It was perhaps the most common question of all — even though no one actually asked it.
On April 3 Yale President Richard Levin held a public forum, opening himself up to queries from the Yale student body. The question subjects ran the gamut from mental health to Yale’s unions, reflecting the concerns and desires of a large variety of passionate, active individuals.
Behind almost every student’s remarks, however, was an unstated question: “President Levin, why isn’t Yale more proactive — whether addressing the concerns of today’s Yale student body, tomorrow’s student body or the country and the world?”
In the past few months, many people have criticized Levin for Yale’s delay in addressing important issues — financial aid and “Yale’s AIDS drug” (d4T) foremost in many student’s minds. The Yale Daily News itself has published a number of masthead editorials on Yale’s institutional hesitancy.
Yet these separate issues reflect a fundamental problem — Yale’s reluctance to take risks or exert leadership in a nation already lacking in educational leaders. As the president of one of the foremost educational institutions in the world, Levin has an obligation to use his position and power both to set an example for universities across the country and to influence the kinds of changes only powerful educational institutions can make.
When Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California, spoke out about the problems inherent in the SATs, the country was shocked. Today, people no longer remember how to react to a university president who sees him or herself as a “public intellectual.” We have grown accustomed to administrators, people who — in Levin’s oft-repeated phrase — know how to “balance the budget.”
Yet a president, particularly of a prestigious university like Yale, has the ability to set an example, be daring and make an impact, even while maintaining the fiscally sound policies that keep a large institution running. While too many people at Yale see criticisms of Levin as stemming from a fringe activist community, the desire for public action is shared by a much broader national community which knows the potential inherent in powerful university positions.
When Harvard announced the appointment of Larry Summers as its next president, even the renowned New York Times editorialized: “[Larry Summers’ background in both academia and policy] could — help make him a strong voice on educational issues that resonate far beyond Harvard. The number of top educators who speak out today seems distressingly small” (3/13).
At the forum, Levin seemed increasingly frustrated by students’ questions. “We have a limited budget,” he kept telling people. “We have to make choices; we have to have priorities.” Levin, your statement is (obviously) true. Yale must balance its budget, and running a large university requires a lot of money and a lot of priority-setting.
But because you are president of Yale — not president of a community college, not even president of a large state school — your obligations are much greater than balancing the budget. The decisions you make within our “gated walls” have a larger impact. The Yale community — students, faculty and corporation — should not accept an institution that merely rests on its own laurels and does what is absolutely necessary to stay competitive.
Many of the issues Yale students raise at opportunities like the public forum have wide implications; not all of them even require money. A successful Yale president must take some sorts of risks, some of them financial but others intellectual or even ideological.
Don’t make us fight you during an hour long “discussion” once a semester. By disputing rather than anticipating our concerns, you deny this country a leader and an innovator it so greatly requires.
Shayna Strom is a junior in Davenport College.