Jonathan Edwards College Master and Special Assistant to the President Penelope Laurans announced Tuesday that she would retire from Yale in June after 43 years of service to the University.
After arriving at Yale as an assistant professor of English in 1973, Laurans went on to serve in a variety of University positions, including as special counselor to the last three deans of undergraduate admissions and two directors of athletics, special assistant to the president and the master of JE since 2009. Laurans told the News that she hopes her legacy will center on her dedication to and passion for serving the University.
“I fell in love with Yale more than four decades ago, and since then my whole aim has been to be at its service,” she said. “I am overwhelmed by the privilege I have had in working here — people have had faith in me time after time. I have learned a lot about myself, and I feel enormously grateful that I have had these opportunities to work with these amazing people.”
Laurans added that after retiring, she plans to write more and perhaps audit Yale courses. After advising hundreds of students on University course offerings, she said she would like to take the opportunity to explore them personally.
Former University President Richard Levin, under whom Laurans said it was a true privilege to work, told the News that Laurans served Yale with “exceptional distinction.”
“Penny Laurans is one of a kind. She is not only an incomparably passionate and devoted advocate for Yale; she also knows Yale’s essence — its history, its culture and its values,” he said. “Generous to one and all, she is at once a selfless servant and a faithful steward. Her empathetic understanding of students, faculty, and staff, and her attentiveness to their moods and perspectives, made her uniquely valuable as an adviser to Yale’s leaders.”
Levin said Laurans has made a difference in thousands of lives while at Yale, whether it be as a master, teacher or supporter of the arts. He added that her contributions to larger policy making decisions, most especially as the principal author of reports on the Yale College curriculum and planning for the two new residential colleges, will remain impactful for years to come.
Dorothy Robinson, former University general counsel who first came to Yale in 1978 and departed in 2014, said Laurans’ passion for Yale, combined with her brilliance, insightfulness and thoughtfulness, made her a strong leader and contributor to the broader campus community.
“Penny has left her mark, deftly, on so many different initiatives — I think it is the combined weight of all of these that is her legacy,” she said. “They have touched Yale in a great many ways at all levels — whether curricular, the arts, athletics, and all manner of practical issues.”
Jeffrey Brenzel, one of the three deans of admission Laurans advised, said her devotion and enthusiasm to all things Yale made her an invaluable asset. Describing her as irreplaceable, Brenzel said Laurans raised the level of discourse during many sets of policy deliberations.
University President Peter Salovey told the News that Laurans’ experience enabled her to serve Woodbridge Hall and her residential college admirably.
“Master Laurans was a strong special assistant and master because of her incredibly deep knowledge of Yale, and her values about what this place could be, especially for its students,” he said. “She is articulate and sees many sides of an issue, and always gives her opinion without obfuscation. These are great strengths and valuable ones.”
Laurans said she is leaving at a moment of transition for the University, as long-serving administrators depart under a new presidential administration. She said she feels confident that Salovey and his staff are well-prepared to take the University forward while retaining that which makes it special.
Laurans wrote in an email to the JE community that she valued her time in the position tremendously and would cherish her last few months with the college.
She told the News that though she served as a JE fellow for more than three decades, she never expected to serve as the college’s master. But when former University President Richard Levin asked her to assume the position, she said she had the same thought as she did in 1975, when then-University President Kingman Brewster asked her to take on her initial role with University admissions: “How could you refuse the president of Yale?”
Laurans said that as master, she had the chance to form special relationships with students and to work to create a college community in which members operate together.
“Being the head of this college has been the capstone of my career, a privilege second to none, and so it is no surprise that as I leave now, the hardest thing is leaving my JE family,” she wrote to the residential college community Tuesday morning.
JE students interviewed said they were surprised to learn that Laurans would depart, and expressed fondness and appreciation of her mastership — the foundation of which stemmed from her undying excitement and engagement.
“She invites you to be as crazy about JE as she is,” Esther Portyansky ’16 said. “She always has a great big smile and engages you in a real way. She takes people seriously and won’t hesitate to challenge you if she feels that’s what you need to hear. It shows she takes you seriously, not just as a member of the community but as an individual person.”
Portyansky added that as a “patron of the arts,” Laurans fostered a college environment filled with art showcases and opportunities for students to perform. Portyansky said Laurans had written a version of “Boola Boola” with JE lyrics that was sung at last year’s JE graduation.
Head JE Master’s Aide Hans Francois Kassier ’16 said Laurans had taught him the value of pursuing his passions.
“I have many fond memories of Master Laurans. From driving students to IMs — and then cheering from the sidelines — to beautiful, heartfelt speeches at past commencements, Master Laurans has been an omnipresent force within the college,” he said.
Nguyen Phan Nguyen ’17 said Laurans has been like a strict but loving parent who always looks out for her students. Rather than become engrossed in the “little things,” Laurans always sought to push students to see the big picture, Nguyen added.
Surprised to hear of Laurans’ departure, Jenna Kainic ’16 said she struggles to imagine what JE will be like without its master of seven years.
“I know she’s worked at Yale for a very long time, but at the same time she feels like such a part of this atmosphere and a part of Yale so it’s hard to think about JE without her,” she said.