On April 15, 2002, Richard Levin was named president of Yale University. In October of that year, according to the pomp of the investiture ceremony, he accepted the keys to the school and his chain of office. He then delivered an inaugural address during which he described the relationship between Yale and world:
“We help shape our society through the highly visible and distinguished leaders we educate,” he said, “and we also improve public life and public discourse by cultivating in all our students those qualities of mind most conducive to the health of democracy.”
President Levin’s words displayed the rhetoric of a democratic populace. Like many Yale presidents who preceded him, he addressed the responsibility of Yale students to upholding the values that make a republic function. The goals of Yale, he said, are “to preserve and advance knowledge, to defend free inquiry and free expression, to educate leaders and thinking citizens, to teach the world around us to give scope for human achievement and to nurture human potential.”
The school that Levin inherited was rife with financial instability. The academic climate was harshly divided between the left and the right. Growing conflict over the Bass Grant for the study of Western civilization and continuing union struggles awaited him at Woodbridge Hall.
Levin’s leadership style was nonconfrontational. He faced problems as they arose, often with as little disruption as possible. Sometimes such shake-ups were necessary, but changes implemented were gradual rather than sudden. This style has been successful, particularly in rebuilding Yale’s endowment.
With the financial backing to stabilize the University, his rhetoric shifted at the end of Yale’s third century. With the coming of the Tercentennial, his language moved away from New Haven and toward the world. Suddenly, American Yale became Global Yale. Indeed, as the President said at a speech in Peking:
“As Yale enters its fourth century, our goal is to become a truly global university — educating leaders and advancing the frontiers of knowledge not simply for the United States, but for the entire world.”
Yale as a global institution was a new formulation of how the University served the larger world. Historically, Yale had dedicated itself to a distinctly American goal. Now, though, Yale would define itself as a training ground for leaders on a larger stage. With the opening of the Center for the Study of Globalization, the creation of the World Fellows Program, and Yale’s continued work with China, we expanded our sphere of influence.
Where are we going next, Mr. President?
Yale’s financial stability offers a time to re-examine Yale’s place in American higher education. And with raging debates over the future of American foreign and domestic policy, this seems the appropriate moment in history for Yale to reassert itself as a guiding force in civil society.
Harvard, under the leadership of Lawrence Summers has already taken up that role. Summers’ confrontational style has not endeared himself to many at his own institution, but throughout the country (and especially by many at Yale) he is being praised for his willingness to put himself on the line for different causes. Whether it’s his criticism of professor Cornel West or his urgings on behalf of ROTC, Summers has become a public figure.
With a decade under your belt, Mr. President, I ask that you do the same.
Yale’s success provides the opportunity to expand upon the role of the University president and restore it to an older model. The president of a major university can be a leader in higher education. His statements, even if disagreed upon by many in the community, can incite national debate. And such a president will set a model of leadership for college students as they look toward their active roles in the outside world.
Mr. President, I ask that you keep in mind a statement from the inaugural address of former Yale President A. Whitney Griswold, delivered on October 6, 1950:
“If democracy depends upon education as its ‘engine of government,’ the proper functioning of that engine depends upon the maintenance of standards; and in this work Yale stands, with a few — a very few — of her sister universities, prima inter pares.”
Congratulations, Mr. President, on a decade of service. In your next decade, remind us of Griswold’s vision.
Justin Zaremby is a senior in Calhoun College. His column appears regularly on alternate Tuesdays.