Levin of Yale
Richard Levin has juggled difficult constituencies, made good decisions and kept the focus on light and truth.
(page 2 of 4)
Robert M. Berdahl, a former university president who currently heads the Association of American Universities, gives Levin high marks. "Before Rick took over, Yale was seen as having a lot of very serious problems, such as deferred maintenance on its facilities, that were crippling its ability to attract faculty," he says. "There was a question about what kind of leadership it would take to pull Yale out of that. Rick has succeeded beyond what anyone could have hoped for in that position by building the strength of the institution in every dimension."
The choice of Levin to spearhead Yale's resurrection was anything but a foregone conclusion. While pleasant enough, he is hardly the proverbial "hale fellow well met." At 61 he looks a decade younger and has a quiet, almost diffident demeanor. His face is remarkably unlined for someone in his harried position, and he can generally be found unruffled and focused on the task in hand, a Diet Coke at the ready.
In 1992, he could have been mistaken for a graduate student.
On commencement morn of that year, Levin's predecessor, Benno Schmidt, informed the stunned fellows of the Yale Corporation that he would be leaving after six turbulent years. Both the provost and the dean of Yale College recently had jumped ship, and now the captain was going over the side, leaving in his wake waves of angry constituencies.
That July, Levin was one of more than 600 people interviewed by the presidential search committee, but he wasn't a candidate per se. The trustees were trying to get a handle on just how out of touch they were with what was happening on campus, and Levin was a good source. His Yale career had progressed steadily, from assistant professor of economics in 1974 to chairman of the Economics Department in 1987. In the fall of 1992, he would be named dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He also had served on the committee that was wrestling with how to deal with Yale's fiscal woes. He was well thought of, thoughtful, conscientious and courteous, sort of an academic Boy Scout.
"He was certainly a dark-horse candidate," says Linda Lorimar, who now serves in Levin's administration as vice president and secretary. In 1992, she was the president of Randolph-Macon Woman's College, a Yale trustee and search committee member. "The university had a set of extraordinary challenges," she adds, "and the consensus was that we should look for someone who had substantial administrative experience in leading a university, someone who had already been a president or provost." They looked and they looked, and some of the people they found reportedly demurred-although school officials deny this.
Who wouldn't demur? Yale's stock was at rock bottom. The previous year a popular student-athlete had been murdered barely a block from the president's house. New Haven was viewed at the time as the wild, wild East, and applications to Yale dipped. In 1994, GQ would carry a cover story titled "The Death of Yale." Then, too, a prospective candidate had to wonder: "Can I fill the shoes worn by the likes of the erudite Ezra Stiles, the charismatic Kingman Brewster and the silver-tongued A. Bartlett Giamatti?"
Yale historian and emeritus professor of history Gaddis Smith has been observing Eli presidents up close since A. Whitney Griswold (1951-1963). "When searching for a new president, the fellows of the Yale Corporation have time and again looked for someone who does not have the flaws of the previous president," he says. "In Levin's case, they were looking for someone who didn't have the flaws of the three previous presidents. Brewster couldn't manage his way out of a paper bag in terms of the economics of the university and also was very unpopular with the conservative alumni. Giamatti was much too fragile for the pressures of the job; he had a hard time with the labor unions. Then there was Benno Schmidt, who didn't understand the faculty and lived in New York."
As months passed maddeningly by with no brand-name savior emerging, Levin's star began to ascend. He was an economist who could crunch budget numbers. He understood the faculty. He was ensconced in New Haven with his wife, Jane, and their four children. He was a scholar, sure, but also a solid citizen who coached his sons' Little League teams. If he wasn't charismatic or a great orator, neither was he arrogant or arbitrary. And he had this wonderful combination of calm confidence and humility. A mere 24 interviews later, he was offered the job. He was humble enough to be intimidated by the offer, but at the same time confident that his abilities and vision were up to the herculean tasks ahead.
On Oct. 2, 1993, Levin, then 46, stood on the dais of Woolsey Hall and received the traditional trappings of the office. Linda Lorimar tried to fix the bejeweled presidential collar around his shoulders, but the clasp wouldn't hold. The crowd held its breath. More bad omens, Yale didn't need. Finally, the collar was secured, and after the formal ceremony Levin threw a giant block party on the Cross Campus green-as opposed to the traditional black-tie soirée. It was open to one and all, and 5,000 people-Yalies, hoi polloi, whoever-partied hearty that evening.
In accepting the presidency, Levin had asserted, "The present physical condition of this university and the pervasive national skepticism about our institutions of higher education should be perceived not as threats but as opportunities." On that note of optimism, he went to work mucking out the Aegean Stables.