Levin of Yale
Richard Levin has juggled difficult constituencies, made good decisions and kept the focus on light and truth.
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At first blush, Yale President Richard Levin and baseball legend Willie Mays do not appear to have a great deal in common. Levin is modest and humble. He flies below the public radar despite his many accomplishments in the august position he has held now for more than 15 years. Despite his low profile, he is widely credited with saving Yale from a deep Blue funk, a downward spiral toward mediocrity during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Before Levin took the reins in late 1993, the university had become the collegiate embodiment of Murphy's Law. There was a large operating deficit, deteriorating buildings and proposed faculty cutbacks. Everyone, it seemed, was angry about something: professors, students, alumni, employees, parents and townies.
If Levin embodies quiescent modesty, Willie Mays is its antonym. When he plied the diamond he made sure all eyes were upon him as he smote home runs and pilfered bases-or made his patented "basket catch." He invariably ran out from under his hat, of that he made certain. Both Mays and Levin are retired from baseball now: The former is in the Hall of Fame, the latter blew out his hammy several years ago in his administration's annual softball tiff against Swensen's Swingers, the mighty stewards of Yale's endowment.
For all their differences, Willie Mays has been a role model for Rick Levin since 1958, when, at age 11, the San Francisco native and future academic attended the first game the Giants played in their new California home. He can tell you not only which team won, but the score, the Giants' lineup that day, and the batting average of the "Say Hey Kid" that season (.347).
"The great thing about Willie Mays," Levin explains, "is that he played the game with such enthusiasm, gusto and evident enjoyment that it made everyone feel good about him and his team. I think that is a lesson I learned. I love my job, and I try to show my enthusiasm for what I do and for the university."
The pair has something else in common. Each has a Yale degree. In 2004 president Levin, a Stanford graduate who earned his Ph.D. in economics from Yale in 1974, bestowed upon William Howard Mays Jr. a Doctor of Humane Letters. Mays stole the baccalaureate show, naturally, leaving fellow honorees, like novelist Tom Wolfe, in his dust as he tossed his ceremonial cap to the cheering throng.
The return of Yale to its lofty place in the intellectual firmament under Levin's tenure has had an impact far beyond its cloistered walls, transcending parochial academic concerns. Yale Inc., assuming a role in Connecticut once played by urban manufacturers, is by far New Haven's largest employer, private property owner, developer and taxpayer. Its 11,000-plus workforce ranks fourth highest in Connecticut. Its 11,450 undergraduate and graduate students are a captive, upscale market for local businesses.
Since 1993, in its role as benevolent urban landlord, Yale has nurtured three dozen new retail businesses in the Elm City, and its medical and scientific research efforts have helped spawn an even greater number of biotech firms. Its relentless renovation of existing buildings as well as construction of new facilities (medical, engineering, chemistry, forestry, sculpture, police-you name it, Yale has built, or is building, it) represents an unprecedented boon to the local economy. In the past 15 years Levin and company have pumped a dizzying $3.5 billion into university infrastructure. And more bricks and mortar are in the offing, highlighted by two new residential colleges scheduled to come on line in 2013. They will boost Yale's undergraduate enrollment 15 percent, to 6,000. Harvard's, by comparison, is 6,700.
On the mortarboard scoreboard, Yale hasn't done badly either. Last fall The London Times proclaimed it the No. 2 "global" university, ahead of venerable institutions like Oxford and Cambridge-although second to Harvard. Yale was a middling eighth four years ago. Part of the criteria for this accolade is the "internationalization rate," or the percentage of faculty and students from foreign countries, which has been one of Levin's top priorities from his first day in office.
In 1993, just 2 percent of Yale's undergraduates hailed from overseas; by 2008, the total had more than quadrupled to nearly one in 10 students. Symbolic of Yale's new global reach is its champion Chinese language debating team. In 2007, led by three non-native speakers, the team outdebated all comers, including Harvard, Princeton and Columbia, before talking circles around Oxford (twice) in Beijing for the world title. Levin has also lured world leaders to teach at Yale, such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and onetime Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who heads the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization that was established in 2001.