University Provost Benjamin Polak is a tall man with a small office on Grove Street who oversees Yale’s academic policies and manages the University’s $3 billion operating budget.
He came to the role in 2013, four years after Yale’s endowment dropped by nearly 25 percent in value, blowing a $350 million hole in the University’s budget. Polak, a former chair of the Economics Department, was heralded as an economics whiz who would help solve Yale’s worsening financial problems. Three years later, the University is seeing strong endowment returns, and the budget had a $194 million surplus in fiscal year 2015.
But despite the excitement his appointment generated, the role of provost is typically out of the public eye, and Polak likes his job for that reason.
“I’m a little better behind the scenes,” he said. “That’s partly a skill-set thing. I’m not very good at speaking in public. I’m not as eloquent as [University President Peter Salovey].”
The president and the provost are Yale’s two top administrators, and no major decisions are made without input from both of them. But the jobs are different, Polak said.
Salovey sets the University’s direction, and Polak makes sure Yale’s resources are keeping the University moving in that direction, Polak said. The president has vision, and the provost makes that vision reality. The president is the public face of Yale, and the provost works behind the scenes to make sure the University runs smoothly— and on budget.
“I’m not a very imaginative person,” Polak acknowledged.
Polak, who is British, holds degrees in economics and history from Cambridge, Northwestern University and Harvard University. As a professor, his research and teaching focused on microeconomic theory and economic history. Professor Tony Smith, his colleague in the Economics Department, called Polak “funny and quick-witted, a good listener and deeply dedicated to Yale.” Polak previously served on the University Budget Committee before becoming provost under Salovey.
Polak has brought his economic savvy to bear on the budget over the past three years. The economic crisis that began in 2008 and triggered a series of University budget deficits was a “major force in causing us to rethink just about everything we were doing,” according to Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Tamar Gendler. With any presidential appointment, the role of the provost changes, Gendler said, but the biggest change when Polak took on the role was that an economist was filling it. The position had previously been held by Salovey, who was trained as a psychologist. Faculty who become administrators, Gendler noted, tend to approach their administrative jobs in a manner shaped by the skills of their home discipline, and Salovey and Polak are no exceptions.
Still, Gendler noted that it is difficult to distinguish which changes in the University’s finances were caused by the end of the economic downturn and which were caused by personnel changes like the appointment of a new provost and president.
She added that Polak continues a legacy of effective provosts that began under former President Richard Levin, who led Yale from 1993 until 2013. The list of former provosts includes many who have gone on to occupy higher positions, both at Yale and elsewhere. Salovey, NYU President Andrew Hamilton, former MIT President Susan Hockfield and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge Alison Richard all served as Yale’s provost under Levin.
But Polak said he has no ambitions to be president, at Yale or anywhere else.
“There are some provosts who aspire to be the president somewhere, and I think it’s a wonderful thing, but I think it’s quite useful from time to time to have someone who isn’t going in that direction,” Polak said.
And because he does not have ambitions for higher positions, Polak said he can afford to be a little less political.
In his three years as provost, only once has Polak garnered significant nationwide attention: for his decision to reduce the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct’s recommended penalties for former School of Medicine cardiology chief Michael Simons, who was found responsible for sexual harassment. Polak’s move to reduce the recommended suspension from five years to 18 months was first reported by The New York Times in November 2014.
Despite his relatively low profile, the provost is well-known among University faculty and staff. Polak said one of his jobs as provost is to be “the person who has to say ‘no’ sometimes.”
Every department at Yale considers itself — as it should — the most important department, Polak said. But Yale does not have unlimited resources, and the University cannot implement every program and policy change at once.
The toughest part of the provost’s job is saying no to certain programs that the University would like to implement if it had unlimited funds, he said. For example, the University might want to increase the size of the Computer Science Department, or make Yale tuition-free or eliminate the Student Income Contribution, but Polak said not all of these initiatives can come to fruition immediately.
Furthermore, every new expense puts financial pressure on another area of the University.
In the past few years, administrative departments like Information Technology Services have been required to make significant budget cuts, leading to layoffs. Earlier this month, Yale union members who were laid off as a result of these budget cuts petitioned Polak and Salovey to rescind the layoffs, although neither has publicly commented on the request.
The provost may draw ire from areas of campus for keeping their costs down, but his position also involves creating new initiatives.
Polak said he had to do a lot of work behind the scenes before he and Salovey could announce last week the creation of the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration, with an operating budget of around $600,000.
The question was not whether Yale needed such a center — discussions about a center predated Salovey’s Nov. 17 “Toward a Better Yale” email, which came in response to students’ demands for more ethnic studies programming — but rather whether Yale could afford one. The University administration is in agreement about a lot of initiatives, but the limiting factor is money, Polak said.
For instance, Yale would like to be increasing financial aid at a faster rate than it is able, Polak said, but the current rate is what Yale can afford.
“We have to make tradeoffs, we have to make choices,” Polak said. “I would like people to understand: we’re not saying ‘no’ because we like saying ‘no.’ It is in fact because of limited resources.”
Correction, Feb. 22: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the endowment and budget dropped considerably in 2012; in fact, the year was 2009.