Last week, President Levin was scheduled to address Yale sophomores at the first inaugural Sophomore Class Dinner. Levin showed up to give the speech, but his performance was a firm demonstration of complete indifference towards the student body.
President Levin arrived at Commons to deliver his speech 25 minutes after the scheduled time, and only after numerous phone calls from Yale College Dean Mary Miller.
Unfortunately, though, the speech was devoid of content. Levin spoke for all of about ten minutes and gave sophomores nothing more to think about than the stock advice one could find in books, on the Internet, or from anyone who has ever given a moment’s thought to the experience of being a college student.
Take advantage of the opportunities Yale offers you, he said. Go to Yale’s museums. They’re great. Go to concerts. There are a lot of them here. And study abroad. All fine advice — but surely nothing new. Not one story, not one insightful thought or piece of advice, not one comment aimed at forging a connection with his audience. The speech was no different from one he might give to a class of sophomores at the University of Arizona, or the University of Tokyo, for that matter.
And as soon as he finished the speech, he left. He didn’t bother to stick around for dinner or a performance by the Glee Club, and, after a long wait with no reward, students fled quickly, too.
Maybe Levin was having a bad day. Maybe he had to deal with some sort of crisis. I can’t know why he put apparently no effort into the event. I don’t know if he thought sophomores didn’t care about what he had to say and thus didn’t bother to say much of anything, if he thought we were stupid and would appreciate his stock advice — though that seems unlikely — or if he just didn’t give a damn.
But Yale students should expect more of the president, and he should care about the lives of his students. Or, if that’s too much to ask, he should at least be concerned about students’ opinions for practical reasons — after all, after we graduate, we’ll be the ones Levin and Yale will look to for donations. The time to start making friends is now.
Yale boasts a strong commitment to undergraduates, and that commitment should be on the part of the president, too. As the figurehead of the University, he, more than any other person, represents the attitude of the University as a whole. He should refocus his attention to the students, who provide the school with life and spirit, and show them he is invested in making Yale as intimate and lively a community as possible.
Dean Miller is engaged with students — and perhaps that’s more than some universities can say about any administrator. But her job is to deal with undergraduates, so merely to say she does her job while her peers at other institutions might not is no extreme compliment — though she does do it quite well.
President Levin, though, probably doesn’t have any official need to talk to or know undergraduates. To show concern for them would be to go above the minimum job requirement. But if he is to be a truly excellent president, that’s exactly what he ought to do. Make no mistake — he has done great things for Yale on a grand scale. But he ought to narrow in and pay attention to what actually happens on campus, to the lives of the students for whom he has done so much.
He doesn’t need to devote all — or even more than a very small bit — of his time to undergrads. He doesn’t need to get to know them all. But most students have never even set foot in Woodbridge Hall. Many universities’ presidents hold meals or other events for small groups of students. President Levin hosts his annual Halloween party, but that’s about it.
Each student deserves at least one opportunity to interact with the president in a meaningful way between his welcome speech at the beginning of freshman year and graduation. A lot of students probably wouldn’t take advantage of the opportunity. But a lot would, and the strength of Levin’s popularity and presence on campus would be markedly improved. That interaction could start with the bare minimum level of respect Levin ought to give students to whom he addresses a speech.
Julia Fisher is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.