In the wake of a series of controversial naming announcements last spring, it was University President Peter Salovey who bore the brunt of campus outcry. But it was Salovey’s predecessor, former President Richard Levin, who guided one of those decisions: Before leaving office in July 2013, Levin told Charles Johnson ’54, who donated $250 million toward the construction of the new colleges, that he would recommend one college be named after Benjamin Franklin, Johnson’s personal role model, Johnson told the News in an interview last Wednesday.
After Salovey replaced Levin, he and the Yale Corporation followed Levin’s lead, internally committing to naming a college after Franklin and communicating that intention to Johnson. But publicly, Salovey continued to seek the input of Yale community members on both new residential colleges’ names.
Johnson told the News that he and Levin only discussed Franklin as a namesake after the University had secured his gift.
“Levin told me he would recommend to the board that it be Franklin before leaving, so I knew the administration was recommending it,” Johnson said. “He told me that subsequent to the gift, sometime in the 2012–2013 academic year. I had made the commitment to the gift, and then after that he said he would recommend it to the board.”
Levin declined to comment on his conversations with Johnson.
Senior Fellow of the Yale Corporation Donna Dubinsky ’77, who has been on the board for a decade, said she recalls Levin briefing the Corporation on Johnson’s request, though she emphasized that those conversations took place after the gift agreement had been sealed.
Salovey said that when he took office in July 2013, he worked to honor the discussions that had taken place between Johnson and Levin. Corporation members were “deeply grateful” to Johnson, he recalled.
“As I arrived in the President’s Office, I felt it was important to be respectful of whatever conversations had occurred prior to my watch,” Salovey said. “I took whatever conversations the two of them had had with each other very seriously as the starting point in my own presidency.”
Former University Secretary John Wilkinson ’60 GRD ’63, who served under two University presidents in the 1980s, said he sees it as “common courtesy” and “understandable” for one president to honor a commitment made by his predecessor.
History professor Glenda Gilmore, who has been outspoken about the naming debates on campus, said she understands why Salovey chose to follow Levin’s lead, citing the influence Levin carried toward the end of his two-decade presidency.
Still, Gilmore said that Salovey should have moved to announce the name of Franklin College more quickly — especially if Levin had more or less handed him a name.
“As a historian, looking at the evidence, I think his hands were tied,” Gilmore said. “I don’t know that for sure. But at the moment he took office, it was certainly possible for him to make full disclosure of the name rather than proceeding as though the college had not yet been named.”
Johnson told the News that he had expected the University to announce the names of both colleges sooner.
Salovey has said that he chose to delay the Franklin announcement until the Corporation had decided upon the name of the other college. He announced in April that the other college will honor Pauli Murray LAW ’65.
Levin served as president of Yale for 20 years. He became known for taking a strong-handed approach to the Corporation and University governance.
One senior professor, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, said many in the faculty have speculated that Levin believed Salovey, who served as his provost, would follow his lead as president.
“In any event, Salovey would have been a very strong candidate for president, but perhaps this set of circumstances — that Salovey was Levin’s man every time, that Levin needed things rubber stamped and that Levin’s influence had to continue — had something to do with the shortened presidential search that named Salovey president,” the professor said. The presidential search that led to Salovey’s appointment lasted just 65 days, significantly less than the four to six months the Corporation had anticipated.
“It seems as if Levin believed that Salovey would carry out his policies,” the professor said.
Still, Corporation Fellow Charles Goodyear IV ’80 — who has served with both Levin and Salovey — said in an interview earlier this year that it would be unfair to compare Salovey at the start of his term to Levin at the end of his. Levin had unmatched experience in the presidential role, while Salovey naturally relied more on others as he adapted to the position, Goodyear said.
“It’s almost impossible to compare someone who has been there for 20 years to someone who has been there for one year,” Goodyear said. “When I saw Levin, he was in years 19 and 20 — very confident, very skilled, very successful. He had lots of experience and would have known all Corporation members very well.”
Salovey served as provost between 2008 and 2013.