Approaching the five-year mark in his sometimes-turbulent tenure in Woodbridge Hall, University President Peter Salovey last spring ordered a comprehensive review of his own job performance, hiring a consultant to interview deans, vice presidents, faculty and trustees in a process known as 360-degree feedback.
The 360-degree review — a system pioneered in the corporate world that aggregates feedback from a manager’s colleagues, supervisors and direct reports — took place at the end of a difficult year and a half for Salovey, shortly after the University announced the renaming of Calhoun College last February. In a series of interviews this fall, Salovey shared with the News some of the feedback he received from the review, offering a window into the strengths of his personable leadership style and the flaws in his sometimes-ponderous decision-making approach.
Salovey said that it was his own decision to solicit the feedback and that he was not following an order from the Yale Corporation, although he briefed the trustees on the review process at the Corporation’s meeting in April.
“I’ve been in the saddle long enough that I thought it would be informative to me to get some honest feedback,” Salovey said. “This was a process that ensured that I would get candid reactions.”
The Corporation administers an annual review to determine the salary of the president and other top University administrators, analyzing performance-related data and examining the pay structures at other universities. And since the presidency of Richard Levin, the Corporation has conducted a broad institutional assessment every five years that includes a review of the University’s leadership. But besides the annual salary decision and the periodic institutional evaluation, the Yale president — who has no set term length and serves at the request of the trustees — does not undergo regular performance reviews.
In a phone call shortly after Salovey announced the initial decision to not rename Calhoun, Corporation Senior Fellow Donna Dubinsky ’77 asked former University Secretary Sam Chauncey ’57 about the history of presidential reviews at Yale, Chauncey told the News earlier this month.
Chauncey said he told Dubinsky that he knew of only one former University president who was reviewed outside the annual compensation process: Kingman Brewster, who called on the Corporation to evaluate his leadership in the early 1970s.
“A lot of alumni were angry with him, and so he went to the trustees and said, ‘I want you to review my performance,’” Chauncey said. “They put together a very comprehensive review, which involved members of the Corporation coming to New Haven and talking with groups of students, faculty and, in other places, with alumni. As a result of it, the Corporation confirmed their support for him.”
Asked whether she considered reviewing Salovey after the backlash to the renaming decision, Dubinsky said, “We’re carrying on with what we’ve done at Yale for many years, which is the combination of the annual review process along with the institutional assessment.”
In the spring, Salovey provided the consultant — whom he declined to name — with a long list of possible interview candidates from across the University, including members of his leadership team, as well as faculty and trustees. From that list, he said, the consultant selected 25 people to interview, whose names were never revealed to Salovey.
The consulted briefed Salovey on the feedback from those interviews during a series of in-person discussions and in a short written report, which Salovey declined to show to the News.
On the whole, the feedback was positive, Salovey said. But it also unearthed specific concerns about his communication with the rest of the administration and the pace of his decision-making that have not been previously reported.
“I wanted some honest feedback,” Salovey said. “It’s something I did for myself. I found it very helpful.”
During the Calhoun renaming saga, students and faculty criticized Salovey for taking too long to reach a final verdict over the course of a debate that ultimately spanned multiple semesters of heated discussion, a decision to not rename and a reversal of that decision six months later.
“I tried to be a very collaborative leader and really listened to a lot of points of view, but I have to make sure that doesn’t make decision processes take too long,” Salovey said in August.
Salovey said that many of the people interviewed during the review described him as honest and authentic in his interactions with colleagues. But one area of his leadership that received criticism was his decision-making — not his strategic acumen on big-picture debates like renaming, but the slow pace of his day-to-day decisions on such routine matters as whether to enter educational partnerships with other institutions.
“I like to get data, I like to seek out the opinions of experts,” Salovey said. “But sometimes that kind of situation might lend itself to make a decision more quickly.”
Salovey was also criticized in the review for failing to clearly explain the functions of the different members of Yale’s leadership team.
“People are confused about who does what on the leadership team and clearly need me to communicate a little more clearly about who was responsible for different levels of decision-making,” Salovey said. “What do you bring to the secretary? What should you bring to the general counsel? What should you bring to the president?”
Over the past few months, Salovey has adjusted his leadership style in response to the feedback, said Jack Callahan ’80, the vice president for operations, who came to Yale from the corporate world last year and participated in the review.
“We’ve gotten a bit more agenda-based in meetings, with clear follow-up,” Callahan said. “We recently had two retreats, one for the officers, one with the [University] cabinet, that were very efficiently run and covered a lot of ground. A highly productive use of our time.”
The review came at a delicate time for Salovey, as students and faculty expressed lingering concerns over his handling of Calhoun. For the past year, Salovey has worked to pivot his presidency from racial controversy to a broad academic vision that will form the heart of the University’s next capital campaign. A recent News survey found that 45 percent of Yale faculty approve of Salovey’s performance and that nearly 80 percent believe his academic plan represents an exciting vision for the University’s future.
Weili Cheng ’77, executive director of the Association of Yale Alumni, said Salovey deserves credit for requesting feedback from his colleagues.
“I’ve had a 360 done in my other job, and I found it personally very helpful,” said Cheng, who worked for decades in the hotel industry and was not interviewed as part of Salovey’s review. “Everybody should do it.”
A GROWING TREND
Salovey’s 360-degree review may represent an unusual chapter in the long history of Yale presidents. But across the country, such reviews are becoming increasingly common at major universities, education experts and consultants say.
In 2009, Yale began working with the consulting firm Zenger Folkman to offer 360-degree reviews to administrative managers throughout the University. More than 600 Yale officials — including some who went on to become high-profile administrators like Vice President for Human Resources and Administration Janet Lindner and Vice President for Finance Stephen Murphy ’87 — have participated in the program since its inception, according to Elena DePalma, director of organizational effectiveness and staff development.
“For [Salovey] to do that, as president of the University, that sets such a good model for others to follow,” DePalma said. “A 360 is like GPS — you have a starting point, and you know where you want to go, but without a tool to get there, it’s more difficult to get to that higher level of leadership.
Salovey is not the only university president to have undergone a 360-degree review. In recent years, the presidents of Dartmouth, Syracuse and Bowdoin have all gone through the process, said Elizabeth McLaughlin, an expert on university administration at Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“In order to be successful, presidents have to navigate among very different groups and very different points of view,” McLaughlin said. “Their work is focused at that intersection. Therefore, to have a 360 where they are able to gain an understanding of how different constituencies view their work can be invaluable.”
The process employed by Salovey — in which he assembled a list of interview candidates and the consultant approached a sampling of those individuals — is broadly similar to the reviews that routinely take place at major corporations, education experts and consultants interviewed said. In some cases, the experts said, consultants solicit performance ratings on a numbered scale or distribute large surveys to a wide range of people.
But the model that Salovey used is perfectly legitimate, said Joe Folkman, a co-founder of Zenger Folkman, which specializes in 360-degree feedback.
“Peter did a very courageous thing doing this,” Folkman said. “If you look at a person’s ability to predict their strengths or weaknesses versus any other rater, the person themselves is only half as accurate as other raters are.”
After the original Calhoun decision in April 2016, Salovey was jeered at a town hall in Battell Chapel and heavily criticized at a faculty meeting in Davies Auditorium. But as the University moves on from the renaming dispute, those trying moments seem increasingly like distant memories.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Salovey ate lunch with a group of students in the Benjamin Franklin dining hall, discussing the political scene at Yale and gender diversity in the Mathematics Department. “Best lunch of all time,” one of the students said after the conversation had ended.
Later, reflecting on the review from his office in Woodbridge Hall, Salovey said he would urge other university leaders to follow his example and request evaluations from their colleagues.
“I was pleased that people gave me the feedback,” Salovey said. “I’m very much interested in what they have to say.”
David Yaffe-Bellany | firstname.lastname@example.org | @