Before former Vice President for Finance and Administration Joseph Mullinix announced his decision to leave Yale for the University of California in March 2000, Yale officials pleaded with Mullinix, who had overseen Yale’s financial renaissance, to stay.

After a 15-month search for a replacement, University President Richard Levin appointed Robert L. Culver to the position. Culver brought an impressive resume of successes in both the private and public sectors, and administrators predicted he would be more than capable of meeting the high expectations Mullinix left behind.

Even with his experience in conducting labor negotiations and in leading universities through fiscal unrest, Culver faces the daunting task of steering Yale through the economic fallout of Sept. 11 and through delicate labor negotiations.

The search

After all efforts to retain Mullinix failed, Levin and other University officials had to face the tough task of finding a successor who could manage financial operations, investments, debt management, facilities, human resources, labor relations, student administrative services and information technology.

In addition to handling this incredible array of responsibilities, the new vice president would have to meet the high expectations for performance that Mullinix had set during his seven-year tenure.

Levin refused to rush the search process and named Associate Vice President for Facilities Kemel Dawkins acting vice president for finance and administration. In June, Levin finally appointed Culver, a man who Levin felt could handle all the responsibilities of the job.

“What attracted me about Culver was a broad range of career experiences that he has had that render him exceptionally well-qualified for the office,” Levin said. “He has had experience in public service, healthcare, and, of course, in major corporate finance.”

Culver had been serving as the executive vice president and chief financial officer of the Cabot Corporation.

“One day out of the blue, Rick Levin called me up,” Culver said. “I’m sitting at my desk, and [he] said ‘do you have a minute?'”

Restructuring Northeastern

Culver had served as senior vice president and treasurer of Northeastern University in Boston from 1990 to 1997. Although he left to join the private sector, he said he always knew he wanted to return to university administration.

Culver came to Northeastern during a precarious financial period for the university and for institutions of higher education around the country. The number of college-aged students had decreased, and universities were feeling the effects of the recession.

In his first few years at the school, Culver restructured one of the nation’s largest private universities. He decreased the size of the freshmen class, made budget cuts and laid off about 150 employees.

Culver then refinanced Northeastern’s debt and allowed the University to make investments in needed campus renovations. The improvements to the school increased its popularity, and average SAT scores on campus are now in the 1100-1300 range.

“I was involved in making it a smaller and better university,” Culver said.

The Wall Street Journal published an article praising the restructuring of Northeastern as an example for other universities to follow.

“As the Northeastern experience shows, a college, like a corporation, can benefit from rational restructuring and cost cutting,” Journal staff reporter Steve Stecklow wrote in October 1994.

Northeastern President Richard Freeland said Culver left Northeastern with a legacy of effectiveness leadership.

“During years of severe financial pressure, he played a key role in modernizing our systems of financial management, led a series of physical enhancements to the campus and initiated major improvements in information systems,” Freeland said.

Experiencing labor

As the vice president for finance and administration, Culver must lead Yale through its labor negotiations with Locals 34 and 35. Both contracts expire Jan. 20.

While working at Northeastern, Culver served on the Boston School Committee from 1992 to 1994 and made headlines in The Boston Globe during negotiations with the Boston Teachers Union.

Culver was one of two members of the committee who played a direct role in helping to negotiate the contact in a series of negotiations. While the negotiations had some close calls, including a one-day teacher walk out, the city managed to avoid a teachers strike, according to the Globe.

“It went smoothly,” Culver said of the experience.

But Ed Doherty, president of the union, said that although he grew to respect Culver, he initially found him too firm a supporter of management rights and too fiscally conservative.

“I would say when I began my relationship with him, I thought he was a tough negotiator and not terribly sympathetic,” Doherty said. “By the time he left the school committee, he was much more responsive to the union issues and had a better idea of where we were coming from.”

Doherty added that although the negotiations were difficult and intense, the results pleased both the school committee and the union.

The challenges

Although no one is quite sure how the Sept. 11 attacks will affect Yale, Culver said he will closely study the short and long term economic impacts.

Like his predecessor Mullinix, Culver said one of his top priorities is to stay committed to these projects and to manage them in the most effective way given new economic realities.

“We do have to continue to internally assess our plans should the economy continue into recession,” Culver said.

With respect to labor negotiations, Culver said that he hopes his outsider status will allow him to bring a new perspective to a negotiation process which has developed an infamous reputation. Union and University officials echoed these sentiments.

Culver has already met with both Local 35 President Bob Proto and Local 34 President Laura Smith.

“He seems very open minded, in my opinion, to looking at the history of labor management relations here, and he seems like he’s being open minded on going the course of finding a better way to do business,” Proto said.

University officials are confident that in the long search for a new vice president of finance and administration, Culver emerged as the best candidate because he has the experience to handle these challenges.

“It was worth it to get the right person,” Provost Alison Richard said of the long search process to find Culver. “And we got the right person.”