Ten years ago, University President Richard Levin presented the Yale Corporation with a list of his goals for the next decade, ranging from globalizing the University to investing in the sciences.
The last item on the list: “Build two new residential colleges,” Levin confessed Monday.
That aim, like the others before it, now seems almost certain to be realized. And, fittingly, that last item on Levin’s list may be the last element of his legacy, too.
In his first public comments since he endorsed the expansion plan in a written statement e-mailed to the Yale community last Monday, an especially candid Levin reflected back on the origin of the proposal to build two new residential colleges — one that stretches back to the earliest days of his presidency.
After reviewing a report commissioned a year ago on the consequences of expansion, the Yale Corporation over the weekend directed administrators to continue planning for the new colleges, with a vote on final approval likely to come later this year.
But from his plush office on the first floor of Woodbridge Hall, where he invited reporters for an extended interview Monday afternoon, Levin acknowledged he had been pondering expansion for much longer.
“I have thought of this for a long time as … the desirable thing to do,” he said, rocking methodically in a wicker chair that once belonged to Ezra Stiles, a 1746 graduate of Yale College who led the University during the earliest years of the Republic.
But for much of his tenure, Levin concluded, the University was simply not in a position to pull the trigger on such a massive project. A preliminary budget estimate placed the cost of the two new colleges at no less than $600 million — greater than the total endowment of the average American university.
Levin, the longest-serving president in the Ivy League, inherited a severe budget deficit when he took office in 1993. Over his first five years in the presidency, expanding the University was not even on the radar, Levin recalled.
His priorities, he said, were simple: overhauling campus facilities — “the place was crumbling,” Levin recalled — and improving Yale’s relationship with New Haven.
After five years, he and his administrative confidantes sat down to develop a 10-year plan to present to the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body. Among the goals in that document were internationalizing the University, going green and investing in the sciences.
On the list, too, was the residential-college proposal — but to be completed last, when everything else was done.
“I thought for Yale’s long-term reputation and global standing, we really needed to tackle the other things first,” Levin said. “When we got those moving, and we had the resources to move ahead with expansion of the undergraduate population, then we’d tackle it.”
Today, some members of two committees charged with examining expansion’s impact on academics and student life have speculated that cost could be the Achilles heel to Levin’s aspirations. And, back in 1998, the money question reared its ugly, gilded head, too.
“It’s actually one reason I didn’t push for it until the last few years,” Levin said.
But since 1998, the University’s endowment has more than tripled, rising from $6.6 billion to today’s $22.5 billion through the investment acumen of Chief Investment Officer David Swensen.
And as the endowment soared, talk about the colleges began to percolate. In 2000, the University published its Framework for Campus Planning, which mapped out a location for the new colleges, behind the Grove Street Cemetery along Prospect Street.
The University continued to “keep quiet” about the expansion plans, Levin said, although he admitted that he began broaching the idea with alumni at least five years ago.
In a sense, Levin’s admission vindicates the angst-ridden students who have bitterly lamented in recent months that the new colleges were a “done deal” and that their construction was inevitable.
Levin’s comments amount to the second indicator in as many days of the firm institutional support for expansion. Corporation Senior Fellow Roland Betts ’68 acknowledged in an interview with the News over the weekend that the Corporation has been in consensus support of expansion for about three years.
“If you’re ever going to expand, this is the right time to do it,” Betts said.
And while only one in four undergraduates supports expansion, according to a poll the News conducted earlier this month, Levin — like Betts — showed no hesitance in his desire to nurse the University into a 14-college existence.
“The general feeling is we’d like to do this,” he said. “It’s good for posterity, and its good for Yale’s future.”
If, as is expected, the Corporation authorizes the new colleges at its meetings in April or in June, the University would likely break ground in the first half of 2011, with the colleges set to open in the fall of 2013.
And the 60-year-old Levin — a father of four and a member of Yale’s faculty since 1974 — did not rule out retiring from the presidency before the new colleges welcome their first students.
“Will I be here to open the doors on the new colleges? I don’t know,” Levin said. “Will I be here to see the planning done and the construction started? Yeah.”
That time — 2011 — coincides with the conclusion of Yale’s $3 billion capital campaign, Yale Tomorrow, and Levin seemed to hint that such a moment might be a reasonable point to hand over the reins to the University’s 23rd chief executive.
“That’s certainly reasonable,” he said. “I’m not planning to leave before that.”