When President Rick Levin began his term at Yale in 1993, close to half of the undergraduate student body had yet to be born and Yale was quite a different place. As I’ve heard from alumni of the 1980s and 1990s, our facilities and dormitories were in absolute disrepair and New Haven was an awful place to live.
In less than two decades, his administration has spearheaded several significant transformations. All the residential colleges have been renovated and two new ones are in the process of being built. Yale transitioned from a place purely dedicated to the liberal arts to a research university in which STEM majors occupy an equally important place in the intellectual community.
Yale’s place among the world’s universities became ever more prominent. We are no longer just an important American university in Connecticut, but rather a player on the global stage. Yalies began to study abroad at an unprecedented rate; programs were no longer limited to learning Italian in Siena but included such far-flung ventures as astronomy research programs at observatories in Chile. Closer to home, Yale’s transition from a northeastern bastion of liberal arts education toward an institution that attracts students from countries as varied as Mauritius and Argentina has been an amazing accomplishment. Not only that, but international students can also get financial aid, allowing for those students from abroad not all to be from the most privileged backgrounds.
In New Haven, Levin has improved a town-gown relationship that was in shambles in the wake of peaking crime rates and the urban decay of the early 1990s. These efforts have been struck through partnerships with private developers and University Properties that have helped revitalize and make the town-gown relationship not simply a one-way street but a true collaboration.
We should applaud these accomplishments. They have gone a long way toward making Yale the community where we’ve learned and made some of our best friends.
But some of these changes have come at the cost of making Yale an increasingly top-down institution with an impersonal bureaucracy. This is something I’ve become more conscious of after speaking to alumni who attended Yale in the Giamatti and Brewster years, when the administration was less corporate. I heard from many alumni that previous University presidents were always visible leaders, visiting the college dining halls and interacting with the student body on a regular basis — something entirely unlike the Levin style of administration and interaction with the student body.
Much of this can be a result of the fact that Levin was not a Yale undergraduate. His perspective of the Yale experience is that of a graduate student, perhaps explaining why much of the residential college system has lost much of its autonomy: He wasn’t a product of it.
He didn’t have the Yale experience of watching the hockey team play at the Whale or tailgating the Game as undergraduates do. Many of the complaints from alumni come in the form of a lack of understanding as to how important these programs are to the undergraduate experience.
At times, the policies pushed by the administration annoyed students. On many occasions, I remember talking to a group of friends with absolutely no interest in China, and our disdain for the constant bombardment of East Asian languages that began during our freshman year continues to be a sore subject. Other policies — like the new Yale-NUS College — many of us strongly disagreed with. This in particular might tarnish Levin’s otherwise spectacular presidency, not only for being a project that students are not too keen on but also for his lack of regard for the opinions of the faculty.
The next president of our University must lead in a manner that balances the ability to lead an operation as massive and corporate as modern Yale with the intimacy warranted of a small liberal arts college.