Today Richard Levin begins what could be his second decade in Woodbridge Hall and, we hope, the second phase of his Yale presidency. For the last 10 years, Levin has been just what the University needed when he took office in 1993, a dedicated and creative administrator: patient, optimistic and chronically shy of the national spotlight. But now he is the elder statesman of the Ivy League, the longest-serving president and the one most able to be a national advocate for higher education as a whole, not just for Yale. And after a decade of his characteristic understatement, we are looking forward to a little flash.
Much has happened for the better at Yale during our first Levin decade and much of it because of his modest style of management, his skill for recruiting a talented administration and his ability to lead by facilitating. When he came here most were forecasting doom, and now the University is, by many accounts, rejuvenated. We are not faced with cutting departments any more, but the prospect of a 10 percent increase in faculty. We have one-third more international students and 24 new stores and restaurants. The endowment is three times what it was. The relationship between Yale and New Haven is closer to what it should be.
Of course, not every attempted about-face met with success, and it appears the University faces some challenges not even hugs can overcome. Levin nevertheless seems to have found his way in reputation to the echelon of great Yale presidents. In the week leading up to his anniversary, he was with deep admiration called “old-fashioned” and compared in accomplishment to A. Bartlett Giamatti, in potential to Kingman Brewster. He has earned credibility, won our respect, and raised considerably our expectations.
Early decision, Levin’s first major national cause celebre, became through his initiative the subject of a critical yearlong debate among college admissions officers, administrators and high school guidance counselors. It was a noble effort that fell with a thud when Levin tweaked Yale’s early admissions policy in a way that helped high school students but did little to continue the momentum he created.
Now is the time for the administration to use the legitimacy it has gained through a decade of steady internal improvements to take similar positions and help to lead a discourse on higher education. In recent months, Levin has spoken publicly about affirmative action — an important cause he has the authority to discuss and the credibility to influence. There are issues in academia — tenure, for example — which need to be addressed and re-evaluated at Yale and around the country. And there are broad concerns, including international students’ rights, that will demand attention in the near future.
If President Levin continues his productive and unassuming approach to running Yale, this University will continue the renaissance he began a decade ago. But if he uses the second part of his tenure to take a more public role, Levin’s legacy has the potential to extend beyond Yale and New Haven to college campuses everywhere.