Yale President Richard Levin celebrates the 10th anniversary of his appointment today with little fanfare — a suitable commemoration of his understated, yet effective, leadership over the past decade.
During his 10-year tenure, Levin — the Ivy League’s longest-serving president — has led the University’s physical, academic and economic rejuvenation. Under his leadership, the University has invested the $1 billion in the sciences, initiated campus-wide renovations, and strengthened ties with New Haven.
“Partly through good fortune, but partly through good leadership, this University has had a renaissance in the past 10 years,” Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said.
While Levin enjoys widespread popularity among students and alumni, he has not been immune to criticism — recently, a bitter dispute between the Yale administration and its two largest unions has attracted national attention. But even Levin’s critics admit he has been one of the most successful presidents in Yale’s history.
A new vision for Yale
During his 1993 inaugural address, Levin set lofty goals for the University, promising to improve town-gown relations, devote more resources to science education, and increase Yale’s globalization efforts.
Under Levin’s predecessor Benno Schmidt ’63, the University experienced one of its worst financial crises in recent memory. The physical state of the campus — along with the administration’s relationship with the faculty — was deteriorating rapidly. Advocating a “selective excellence” policy, Schmidt instituted a hiring freeze and even proposed cutting entire academic departments.
Yale Center for International and Area Studies Director Gustav Ranis said it was refreshing to serve under a president who had served as Graduate School Dean and Economics Department chairman. He said Levin’s academic experience makes him a well-liked president among faculty members.
“Schmidt left a pretty bad heritage because he didn’t really appreciate how universities function,” Ranis said. “I think he didn’t consult widely with faculty, so in a sense it was great relief to move from someone who really had not handled relationships with faculty very well — to someone who really did understand.”
If Levin’s experience at the University — he earned his doctorate in economics at Yale and never left — has served him well, so has the flourishing economy, Smith said. Taking advantage of robust national economic growth, Levin helped Yale’s endowment grow from $3.2 billion in 1993 to its current value of $10.3 billion.
“It helps to be president at the right time,” Smith said.
Since declaring his vision for Yale 10 years ago, Levin has proceeded with University matters in a modest and quiet — yet effective — manner, University Secretary Linda Lorimer said.
One of Levin’s primary strengths has been his ability to appoint a talented team of administrators, a quality Smith said is critical for effective university leadership. For most of his tenure, Levin worked closely with a core group of leaders, including Brodhead, former Provost Alison Richard, and former Graduate School Dean Susan Hockfield, who became the new provost in December.
With the support of a strong administration, Levin pursued a number of long-term goals to improve the University.
History chairman Jon Butler, who has known Levin for 15 years, praised Levin’s academic leadership in Schmidt’s wake.
“In the last decade, the University has witnessed the growth of interesting and intriguing new programs,” Butler said. “We’ve made a renewed commitment to sciences, a renewed commitment to engineering, and at the same time sustained the quality of the humanities departments, which classically are the areas of Yale’s greatest strength.”
In addition to her praise of Levin’s on-campus initiatives, Lorimer pointed to his national influence, especially on the issue of early admissions policy. In December 2001, Levin criticized early admissions policies and announced last fall that the University would switch from a binding early decision policy to a nonbinding early action policy.
“President Levin has become a national spokesperson for higher education,” Lorimer said. “He is readily called upon to testify on Capitol Hill or confer with cabinet officers about issues ranging from intellectual property rights to science and research and we all know he helped launch the national debate about early decision policies.”
Levin has also worked to improve town-gown relations during his tenure — something he said has been a highlight of his career.
“There have been many successful initiatives that have given me a lot of satisfaction,” Levin said. “Probably, changes in New Haven have been the most visible and directly gratifying.”
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said Levin has done “a good job” reaching out to the city.
“I don’t think you can point to a period in time in which the city and University have been as supportive of each other as has been the case over the last 10 years,” DeStefano said.
But not all New Haven residents have been pleased with Levin’s leadership.
After more than a year of fruitless bargaining, Yale’s two largest unions, locals 34 and 35, went on a weeklong strike last month. Though the unions denounced Yale’s labor practices as unfair, Local 34 President Laura Smith said Levin “has begun moving Yale in the right direction” with respect to union issues.
“But I think he’s still far short of where we’d like to see Yale be in terms of its relationship with New Haven and certainly with its workers,” Smith said. “There is a long way to go.”
Levin said the labor situation is currently his greatest challenge.
“Obviously, with the successes and rebuilding the campus and strengthening many of the academic programs, introducing international initiatives, the biggest remaining challenge is to improve our labor relations,” Levin said.
Preparing for the future
In an era when Ivy League presidents rarely remain in their posts for more than a decade, Levin has given no indication of stepping down.
“He is as fresh and energetic today as he was his first day in office,” Lorimer said. “I fully expect him to be here for many, many more years and I wouldn’t be surprised if we found ourselves celebrating his 20th anniversary before we know it.”
Based on unfavorable economic conditions, Levin is preparing to be more stringent with University spending.
“The next few years will be different from the past few years in that the economic conditions are not as favorable for expansion and growth, so the pace of change will be reduced and consequently, we will need to focus on carrying through with initiatives already underway,” Levin said.
Lorimer said 10 more years would be enough time for many of Levin’s initiatives to come to fruition.
“By that time, the $500 million science initiative will be completed, the internationalization efforts greatly advanced, the residential college renovations finished, and luster added to many of the graduate and professional school programs,” Lorimer said.
When asked how he has changed during his 10 years as University president, Levin gave a characteristically modest answer.
“I have more experience,” he said.