As soon as President Levin announced that he would be stepping down, rumors began to circulate about who would take his place. The almost eulogistic tributes to Levin — the man has, after all, been president for 19 years — soon gave way to debates over who should be on the committee to pick his replacement. Students and faculty have been asking questions about the formation of the search committee: How long we should take to decide who will be on the committee, whether there would be enough representatives of the humanities or too many of big business and even whether scholarship on the history of sexuality makes a professor an inherently “political” choice. Against this backdrop, those of us who like to act in the know yawn and say that none of it matters anyway, because Provost Peter Salovey will be Yale’s next president no matter who has the honor of picking him.
Salovey, as provost, is second only to Levin in Yale’s administrative hierarchy. Add that to his previous experience as a former dean — not just of Yale College but also of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences — and the true depth of his qualifications for the job become clear. Still, it is not the job titles he has held that make Salovey the overwhelming favorite — it’s the fact that he, more than anyone else, offers us the potential of a continued Levin administration.
Levin took charge of a Yale that was floundering financially and academically. Much of Yale was quite literally falling apart, plans had been made to lay off large numbers of Yale’s faculty, our endowment lagged behind Princeton’s and relations with New Haven and our own unions were rockier than ever. He will leave it in good physical and financial condition and in relative peace with its unions, host city, students and, except on a few issues, faculty.
Even beyond his concrete accomplishments, Levin has come to symbolize a constant and steady march forward.
While Yale’s endowment, its global footprint, its role in New Haven and its construction have all increased dramatically under Levin’s leadership, Yale’s strong emergence from the global financial crisis has proved that its gains have not been temporary or illusory. Levin has given Yale not just a better but a more stable future. To incoming students, Levin appears as another longstanding Yale tradition, as much a part of this school as the buildings he’s renovated.
The idea that Levin is leaving is thus strange and a little scary. The impulse to settle as soon as possible on Salovey as Levin’s heir marks not just a faith in our provost’s record and future promise, but also a desire to pretend that Levin will not really be gone next year. We hope that Salovey, as Levin’s lieutenant, can offer us not just Levin’s policies or even his expertise, but also that masterfully capable, steady and low-key leadership that Levin has practiced to such effect for nearly 20 years.
This is not such a bad or even unrealistic hope, but it’s worth remembering that while a leader’s strategy can be re-articulated, his style of leadership almost never can. We w will not know exactly how Yale’s next president will lead until Yale has its next president, nor will we know what challenges he or she will have to deal with or how he or she will respond to those challenges. The presidential search committee should bear this in mind as it commences its search.
It should demand from all candidates a persuasive vision for the University. It should ask candidates what sort of role they envision Yale playing in the proliferation of higher education on the Internet and how they will keep a Yale education meaningful in a day and age when access to the world’s best professors is a Google search away. It should ask candidates not just for their views on Yale-NUS, but how they plan to open Yale to further international exchange when interest in Yale-PKU has been so low as to bring about the program’s end. It should ask candidates not just how they plan to raise the remaining money needed for the new residential colleges, but how they plan to maintain academic standards when the new students arrive and how the increased size of the student body can be made to strengthen the College and University.
When the time comes to make its decision, the committee should make its choice not because of the jobs a particular candidate has had or who he worked with, but because of what he promises to do for Yale’s future.
Harry Larson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.