Tim Tai, Senior Photographer

Roughly one-third of college presidents say they are more likely now than in 2020 to “discourage talented colleagues from pursuing the presidency,” per Inside Higher Ed’s 2024 survey of college and university presidents.

In an interview with the News, however, University President Peter Salovey insisted that being Yale’s president is among the “greatest” jobs in academia. Salovey added that events from earlier this year — including the turmoil that the presidents at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faced following a Dec. 5 congressional campus antisemitism hearing — will not turn candidates away from the role.

Salovey’s sentiments about leading an institution were also echoed by Yale College Dean and founding president of Yale-NUS Pericles Lewis, by Yale Corporation successor trustee and Stony Brook University president Mauie McInnis GRD ’90 GRD ’96 and by Vassar College President Elizabeth Bradley GRD ’96. Lewis and Bradley are on the News’ September shortlist of possible Yale presidential candidates.

“I believe that being president of Yale is one of the greatest jobs in higher education in the world, and I think that there will be any number of people interested in that,” Salovey said. “I will say the job has gotten quite a bit more complex: the external political climate for higher education is very challenging in this country right now, the impact that social media has on communicating in a thoughtful way creates a whole other set of challenges and, in general, the demands on your time are far different than they were on presidents in the middle of the last century.”

A more complex role and waning public confidence

Salovey told the News that a college president’s job today is “completely different” than ever before.

He explained that beyond the constraints on time that the role imposes, the “big challenge” is that it can “be hard to move forward” when the vision of the University’s priorities differs among its constituencies — namely, those of students, faculty and alumni.

Even so, Salovey said that although day-to-day demands among university presidents differ, the “more challenging than ever” political situation is a shared phenomenon on which all presidents can support each other.

“It’s become a 24/7 job,” Salovey said. “And while you might be able to schedule yourself a little vacation in the summer, you’re pretty much going to be in the saddle all the time.”

Lewis told the News that there is a distinction between being president of a smaller institution and a larger research university.

Being president of a large university is “much more complex” as the role deals much more with the public and the wider political issues of the day.

“Being president of a small liberal arts college is a lot of fun, and it’s a little like being dean of a large undergraduate college in a major university, in that it’s much more oriented towards the students, the parents, the alumni and professors,” said Lewis. “I don’t want to get into competition about whose job was more fun, but there are some parts of being president of a university that don’t look very attractive.”

Waning public confidence in higher education has also been a challenge for university leaders. 

Bradley wrote to the News that this decrease in confidence is part of a broader trend of decreased public confidence in institutions.

Bradley attributed this fact to higher education’s  “elite nature” — which she said stems from low admissions rates — and large endowments “spent largely for the benefit of the few.” This, she wrote, can “breed distrust.” She also wrote that the high tuition costs and low financial aid and graduation rates at less wealthy institutions where many Americans receive their education are “not a winning combination.”

“To build public trust, institutions need to invite communities in, be accessible to low-income communities, and show the public how the knowledge being produced at these institutions benefits the many,” she wrote. “Great investments in public-facing programs and activities in their neighboring communities and beyond help.”

In an email to the News, McInnis wrote that the last few years have been especially challenging for colleges and universities.

McInnis agreed that chief among the factors contributing to the public’s distrust in higher education are the mounting tuition costs students and families face. She wrote that on top of “confusing” financial aid processes, costs at public universities have risen due to a lack of governmental support. She also wrote that the media’s focus on institutions as key players in “partisan political battles” might prove unwelcoming to some people.

She added that one “critical” solution to tackling public distrust is to inform the public about how higher education “changes our world for the better” — but that “there is no easy answer.” 

“For public university presidents, declining state support and governance conflicts, and for everyone, the years of the COVID-19 pandemic and the current campus protests have been difficult,” McInnis wrote. “While telling our stories will not fix the crisis in confidence, it is another in a long list of things we need to do to communicate to the broader public about the value of American higher education in providing opportunity, driving innovation, and changing lives.”

Seizing ‘a moment of rapid change’

McInnis referred to the presidency as “rewarding,” writing that institutions need “talented leaders” to help higher education take a leading role at this “moment of rapid change.”

She cautioned that “stark disparities” remain in the educational attainment of and employment outcomes between historically advantaged and disadvantaged groups, but that college presidents can change that.

“We are at the precipice of significant change as we transition into the new digital knowledge economy while also confronting global challenges such as a climate crisis, deeply entrenched inequities, health disparities, and the fraying of democratic norms,” McInnis wrote. “Despite higher education’s capacity to be the most powerful pathway for socioeconomic mobility, not all Americans have equal access to it. And so it is up to us, college and university presidents, to deliver on the promise of higher education.”

Bradley wrote that she learns something new on the job every day.

She added that it also allows her to witness roughly 2,500 students each year transition into adulthood, knowing that the institution has played a role in shaping that growth.

“The truth is I love my job!” Bradley wrote. “It is a time when we need bold leadership in colleges and universities and the challenges make the job that much more impactful and fulfilling.”

The search for Yale’s 24th president 

Salovey is set to return to the faculty next academic year, upon stepping down from his current role on June 30. The Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, is set to vote on Salovey’s successor by a majority vote, per Yale’s bylaws. The Corporation members meet on campus five times a year. Their next meeting will occur on April 2o.

Four Ivy League universities appointed new presidents within the past two years. Stanford University, too, recently named former Yale President Rick Levin’s son Jonathan as its president, concluding a six-month search process that began after Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s resignation following growing concerns about the integrity of his research.

In January 2023, Columbia University appointed Nemat “Minouche” Shafik as the successor to former president Lee C. Bollinger, who announced in April 2022 that he would be stepping down from the role after 21 years to return to the school’s faculty. After a six-month search process for president Philip J. Hanlon’s successor, Dartmouth College announced that Sian Leah Beilock would be its 19th president in July 2022. In December 2022, Claudine Gay was named Harvard University’s 29th president after Lawrence Bacow stepped down five years into the role. Elizabeth Magill ’88 assumed the presidency at the University of Pennsylvania in July 2022, succeeding Amy Gutmann, who had held the role since 2004.

Shafik, Beilock and Gay all began their terms on July 1 of last year. Both Gay and Magill resigned from their posts after facing criticism for responses that they gave during a Dec. 5 congressional hearing about campus antisemitism and their on-campus response to the war in Gaza.

In an interview in January, Salovey told the News that while such controversies are not conducive to any presidential search process, he believes Yale is uniquely positioned to avoid the conflict that peer institutions have faced. 

“Being in the middle of any kind of controversy that’s attracting a lot of attention is not especially conducive to any kind of presidential search process — period,” Salovey told the News. “There have been moments of challenge, but I think the combination of our campus culture, the residential college system and the fact that there are student friendships across Yale has kept some of the worst things that have happened on other campuses away from ours.”

Salovey will take a sabbatical upon stepping down on June 30.

Benjamin Hernandez covers Woodbridge Hall, the President's Office. He previously reported on international affairs at Yale. Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, he is a sophomore in Trumbull College majoring in Global Affairs.