More than 20 years ago, Fareed Zakaria ’86 flipped a coin in Bombay, India. Never having visited an American college before, he was deciding between Yale and Princeton.

The coin landed on Princeton.

Zakaria then made the decision that would define the course of his life: Something inside told him to make the coin toss the best out of three.

The coin then fell Yale-side-up twice in a row.

“America to me for four years was Yale,” Zakaria said. “I left with a real sense of sadness at the time. I remember roaming around campus the night before graduation with a lump in my throat.”

Twenty years later, Zakaria is back, this time as a newly appointed trustee of the Yale Corporation, which held its first meeting of the year this past weekend. He also serves as editor-in-chief of Newsweek International and finds himself in the upper echelon of popular foreign-policy thinking — he was recently named one of the 21 most important people of the 21st century by Esquire Magazine.

“A century is a long span,” Zakaria’s college roommate and longtime friend David Murphy ’86 said. “But Fareed has that rare gift among authentic intellectuals of being accessible and rigorous. He believes that ideas really do change minds and events, and I have no doubt that his will.”

Although his influence has stretched far beyond New Haven, classmates said Zakaria has remained fundamentally unchanged since the days of his 4 a.m. political debates at Mamoun’s Falafel Restaurant and his impassioned Yale Political Union speeches as a member of the Party of the Right. Still intact today are what friends said struck them about Zakaria in college — individualistic iconoclasm coexisting with a passion for tradition.

“I don’t know anybody who loved Yale more than Fareed did,” said Gideon Rose ’85, who worked on the Yale Political Monthly with Zakaria and currently serves as managing editor of the journal Foreign Affairs. “His background is more different from Yale than you could imagine. It was not a place that brown-skinned Indian Muslims had a particular tradition, but he took to it perfectly, and it took to him.”

Zakaria now sits on the Corporation in part to bring the same uniquely international perspective that inspired more than 600 Yalies to join the YPU in the early 1980s, when he served as YPU president in his sophomore year. And Zakaria has continued his pattern of holding leadership positions at a young age. At 42, he is one of the youngest individuals ever to have served on Yale’s highest decision-making body.

Gam Rose ’86, Zakaria’s junior-year roommate, drew on memories of his friend’s efforts to turn around the YPU in predicting how he might act as a Yale Corporation fellow.

“In the same way that he took [the YPU] from a sleepy organization and made vibrant changes … I think he will continue forward thinking and progressive institutional development,” he said. “He will take Yale well into the 21st century.”

To help lead Yale in its transition to an increasingly global perspective, Zakaria will inevitably draw on the four years he spent as an undergraduate in New Haven, where peers said he brought both innovative reform and his own brand of conservatism to the Yale campus.

“It was odd. He had extreme eccentricity, going around in a full blazer in college,” said Jacob Weisberg ’86, a longtime friend of Zakaria and editor of Slate Magazine. “[Some] thought he was a pompous right-winger, but people who knew him knew different.”

Bowties in the ’80s

When Zakaria first arrived at Yale, the son of a prominent Indian politician and a newspaper editor, he almost immediately found his mission on the Yale campus: to engage hundreds of students in YPU debates.

“The YPU was not doing very well when I was a freshman, and I tried to make the case that it needed to be reformed and revitalized, and I sincerely went around trying to convince everyone that this would be the best thing in the world for everyone,” Zakaria said.

Zakaria, who described himself as “a little precocious,” was elected president of the YPU in his sophomore year in a unanimous vote, a victory that he called “one of the things I’m most proud of.”

He fulfilled his promise to increase interest in the YPU. By the end of the year, membership had skyrocketed from 200 to nearly 800.

“He essentially took a group of moderate- to conservative-minded people who felt that they were very much marginalized from the main social scene,” Gam Rose said. “He gave it a sort of vitality and confidence.”

Zakaria’s success came as no surprise to those who had observed his striking maturity and ambition in conversation.

“There were no doubts in his mind that he was important and was going to continue to be important,” said Cheryl Slover-Linett ’86, who knew Zakaria when they both lived in Berkeley College.

After completing his reign as YPU president, Zakaria found a new outlet for leadership and politics at the Yale Political Monthly, where he got a taste of journalism, the career that would ultimately bring him fame. Rose, who preceded Zakaria as editor of the magazine, said Zakaria was “not a prig with a stuffed shirt or a poser.”

Perhaps Zakaria’s most profound thinking, though, took place in the classroom, as part of a transformational academic experience. First, the content of his classes changed. And then, Zakaria’s classes changed him.

Zakaria said he began his Yale academic career with math, science and engineering classes — what he said a “bright young Indian” is meant to do — but changed his path of studies after taking “Introduction to International Relations.”

A member of the secret society Scroll and Key, Zakaria said he also loved the more ceremonial aspects of his college experience, though he said he did not mesh well with “preppy culture and the world that existed because of that.”

“I loved the pomp and circumstances of the traditions of Yale, because they’re all so colorful and struck me as so very inclusive,” he said. “My reaction when I got to Yale was that I was a bit disoriented, coming from 6,000 miles away, but intellectually, I felt extremely comfortable and very much at home.”

‘Why they love him’

In the tradition of his Yale experience, Zakaria has emerged as a progressive conservative. He has attracted the attention of world leaders and average citizens alike through his weekly columns. And at the same time, he has brought his magazine, Newsweek, into the modern era, beginning with a look into the past. His reaction to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, titled “Why They Hate Us,” marked the beginning of Zakaria’s rapid rise to prominence.

Journalism, however, was not always Zakaria’s intended career path — he had planned to enter academia after earning a doctorate at Harvard and running an extensive foreign-policy research project at the university. But soon, he garnered the attention of Walter Issacson, then the editor of Newsweek, who offered him a job at Foreign Affairs, and by the late ’90s, he had caught the eye of Mark Whitaker, Newsweek’s current editor.

“It was very clear to me that [Zakaria] was interested in the broader challenges of magazine making,” Whitaker said.

In October 2001, Zakaria was offered the job at Newsweek. He also contributes regularly to The Washington Post, is a regular guest on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” and hosts a weekly PBS show, “Foreign Exchange.” He has written several books on democracy building, some of which criticize the Bush administration for misunderstanding the nature of the Middle East but also express support for the liberation movement in Iraq. In all forums, leading national magazine editors said they agree that Zakaria has not failed to instill fresh perspectives and incite discussion.

Ideologically, Zakaria blends a reverence for established institutions with a forward-looking voice. Henry Finder ’86, editorial director of The New Yorker, said Zakaria has emerged as a pragmatist above all.

“He was not seduced by the utopianism of some reformist ideologies, but on the other hand, he always eschewed the kind of contrary extremism of a cramped, parochial national self-interest,” Finder said. “He has emerged as very much of a cosmopolitan voice.”

But Zakaria’s work has not been unanimously accepted. Robert Kagan ’80, a fellow foreign-policy intellectual, wrote a scathing review of Zakaria’s book, “The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.” In the book, Zakaria argued against imposing lower-level signs of democracy such as voting before a country is ready to truly embrace liberty.

In the article, Kagan wrote that Zakaria’s “animus toward popular government is not only theoretical but also personal,” stemming from his privileged upbringing as the “child of elites.”

“My review [was] probably tougher than it needed to be,” Kagan said in an e-mail. “I think the concept of illiberal democracy is flawed, but it’s an honest and serious disagreement.”

Whitaker said that while balancing a family life — he has a wife and two young children — and transforming Newsweek into a more serious and engaging publication during the past half-decade, Zakaria has maintained his composure and drive.

“For someone who does as many things as he does — edits, writes columns, writes books, lectures — he is calm and very relaxed with a great wry sense of humor about things,” Whitaker said.

New Haven and D.C.

Although Zakaria said his children are extremely important to him, he said he did not necessarily expect to engage in policy issues affecting young people until he received a call from Yale President Richard Levin several months ago.

“I always assumed the trustees of Yale were for the most part extremely wealthy people, and probably had some picture of them as blue-bloods and that kind of thing,” he said. “In my mind was a picture of someone who was not like me.”

Levin said Zakaria will combine respect for serious academia with a desire to globalize.

“He will bring great strength in the international arena … but he is also a seriously intellectual person who I think will contribute in a substantive way to discussion of our academic programs,” Levin said.

William F. Buckley, Jr. ’50, who recently went sailing with Zakaria and Murphy, said Zakaria would not impose politics on the Yale Corporation.

“He’s a conservative, but nobody thinks of him as the conservative columnist on Newsweek,” Buckley said.

The Yale Corporation is unlikely to be Zakaria’s last stop. With his progressive but conservative political bent, some pundits have speculated that a future Republican administration will name him secretary of state. Zakaria called such speculation “bizarre,” but said he would be interested in public service. Many of his college classmates expect the news of his nomination to come one day.

“Everyone at Yale anticipated that he might be a future Henry Kissinger,” Finder said.

Several weeks ago, years after the third coin landed Yale-side-up, dozens of Zakaria’s friends gathered to wish him a happy birthday. Despite Zakaria’s plethora of successes, his classmates said the friends he made while at Yale are still central to his life.

“He was off to a very fast start from the gates after Yale, but of all the friends of I’ve had … he’s been the most insidiously loyal and caring about the relationships that he carried forward into his new life,” Gam Rose said. “It’s very clear that the person that he was at Yale seems to be genuinely the person he is today.”