PROFILE: “It’s been an evolution, not a revolution,” Inaugural Jackson Dean Jim Levinsohn talks newly-opened Jackson School
As the Jackson School of Global Affairs officially opened its doors this fall, the News spoke to the school’s inaugural dean Jim Levinsohn to learn more about his vision for the school and where his journey at Jackson has taken him.
Miranda Jeyaretnam, Contributing Photographer
In February, then-director of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs Jim Levinsohn told the News that he intended to make the new Jackson School of Global Affairs the “best-in-class.”
Now, nearly seven months later, the new professional school has officially opened its doors, and Levinsohn says they have succeeded.
“Let me be clear, it’s not me,” Levinsohn said. “It’s having faculty, it’s having an amazing staff, it’s having a career counseling office, director of student affairs, admissions, deputy dean. I feel like I’ve just got the best team imaginable to help make this happen. … It’s been a team effort.”
The Jackson School of Global Affairs opened on July 1, and its first new cohort of students matriculated at the end of August. With the school’s opening, Levinsohn became its inaugural dean.
Levinsohn told the News that there was a “historical piece” to the matriculation ceremony that kicked off the school year, since it was Jackson’s first. While students have enrolled at the Jackson Institute over the last decade, they graduated with a master of arts from Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Now, as a professional school, students will be awarded with a master of public policy degree.
Levinsohn has a habit of interspersing jokes into his more serious answers. “I get new stationery,” he quipped when asked about how his role has changed since last year. But his excitement about the new student opportunities at Jackson shines through.
“In July … it was pretty darn quiet, because no one’s here in July,” Levinsohn said. “But it really kind of hit home in September when the students came, because the students are the heart of any school.”
Sangbin Choi GRD ’23, a second year student at Jackson, told the News that Levinsohn is attentive to students, always responding immediately to their emails and occasionally visiting the graduate students’ lounge to check in on them. Choi described how Levinsohn had invited him and other international students to his home for a potluck Thanksgiving dinner over the break, where attendees each brought a dish from their home countries.
Hosting dinners for students is not unusual for Levinsohn — he told the News that he is planning to have each of Jackon’s first-year students over in groups of six. The first of these happened on Monday, Levinsohn said, and he rattled off a list of those students and their backgrounds: a South Korean army officer, a former Peace Corps volunteer who spent time in Ecuador, a senior fellow from Kenya.
“The diversity of thought is one of the things that’s really, to me, striking, when I get together with the students because people have such different experiences,” Levinsohn said. “I mean, just looking around the dinner table, it was like, ‘Yeah, this is why we’re doing this,’ you know?”
Levinsohn highlighted the Senior Fellow Program, which has been running since the founding of the Jackson Institute in 2011, as another pillar of Jackson’s intellectual and demographic diversity.
This program, as well as Jackson’s size — ”we’re small, and we plan to stay that way” — and access to Yale’s other professional schools, are what distinguishes Jackson from its peer institutions, Levinsohn said.
“I think the senior fellows allow us to add a dimension of diversity that is harder to achieve if you restrict yourself to academic faculty, just because as academics, we’re all part of the same industry at some level,” Levinsohn said. “If I opened a med school, and I didn’t hire any doctors, you would think I’m crazy. If I opened a law school and didn’t have any lawyers, it’s probably illegal. But you can open a school of public policy and not have any policy practitioners, and people just say, ‘Yeah, that makes sense,’ and I think that’s crazy.”
Levinsohn has led Jackson since its 2011 establishment, serving as director of the institute until its transition into a professional school this year.
He recalled his first meeting with Richard Levin, the president of Yale during the Jackson Institute’s founding, as one of the most transformative meetings of his life. He had been attending an economics conference at Yale while he was a professor at the University of Michigan, when he received a call from Levin’s secretary who asked him to meet with Levin for lunch.
“I look at myself and literally, I’ve got on a T-shirt, a pair of shorts and a pair of Birkenstocks, and I’m thinking, I’m not sure I can go see the president of Yale dressed like this,” Levinsohn said.
“She says, ‘Oh, we’re very casual here in the summer’ — you know, I learned that casual meant no tie, but still a jacket and slacks,” he continued. “But I went, and I remember Levin saying, ‘We were thinking of opening a School of International Affairs, do you want to put your name in the hat to run it?’ Of all the meetings I’ve ever had, that one probably changed my life the most.”
Prior to his appointment at Jackson, Levinsohn taught in the University of Michigan’s economics department for 20 years. He told the News that teaching and doing research gave him “tremendous satisfaction,” but by 2011 he had reached a point where the chance to build a school was something “worth making a trade off for.”
The impact of Levinsohn’s research experience and his students is clear from the decor of his office in Horchow Hall, which looks out across the street at the two buildings that Jackson will be acquiring next year. Levinsohn pointed out the photographs lining the walls, one of which depicts a mother sitting at a sewing machine, working while cradling her baby in her lap. He found the photograph while digging through the archives of the Southern Africa Labor and Development Research Unit, he said.
“That picture jumped out at me and I’ve had it in my office ever since because it reminds me — I’m a development economist — of why I want to do the work that I do,” Levinsohn said.
One wall is lined with books, many of which are authored by other Jackson faculty. But according to Levinsohn, what he really loves reading is fiction. He is currently reading “Crossroads” by Jonathan Franzen, set in a small town in the Midwest, where Levinsohn grew up. Levinsohn said in his town in the rural Midwest, a lot of the social interactions were around church — although he himself did not attend — so the milieu of the book felt “familiar” to him.
On the opposite wall, above the fireplace, sit trinkets that students, senior fellows and visitors to Jackson have given Levinsohn over the years.
“One of the cool things working here is people coming from all over the world,” Levinsohn said.
Apart from the “new T-shirts and new stationery,” Levinsohn told the News that his responsibilities have changed over his time at Jackson. During the institute’s first few years, Levinsohn said that he was working alongside a small group of people, which meant that he directly supervised many administrative and managerial decisions.
Over time, though, the institute got to the point where it had faculty governance — a point that Levinsohn said with pride.
“It’s been an evolution, not a revolution,” Levinsohn said. “My role has changed from trying to envision something that didn’t really exist to now trying to work with my faculty to set up processes.”
Director of International Security Studies Arne Westad, whose office sits beside Levinsohn’s, described Levinsohn as “an inspirational academic leader.”
“His greatest strength is that he has a clear vision of what the Jackson School should aspire to be, without imposing his views on the faculty and being willing to take advice in the process,” Westad said.
The Jackson School of Global Affairs is Yale’s first new professional school in over 40 years.