Yale News

After seven years in his current position, Yale University Provost Benjamin Polak plans to step down and return to full-time teaching at the end of this semester.

University President Peter Salovey announced the news Tuesday morning in a University-wide email, which stated that Polak will remain on Yale’s campus as the William C. Brainard Professor of Economics and professor of management. Polak explained his reasons for leaving in a Tuesday email to faculty and staff, saying that seven years as the provost is a “long stint” and that turnover helps to generate new ideas.

“This news was difficult to receive, because I have relied on Ben’s wise counsel from my earliest days as president,” Salovey wrote in the community-wide email. “However, I am delighted for him — and for the new generations of students and scholars who will be inspired by his teaching and research — that he is returning to the academic passions that brought him to this leadership position in the first place. Nobody has been, or will be, a more stalwart champion of Yale’s educational mission.”

Polak took the provost’s seat in January of 2013 during a time of economic uncertainty for the University, brought on by the 2008 recession. According to Salovey’s email, several of Yale’s ongoing projects at the time — building two new residential colleges, revamping STEM infrastructure and recruiting faculty — slowed to a halt as a result. However, after Polak implemented massive cost-saving measures beginning the 2014–2015 school year, Yale’s deficit turned into a surplus, revitalizing the University’s plans.

Polak also noted that in recent years, only predecessor Alison Richard has held the provost position longer than him. Before becoming Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Richard served eight years as provost, from 1994 to 2002.

Salovey held the position of provost before Polak, and later exchanged that title for president following Rick Levin’s retirement from the position in June 2013.

In his Tuesday email to Yale faculty and staff, Polak expressed his gratitude to both Salovey and Levin for entrusting him with the position.

“I thank Presidents Levin and Salovey for allowing me to do this job. And I thank all of you for making sure I didn’t mess it up too badly,” Polak wrote.

According to Salovey’s email, the search for a new provost is already underway, with the hope of announcing a name later this semester.

Economics Chair Tony Smith told the News that Polak’s return to teaching is “great news” for the Economics Department.

“I would say that when he left seven years ago, we were all quite saddened … because he’s one of our most valued colleagues, and we’re all looking forward to having him back in the department,” Smith said.

Smith added that before becoming provost, Polak’s teaching — particularly of game theory — was “legendary.” And while Smith said that the teaching matrix for the school year is generally decided, there will be other opportunities for Polak to return to the classroom in subsequent semesters.

Smith also noted that Polak’s employment pattern is somewhat peculiar. Generally, provosts remain in administrative positions, often taking presidential positions at universities if spots become open. The last provost to return to teaching was current Sterling Professor of Economics William D. Nordhaus, who served as acting provost from 1986 to 1988.

“This is an unusual circumstance for a provost — coming back to a department,” Smith said. “I’m sure it’s happened before, but it doesn’t happen every day.”

Polak earned his BA from Cambridge University and his MA from Northwestern University.


Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu