Last year, President Richard Levin argued that, contrary to criticism, he has indeed showed leadership.
“People misconstrue what constitutes moral leadership — they think making statements to The New York Times is moral leadership. Well, maybe it is, but there are other ways to accomplish things that actually drive toward important social goals,” Levin told the Yale Herald.
Levin is right, of course. Statements in the Times are useless. Action is what constitutes leadership. When we look for examples of strong leaders in Yale’s past, we find those who made specific and concrete decisions at Yale that not only changed our University but also improved the nation and world around us.
Kingman Brewster ’41 was a leader not because he wrote op-ed pieces about diversity. He was a leader because he made decisions to open Yale to women and racial and religious minorities. Brewster was willing to face the attacks of alumni and the criticisms of peers to improve Yale and with it the country.
It is just this sort of leadership that Richard Levin has so far been lacking.
He does not need –and no one is asking for –statements in the Times. He needs to be a strong leader in ways that count.
The fight for leadership has already lost in the battle over sweatshops. Levin chose not to be a leader in the academic world and join the Worker Rights Consortium, an organization that works to prevent sweatshop abuses by companies making university apparel. The WRC continues to be an innovative model setting a new standard for overseas accountability.
But unlike 88 other schools, Yale waits on the sidelines because our president was unwilling to show leadership.
There are many other examples of missed opportunities for leadership. Last year, we watched as Yale followed our peers in reforming financial aid, rather than leading the pack. Furthermore, Levin has refused to agree to make up the federal aid students will lose under punitive provisions of the Higher Education Act that threaten to refuse a university education to those convicted of even minor drug offenses.
In the coming months, however, Levin has the opportunity to show leadership in two other areas. Depending on the decisions Levin makes, he can not only lead Yale, but he can serve as a model for the rest of the country.
The Federation of Hospital and University Employees has put forward an innovative proposal that will reverse Yale’s long history of labor unrest. For Levin to agree to a card count-neutrality agreement will require leadership; he will be forsaking a tradition a third of a century long that has called for Yale presidents to try to crush the University’s unions. Levin can do better, but it will require courage.
If Levin leads on labor relations, it will not only benefit Yale — which will not have to suffer another round of labor strife — but it will benefit the country. Neutrality agreements are innovative not only at Yale, but all around. They came from a growing understanding that NLRB-style elections are fundamentally unfair and tilted toward the employer. Yale will be at the forefront of labor relations if Levin accedes to such an agreement.
Levin told those gathered at the Tercentennial Convocation that he wanted a new era of labor relations. But as he recognizes, mere words are not enough. Simply saying he wants labor peace is not good enough. He must show leadership to get there.
If he chooses to, Levin can also be a leader in his handling of University records in the wake of Sept. 11. The University holds a tremendous amount of information about its students. It knows when we eat, when we enter our colleges, what classes we take, when we log on to check our e-mail and from where. With the information stored on Yale’s computers, a clever detective could easily determine a list of our friends and the very patterns of our daily lives.
If the FBI comes knocking at Yale’s door requesting information about a student, the school will have a choice to make. Either it can hand over data willingly, or it can protect its students and the privacy of its community by challenging any requests and subpoenas it receives.
President Levin can choose the easy route and give any information to the government, or he can choose to lead. It will take guts for Yale to fight requests for information that violate students’ privacy.
On the issue of student privacy, Levin has the opportunity to lead the nation. He should announce that he will jealously guard all records that Yale has on its students.
Like so much at Yale, all it takes is Levin to show some leadership.
Jacob Remes is a senior in Saybrook College. His columns appear on alternate Wednesdays.