Ten years ago this month, Richard Levin became Yale’s 22nd president. Levin was fortunate to inherit the presidency in a decade of considerable prosperity, and he made large and necessary investments in dilapidated buildings and ailing departments. But now, ten years later, the economic landscape looks markedly different, and Levin will need to find redefine what it means to lead this university.
Levin made big financial moves when it was prudent to do so, and the new, slow economy won’t undo his accomplishments. His work over the past decade sets him up to make far-reaching changes at Yale and in higher education itself. Even without the luxury of a budgetary surplus, Levin should continue to re-envision Yale, the academic world, and how to improve them both.
Levin set clear priorities in his inaugural address, promising to improve town-gown relations, education in the sciences, and Yale’s globalization efforts. He has devoted his tenure to these goals, and has also appointed a skilled set of administrators, conducted a comprehensive academic review, and overseen superlative endowment growth. He has become known for his understated leadership, quietly affecting change but rarely stepping into the spotlight. One thing Levin has been reluctant to keep quiet, however, is the jackhammer; several ambitious construction projects provide visible evidence of his reforms. But all that’s about to change.
This week, the University projected a $30 million budget deficit for the 2004-2005 fiscal year. The endowment has slowed in its rate of growth, and alumni giving has dropped. While Levin’s most ambitious initiatives — the residential college renovations and construction on Science Hill — will not be affected by the proposed spending cuts, Levin will not, at least in the immediate future, have the luxury of planning such grand projects. We know he can build dorms and dining halls, but, with money tight, what should he be building now?
Levin — unlike his counterparts at other institutions — has been good about picking his battles. But in the past year, Levin has shown an increased willingness to fight those battles in the spotlight, becoming a leader in the national debate on early admissions policies, for example. We are encouraged by Levin’s emerging public face and his commitment to doing what he believes is fundamentally right. Regardless of how our yield and ranking are affected by the switch to Early Action, Levin must continue to fight for it and further reforms in college admissions policies. There are futher opportunities to make Yale a national leader on issues ranging from the debate on military recruitment in law schools nationwide to questions that still linger after last year’s Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action. Levin has earned the credit and respect to make Yale the vanguard on these issues. He must continue to push for the values of the University and cannot become complacent.
Levin is a skilled leader and a savvy economist, and not all presidents could have accomplished what he has. But he was also lucky, fortunate to lead during such prosperity. For the moment, the days of skyrocketing endowments and ambitious building projects are over. But Yale’s commitment to continuous improvement should not be. We’ve seen that Levin knows how to lay foundations — now he has the opportunity to show what those buildings stand for.