On and around Feb. 25, 1994, when well-known anthropologist and Peabody Museum Director Alison Richard officially agreed to be President Levin’s second-in-command, the provost’s position was not a particularly enviable one. With the appointment, Richard, renowned for her work with primates in Madagascar, inherited the dual threat of a massive budget deficit and the need for substantial faculty cutbacks.
At the press conference that day, she joked that her decision to accept the position could be considered “merely the first error of judgement of the entering provost.”
Today, capping off a virtually unprecedented eight-year term, Richard is expected to officially confirm she is leaving Yale to serve as vice-chancellor at Cambridge University in England. The first major member of Levin’s administration to resign her post, she ends a tenure remarkable for its length, its accomplishments and its personality.
While the job of provost had traditionally been seen as a stepping stone to bigger and better things — Richard’s predecessor Judith Rodin left after a short term to become president of the University of Pennsylvania — Richard from the start emphasized the long haul. She has earned a reputation as a listener, a measured decision-maker, and a “consummate professional,” as one of her colleagues said.
In her time as provost, Richard oversaw a long-term financial plan highlighted by a sustained balanced budget — the University’s first in many years. As Yale’s chief financial and academic officer, she saw the University through a cycle of slumping and prosperous economies with a steady policy of fiscal restraint. When there was no money, she planned and saved. When economic conditions improved, she did the same, helping to ensure the University’s long-term financial stability.
Not unflinchingly popular for her approach to finances and faculty, Richard nevertheless earned respect for her emphasis on action over talk. She kept a low profile as provost, favoring committees and deliberation rather than quick decisions or sweeping policy changes. She methodically emphasized female and minority recruitment and helped shape a faculty considerably more diverse than when she began eight years ago.
She is an administrator who led with intelligence and wit, and when she returns to England, where she grew up, and Cambridge, where she studied as an undergraduate, she will leave large shoes for her successor to fill.
The economy has turned again, universities across the country scrimp and save trying to avoid another round of cutbacks, cursing runaway spending during more prosperous economic periods. Yale, meanwhile, has grown plump and satisfied after years of comfortable spending and active faculty recruitment. It is because of Richard’s ability to impose restraint when the budget loosened up that the University is relatively secure now.
When Levin announced his choice for provost eight years ago, he said he selected Richard because she “acts with a decisiveness grounded in reason and human compassion.” When he announces Richard’s successor in the coming months, hopefully he’ll be able to say the same thing.