University President Richard Levin needs a right-hand man, a scientist and a successor — and not necessarily in that order.

With Provost Andrew Hamilton’s impending departure for the top job at Oxford, Levin needs a No. 2 to help guide the construction of two new residential colleges. He needs someone to help oversee the launch of the West Campus and Yale’s continued investment in the sciences. And, complicating all that, he may need to start thinking about who might follow in his footsteps as Yale’s next president.

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In many ways, Levin’s choice of the University’s next provost will open a window deep into his plans for the next five years, both for Yale and his own personal career trajectory. Will Levin appoint a scientist, underscoring his commitment to boosting the University’s science reputation? Or will he choose a young, rising star, a Yale alumna who in a few years could be anointed Yale’s 23rd president? Or none of the above?

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey GRD ’86 and Deputy Provost for Faculty Development Judith Chevalier ’89 are seen as the two leading candidates for the position, according to several University administrators who spoke on the condition of anonymity, granted so the officials could discuss a sensitive search process. But they said there is serious doubt as to whether either administrator has any interest in the job, and there is little indication as to whom else Levin might choose.

Yet one thing is certain: We will know soon. Although he declined to comment on individual candidates, Levin says he plans to choose Hamilton’s successor by the end of the summer. “There are lots of good people, and I’m just trying to sort it out,” he said.

Looking for an internal candidate

When University officials announced Hamilton’s nomination to the Oxford vice-chancellorship last month, they released few details about how Yale would replace him, or even when it would install a successor, since Hamilton will not take office until the fall of 2009. But in a recent interview, Levin said he expects to have a provost appointed by the end of the summer so that he or she can take office sometime this autumn, allowing Hamilton to focus on finishing his research activities and then take a break before heading to Oxford.

In other words, the search is on. While Levin said he considered the possibility of examining a few external candidates, he said he is inclined to appoint a provost from within the Yale faculty.

“There’s a lot of outstanding people on our faculty who are devoted to the institution and have excellent leadership skills,” Levin said. “I would only look outside if I have somehow found I could not attract [any internal candidates to the job].”

For Levin, this will be the fourth go-around at selecting a provost, and much can be gleaned about likely candidates based on his previous selections. In all cases, Levin’s choices have been distinguished scholars in their respective fields. Also, in all cases, each person had significant administrative experience — more than simply chairing an academic department, for instance.

In the interview, Levin shed some light on what he will be looking for in his future No. 2. Unlike at many other schools, at Yale, the power to appoint a provost essentially lies with the president, not a search committee or any other body, a protocol Levin called “very wise.”

“There has to be real chemistry between the president and the provost,” he said. “To be successful, the president and provost have to have a really close, mutually trusting relationship.”

It would make sense for Levin to appoint a scientist — much in the mold of Hamilton, a chemist, and former provost Susan Hockfield, a neurobiologist and the current president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — as the University launches operations on the West Campus and continues its massive investment in the sciences.

“From my perspective, having a scientist as provost has been incredibly helpful in working toward that goal,” said Meg Urry, the chairman of the Physics Department.

Gary Brudvig, the chairman of the Chemistry Department, agreed.

“I very much hope that another scientist will be appointed,” he said. “We are just getting started with plans for the West Campus, and, with all of the development on Science Hill, I think it is very important to have someone with a good understanding of science as the provost.”

Hamilton, after all, was the only scientist in Yale’s senior administration. But while Levin acknowledged that a certain benefit would come from appointing a scientist, he said he cannot let that factor alone drive his decision.

“There were many advantages to having the last two of my provosts be scientists at a time when we’re really investing heavily in science,” Levin said, “but I do feel it’s also important to think about just getting the best person.”

Levin said that if he does not appoint a scientist, and perhaps even if he does, he will appoint another official to the Provost’s Office who specializes in science and technology, perhaps with the charge of overseeing the West Campus.

But whatever the president decides to do, it is unlikely he will be second-guessed. In higher-education circles, Levin is revered for his track record seeking out administrative appointees in the way that a baseball scout might look for up-and-coming pitching prospects. All three provosts Levin has appointed have been named to university presidencies; in total, seven officials from his 15-year administration have been wooed away to take the top positions at other schools.

In other words, much is on the line when Levin selects a provost — both for the institution and for the person he selects. But based on interviews this week with a range of professors and administrators across the University, the field for the position appears as wide open as any in recent memory.

The early frontrunners

From the moment Hamilton’s departure was announced last month, it seemed clear that Salovey and Chevalier would be the two most obvious choices for the job. Yet over the last six weeks, it has grown less and less certain whether either of them could even be convinced to actually accept the position.

Some professors seem to doubt that the student-friendly Salovey would want to move to such an administrative- and budget-focused position, or whether such a move would even be in the best interest of the University. Then again, if Levin wanted to position Salovey as a contender to be Yale’s 23rd president, appointing him provost would certainly help the cause.

In a telephone interview, Salovey, 50, said he was flattered to be seen as a frontrunner for the position. But he declined to comment on his candidacy.

“When I was named dean of Yale College, Dean Brodhead said to me, ‘You now have the best job in higher education in America,’ and I agree with him,” Salovey said, referring to Duke president and former Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead ’68 GRD ’72. “If it’s not obvious, I’m very happy.”

Lesser known but just as serious a contender for the job, the 40-year-old Chevalier, a professor of finance and economics at the School of Management, has only one year of administrative experience under her belt but is seen as a rising star within the faculty. A distinguished economist and occasional columnist for The New York Times, she seems to be an intriguing possibility as a potential successor to Levin himself. (She did not respond to three requests for comment.)

Yet the administrators said there are significant doubts as to whether Chevalier, who has a young family, would want a promotion to a role with even more time-consuming administrative responsibilities.

That uncertainty has made the search considerably more complicated. It also could explain why Levin now says Hamilton’s successor might not be named until August, rather than earlier this summer, as first seemed apparent.

In the interview, Levin noted that the job — like other top administrative posts — is not a perfect fit for everyone.

“These jobs call for enormous sacrifice; it’s not everyone who wants them,” he said. “In general, I’ve had a pretty good record of attracting people … [but] my batting average is not 1.000.”

Still, when former Yale provost Alison Richard was named vice-chancellor of Cambridge in 2002, Levin named Hockfield as her successor nine days later. In other words, if Salovey or Chevalier were going to succeed Hamilton, history suggests they would already have been appointed.

The rest of the field

If Salovey and Chevalier are out of the running, the semblance of any frontrunner for the position vanishes entirely. No matter whom Levin selects, the choice will likely be viewed as something of a surprise.

Still, several professors stand out as possessing both the academic repute and the administrative experience that seemingly would suit them well to the position of provost, although it is not known whether they have a particularly acute interest in the job:

¶ Michael Donoghue, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and former chairman of that department. Donoghue — perhaps the most likely of the “surprise” candidates — last month ended a five-year stint as director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, the same position from which Levin elevated Richard in 1994.

¶ Ian Shapiro GRD ’83 LAW ’87, Sterling Professor of Political Science and the director of the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. Formerly the chairman of the Political Science Department, Shapiro was rumored to be a candidate for provost in past years.

¶ Michael Snyder, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology who served as chair of that department from 1998 to 2004, leading it over a period when it doubled in size and tripled its grant funding. The knock against Snyder: He is such a world-class scientist — he is a leader in the University’s efforts at stem-cell research — that it might not be prudent to rip him from his laboratory and stick him in an office on Prospect Street.

¶ Donald Green, a professor of political science and the director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies.

¶ Charles Bailyn ’81, the director of undergraduate studies for astronomy. The former chairman of that department and the former chairman of Yale’s Teaching and Learning Committee, Bailyn has been mentioned in past years as a candidate for provost and was a finalist for the position of dean of Yale College before Salovey was appointed.

In elevating Hamilton to the position of provost in 2004, Levin chose a candidate who had both sterling academic credentials and a wealth of administrative experience. Hamilton, at the time, had served for one year as deputy provost for science and technology and had previously served as chairman of the Chemistry Department, yet was also a renowned scholar.

But there is no one with a similar resume to be found within the Provost’s Office this time.

Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steve Girvin, who holds Hamilton’s former position, is renowned as a theoretical physicist but lacks significant administrative experience beyond his one year in his current position. None of the other officials in the Provost’s Office is expected to be a contender for the job, as most do not have teaching appointments but are full-time administrators. (Professors generally agree that a provost should come from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and not Yale’s professional schools or its administrative bureaucracy.)

Predicting Levin’s choice would grow exponentially more difficult if he chooses to tap a person whose top administrative experience is limited to chairing a department, given that there are so many professors who fit that description. Another option — given the pressure on Levin to appoint a scientist — would be for the president to select a department chairman from the School of Medicine, a move that also would prove surprising.

The successor question

An issue that surely will play into Levin’s decision is whether or not he sees his appointee as a candidate to become Yale’s next president.

In an interview this winter, Levin — who took office in 1993 and is the longest-serving president in the Ivy League — said that it was “reasonable” to expect he could step down in 2011 when the University’s capital campaign, Yale Tomorrow, concludes. That would suggest he could be shopping for a successor in appointing the next provost.

Asked whether he was taking the successor question into consideration, Levin turned the tables: He said he believes all of his past provosts were cut out to be president, just as this appointee should be.

“I think every provost that I’ve picked has been someone worth of being a successor, and I think the external market has ratified that,” Levin said. “In that sense, it’s no different.”

But when considering who might have presidential qualities, a whole new list of considerations arises: Are they young enough? (After all, Levin was 45 when he was appointed.) Will the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, feel pressure to appoint a woman, something it has never done before? (Harvard and Princeton already have.) Does it matter whether he or she has a Yale degree? (Levin does. Judith Rodin, the former Yale provost who was passed over for the presidency in 1993, did not.)

Aside from the issue of gender, Salovey, who received his doctorate from Yale, certainly fits those criteria. A younger administrator like Chevalier, an alumna of Davenport College, does, too — perhaps more so.

And despite the looming tasks of overseeing the new colleges and the West Campus, it still could be a good time to appoint someone relatively youthful: The administrative core of the Provost’s Office has been in place for years, and because of Yale’s financial prosperity, the new provost will not face any serious budgetary concerns at least in the near future.

On the other hand, if Levin does not feel as if he is ready to groom a young administrator as a possible successor, he could conceivably appoint a veteran administrator like Jon Butler, the 68-year-old dean of the Graduate School, to serve in the post over the short term. Such an appointment would preserve Levin the opportunity to appoint another provost in a few years and groom his successor closer to when he intends to retire.

Two years ago, for instance, Harvard re-installed the longtime former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the late Jeremy Knowles, to his previous post in order to fill a power vacuum as the university was searching for a president to replace Larry Summers. Levin made such a move in 2003 when he tapped the Corporation’s senior fellow, former Procter & Gamble chairman and chief executive officer John Pepper ’60, to serve as vice president for finance and administration for what ended up as a two-year stint.

Such an appointment probably would not provide Levin with a scientist, given the relative unlikelihood that a science faculty member would be willing to abandon his or her research for such a short-term posting, and it would not provide any speedy answers about a possible succession plan.

But beggars can’t be choosers.