Levin of Yale
Richard Levin has juggled difficult constituencies, made good decisions and kept the focus on light and truth.
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First he set about fixing Yale's woebegone buildings-its residential colleges, galleries, laboratories, classrooms, libraries and even the fabled Yale Bowl-a process begun under his predecessor and one that continues today. Funding for such upkeep now has been provided for in perpetuity, removing it cleverly enough from the annual budget battles. At the same time Levin made nice with the new mayor of New Haven, John DeStefano, who came into office in 1994. "I think the town/gown relationship is good and strong," says the mayor today. "It is motivated by the mother's milk of good partnerships, which is mutual self-interest." In 2007, Yale paid a total of $14 million to the city, including fees and taxes on its commercial property.
In 1994 Levin established a program that supports Yale employees who buy homes in designated New Haven neighborhoods with subsidies of up to $30,000 per buyer. Nearly 850 Yale workers, most first-time homeowners, have taken advantage so far. Yale also has opened many of its facilities to New Haven residents and students, while thousands of Yale undergraduates, more than ever before, perform community services. In 1997, Levin created the position of Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs and filled it with the highly capable Bruce Alexander, who has been there ever since.
In 2003, it was time to come to grips with nonfaculty employees. The president got personally involved in negotiating with the university's two principal unions, which had been on strike for three weeks. The ninth work stoppage since 1968, it gave Yale the distinction of having the worst labor relations of any major American university. In September 2003, a retroactive and unprecedented eight-year deal was struck that expires in January 2010. Union leaders and senior administrators now meet regularly, something that was previously unheard of. Like his predecessors, however, Levin refuses to recognize or bargain with GESO, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization that represents some 500 graduate students who work as teaching assistants at Yale.
If Levin had one eye fixed on his back yard, the other was focused on the great world. He reasoned that Yale could not continue to be a premier university if it remained a parochial institution. "He is the first Yale president to have the vision to recognize that universities needed to foster a global meritocracy, to attract the best and brightest from all over the world," says Paul Bass, editor of the weekly New Haven Independent and a Yale lecturer. "He was ahead of the U.S. government in appreciating the importance of having a solid relationship with China. Levin is doing globally what Kingman Brewster did on the domestic front in the 1960s, which was making sure that Yale accepts highly qualified students from a diverse cross-section of America, not just from the prep schools and privileged enclaves."
Indeed, Levin has wooed China with a passion, helping to establish dozens of relationships and programs with academia there, including Peking University, through personal contact with both peers and political leaders. Levin has visited China so often and been covered so extensively by the state-run media that he has become something of a celebrity. Ordinary Chinese citizens sometimes stop him in airports to have their pictures taken with him. "I'm on TV there a lot," he admits. He is also on a first-name basis with Chinese President Hu Jintao, who visited Yale in 2006. The following year Levin led a 100-strong Yale delegation to China, where, among other business, he signed a joint publishing agreement. He was received by President Hu in the Great Hall of the People.
The Yale-China affair is so torrid that it has generated one of the few muted criticisms of Levin that circulate on campus: that his globalization campaign is too weighted toward the Peoples' Republic, a nation with human-rights issues. Levin replies, "It's not unfair, in the sense that we did make a large strategic bet that China is emerging as the nation that will probably be the leading power in Asia and hence, in the future, one of the world's two leading powers. It has 20 percent of the world's population and at least that percentage of the world's talented population, so it's a tremendous market potentially for students to come here. Establishing ourselves as the best-known university in China, and the most committed to forming a relationship with China, leads to great institutional advantage."
With China under control, Levin was off last fall to India, another nation with 20 percent of the world's population.
Given all his globe-trotting, fundraising, recruiting of faculty, speech writing and fence mending, the question arises: How does such an unassuming man-or any man-do all the things he does? Besides his day job, Levin serves as a director on three boards and has been tapped for prestigious national panels in recent years, studying variously the economics of Major League Baseball, the United States Postal Service and patent law. In 2005, President Bush named him to the Iraq Intelligence Committee, which reported its findings the following year.