On Oct. 2, 1993, Yale President Richard Levin took the stage at his inauguration. Previously the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Levin assumed leadership of a University that was running a substantial budget deficit, allowing its physical plant to deteriorate and planning to reduce the faculty by 10 percent.
On Thursday morning, nearly 20 years later, Levin announced that he plans to step down at the end of the academic year. As one of the longest-serving presidents in Yale’s 311-year history, he leaves behind a legacy defined by revitalization in New Haven and newfound expansion abroad.
With the end of Levin’s era now in sight and the hardships of the early 1990s a distant memory, many are already asking whether he might be remembered as one of Yale’s greatest presidents — if not the greatest.
“Rick’s a legacy,” Law professor and former Dean of Yale Law School Anthony Kronman GRD ’72 LAW ’75 said. “His accomplishments taken in the aggregate over the very long time that they have accumulated add up to something which is unmatched in American higher education today, and many will argue, I think with justification, in the whole history of Yale University.”
A MAINTENANCE, DEFERRED
At the time of Levin’s appointment, the University was “broken,” with a “profound” physical deterioration after years of neglect, former Yale Corporation Senior Fellow Roland Betts ’68 said.
“I had the feeling that I had been living in the house that had been built by a very generous grandfather, but that I couldn’t afford to keep it up,” Kronman said. “It was becoming threadbare, shabby around the edges. It has been the work of two decades to put all of that right.”
Over the past two decades, Yale underwent the largest expansion of its physical plant since the 1930s — spurred by a ballooning endowment and guided by Levin’s hand. Now, Kronman said, the campus “glows.”
Major expansions and renovations seen under the Levin administration include the roughly $500 million renovation of all 12 residential colleges, the $107 million purchase of West Campus and the ongoing construction of the $322 million new School of Management campus.
Many of those projects were made possible by the University’s expanding endowment, which grew more than sixfold during Levin’s tenure — from $3.2 billion when he took office to roughly $19.4 billion as of June 2011. Key to this success was the president’s partnership with Chief Investment Officer David Swensen, who was at the University when he arrived and is widely credited with redefining the model for institutional investing.
Further bolstering the endowment, Levin oversaw more than $7 billion in donations during his tenure. He pledged to see the latest capital campaign — a five-year endeavor known as Yale Tomorrow — through its finish, and the drive concluded on June 30, 2011 as the largest in University history, raising $3.88 billion.
Only one of his major fundraising goals remains incomplete: Yale must secure an additional $300 million before it can begin construction on the two new residential colleges.
BEYOND THE ELM CITY
The reputation Levin holds today as a university president with a global outlook began in the early years of his term.
“Yale’s early 18th century mandate was to educate leaders and citizens for a small New England colony. By the mid-19th century, our compass had become the whole nation,” Levin said in his inaugural address. “As we enter the 21st century, we must aspire to educate leaders for the whole world.”
Since then, the proportion of international students at the University has more than doubled. The number of study abroad programs available to students and partnerships with elite international schools, such as Peking University in Beijing and University of Oxford, has also increased.
Chief among the international efforts Levin has overseen as president is the University’s partnership with the National University of Singapore in the creation of a new college: Yale-NUS. The school, announced in September 2010 and set to open in the fall of 2013, will be the first liberal arts institution in Singapore and will be entirely funded by the city-state’s government. Administrators have said curriculum taught at the school will incorporate both eastern and western tradition and help build Yale’s reputation abroad.
Yale-NUS has faced criticism from some faculty and students in New Haven concerned by the lack of political freedoms in Singapore. Last year — against Levin’s wishes — the Yale College Faculty passed a resolution on Yale-NUS by a significant margin, urging the college to uphold principles of non-discrimination and civil liberties.
But Betts said he remains confident that Levin’s work with Yale-NUS will be continued by the Corporation and the Yale-NUS Board of Governors, the latter of which Levin will continue to serve on even after stepping down from the presidency.
“During his two decades of tenure, Yale has become global in a way it simply wasn’t before,” said John Pepper ’60, former University vice president for finance administration and former senior fellow of the Corporation.
The relationship between administrators and faculty was at a historic low when Levin took office.
Confronted by budget shortfalls, former University President Benno Schmidt Jr. ’63 LAW ’66 and his administration had considered cutting the size of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences by 10 percent. The sciences in particular had been overlooked, and Yale was questioning whether it even needed an engineering school, Yale College Dean Mary Miller said.
The Yale community required a leader who could help reclaim the University’s status as one of the world’s finest institutions of higher education.
By 2000, the University had pledged to spend $1 billion on supporting the sciences, and in 2007, Yale purchased the 136-acre Bayer Pharmaceuticals campus in West Haven, now known as West Campus. Throughout Levin’s tenure, the size of the FAS has grown by roughly 15 percent.
Several administrators interviewed said Yale’s sciences have undergone a revolution, and Miller said Levin has increased the University’s commitment to science, technology and engineering disciplines, while never neglecting the humanities and social sciences. School of Music Dean Robert Blocker also praised Levin for his commitment to the arts and his multi-disciplinary knowledge, explaining that he has positioned the University as a global leader academically.
“There are precious few renaissance type presidents in the country, let alone the world, who could talk about Mozart with the authority of a musicologist…[then] move to world affairs and outline all the important political and cultural considerations in forging alliances between China and the United States,” Blocker said. “This is a person of uncommon intellect and intellectual curiosity.”
But for all of Levin’s influence on the University, the one thing he can not dictate is his successor. That choice will ultimately rest with a search committee, to be appointed by the Corporation in the coming weeks.
Vernon Loucks Jr. ’57, senior fellow of the Corporation when Levin became president, said that if asked who he thinks should be Levin’s successor, he would say “give me a Rick.”
“You can’t replace such a man, you can only follow him,” Loucks said. “I think that says it pretty well. Whoever comes after Rick is going to be judged against a standard that’s extremely difficult to realize.”