalho ’10, for instance, wrote and performed a song about the ‘stache at a WYBC showcase on Old Campus that fall.

“I know that there’s an economic crisis, and maintaining a mustache is kind of expensive,” Carvalho crooned. “But I’m sure that we would have all pitched in — wouldn’t we? — for you to keep your mustache.”

Even the more serious Yale Alumni Magazine picked up on the joke, calling Salovey’s facial hair a “Yale institution.” The Magazine added that the mustache was “rumored to be in storage at a climate-controlled West Campus warehouse.”

Despite the glaring loss of what was once Salovey’s most recognizable feature, his mystique was alive and well. As a recently filmed News video feature highlighted, many students continue to see the mustache as Salovey’s identifying feature — even though, having begun their time here after the shave, they have only seen it in dated photographs.

A post on Rump Chat following the announcement that Salovey would be Yale’s next president speculated that the Yale Corporation must have made their decision because of the administrator’s mustache.

(The website’s moderator posted the assertion above a photo of a smirking Stalin. Mustaches, she said, are not always the best indicator of competence.)

In contemplating this year’s list of the “50 Most Beautiful” people on Yale’s campus, Rumpus Editor-in-Chief Alex Goel ’14 said he would love to feature Salovey — but only if he brings back the mustache.

“It makes him,” Goel said.

SALOVEY VS. LEVIN

In 2004, the News published a photograph from Levin’s annual Halloween party. A student in sunglasses with a tie wrapped around his head poses with two Yale administrators. To his right is baseball player Johnny Damon — or, to be honest, a close approximation: Salovey, grinning from ear to ear, in an oversized Red Sox beanie, jersey, wig and fake beard. To his left is Levin, sporting a blue button-down, khaki pants and a leather belt.

This shot of Salovey juxtaposes the provost with Levin, whom many have criticized as being disconnected from Yale undergraduates.

At this year’s Halloween event, a number of attendees waded through the crowds without noticing the current president or his wife.

“Wait, I don’t even know which one was President Levin,” the News quoted one student saying after she shook hands with Levin and other administrators at the front door.

The majority of respondents to a November survey conducted by the News said that they did not understand the president’s influence on their daily lives, and 58 percent reported that they have never interacted with Levin.

Salovey, in contrast, is something akin to a man of the people.

In the week leading up to the Yale-Harvard football game, Salovey paid a visit to one of the football team’s practices, a gesture that defensive lineman Nick Daffin ’13 said he had never seen Levin extend over the course of the last four years.

Members of the community in a separate Yale bubble concur: “He’s been willing to come to Mory’s at 11:00 at night or climb Harkness at 7:00 in the morning to shoot with us,” said YSO violinist Wells Andres ’13.

A president with more personality might be a positive change for the University.

During the short-lived presidential search, students protested the process’s lack of transparency — a function, some argued, of a historically distant President’s Office. Activist group Students Unite Now (SUN) drafted petitions requesting more avenues for student input.

When the Presidential Search Committee and the YCC teamed up to collect student input about what qualities students hoped to see in the next president, a key theme running through their findings was a desire for a president willing to engage with undergraduates to a greater extent.

“We need a president who is in touch with students — a campus celebrity,” said one Yalie quoted anonymously in the YCC’s Presidential Search Report, a compilation of students’ reactions to the process. “How can a person run an undergraduate-focused institution without hanging out with undergrads every once in awhile?”

Notes from a Pierson College Council meeting published in a YCC report said the ideal next president should be more of a “Dumbledore” figure.

“Levin, though effective, was rather unapproachable and did not engage with the undergraduates,” one respondent wrote in the YCC report. “I am hopeful that future presidents can take a little time to understand the student body they’re working with.”

Well-loved and commonly described as a “people person,” Salovey may be just what students ordered.

But such expectations are contingent upon the next president’s ability to mold his new position to match his qualities. A number of students said they think the position of president is inherently removed from undergraduate life.

Forty-five percent of respondents to the November survey said that they were not interested in the presidential search, citing the distance they felt between the undergraduate population and the President’s Office. “I never expected at any point during my four years here to sit down and get to know President Levin,” Apurv Suman ’16 told the News in early November. “I think it’s really unrealistic that one person be responsible for 5,000 undergraduates in any way that’s actually meaningful.”

So how well Salovey will be able to maintain his trademark personability during his presidency is anyone’s guess.

“Yale College has often felt that the president belongs to them … but in fact, he’s the president of the entire University,” said Penelope Laurans, Jonathan Edwards College master and special assistant to the president, told the News in early November.

Philosophy professor and former Branford College Master Steven Smith pointed out that the presidential job will be different from any position that Salovey has held before and could cause him to reduce his current level of interaction with students.

“I think he will be accessible, but once you’re the president, you have so many responsibilities,” Smith said.

For now, undergraduates remain charmed by the president-to-be’s real-life charms. A recent post by a “female seeking male” on the Yale GoodCrush website honored Salovey with a poetic proposal: “Spotted at HGS, anonymous president-elect: ‘stache or not, you’re pretty hot. coffee [sic] sometime soon?”

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