Levin of Yale

Richard Levin has juggled difficult constituencies, made good decisions and kept the focus on light and truth.

 

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Observers credit his management style with allowing him to keep so many balls in the air at once. "Rick is very good at leading from behind," says Ian Shapiro, director of Yale's MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. "He brings in really good people and lets them get on with it. He lets them lead. You can see this in the deans and provosts he's picked that have served Yale and gone on to be presidents of other universities." Former Yale administrators now head Duke, Wellesley, Cambridge, M.I.T and, soon, Oxford.

"He's very good at picking the people around him, not necessarily those who are at the peak of their game, but people who have potential. Rick looks for that," says senior Yale Corporation fellow Roland Betts. "He's a terrific listener, he's open-minded. He wants to know everything about a particular subject, and then he'll make up his mind. And he's very smart. Very smart. At the end of the day, that is his greatest asset."

Shapiro and others point out that Levin's massive construction campaign owes a great debt to financial wunderkind David Swensen, Yale's chief investment officer, who has led the Ivy League, and the entire nation, from 1985 to 2007 in academic portfolio performance. With annual yields averaging more than 15 percent during that remarkable run, Swensen had grown the endowment from $1.3 billion to nearly $23 billion until the dreadful last few months of 2008. Levin sits on the investment committee, and Swensen says the two of them talk about once a week. Of his boss, Swensen says simply that there is "none better."

Campus kibitzers whisper that without Swensen, Levin wouldn't have accomplished half the things he has done. In fact, one of the initial concerns about Levin was how he would fare raising money. In his second year he let a $20 million gift slip through Yale's fingers, and freely confesses today to this rookie mistake. Betts and others say Levin has since become a proficient fundraiser.

Despite Levin's demanding workload, wife Jane insists that he pitches in around the house. He cooks, he shops, he'll do the dishes. Jane adds that he doesn't lie awake at night worrying about his job. "Rick is just this incredibly calm person who does not get anxious," she says. "He's also very optimistic. He doesn't get thrown by the ups and downs, of which there are a lot in his position."

Maureen Nowak, whose family lived next door to the Levins for 22 years, reports that Rick was an unpretentious guy both before and after he was named president. In fact, Levin and family decided to remain in their home rather than move into the presidential spread on Hillhouse Avenue. "My husband and our boys, and Rick and his kids, would have these epic three-on-three basketball games in our back yard," Nowak recalls. "He's actually a pretty good player, very competitive. They were just wonderful neighbors. They would give me the key to their house, and say, 'If you need eggs just go in and take them'-that kind of thing. They taught me to be less New England-like; you know, we were private people, and we got so we would borrow things from one another all the time."

The easygoing Levin is so Zen that he professes not to be overly concerned about what those devious Pilgrims are plotting up yonder in Cambridge. "I like to scan the horizon to see what our peer institutions are doing, but I'm not a very anxious person," he says.

So how long does Levin plan to remain at Yale? He won't say, but his bad hammy notwithstanding, he doesn't seem to have lost a step at a job with a notoriously high incidence of burnout. While he has been leading Yale, Harvard has had four presidents and Trinity College has ripped through six.

"His energy seems to be completely undiminished," reports Yale historian Gaddis Smith, who places Levin in the Blue pantheon with Ezra Stiles (1778-1795) and Kingman Brewster (1963-1977) as the greatest presidents in Yale's 308-year history.

There was a time, before elite became a four-letter word in some circles, when presidents of great American universities were considered wise men. When they returned from trips abroad, the media would greet them at the gangplank, cameras flashing, to get their thoughts on the state of the world. Woodrow Wilson went from the presidency of Princeton to the White House in less than three years.

Richard Levin may have no such ambitions, but he does have some thoughts that transcend academia. He won't reveal his politics-Who's Who pegs him as a Democrat- and he is on the best of terms with the Yale man who has been in the White House for the past eight years. Indeed, he gave President George W. Bush an honorary degree in 2001, before all hell broke loose.

But if you ask Levin, he will tell you what he thinks about the future.

"I still think the fundamentals of what America has to offer the world are pretty strong. It's a creative and innovative society, an open and free society, and we have a higher-education system that is still far and away the best in the world. We turn out amazing young people with a great capacity to contribute to the well-being of humanity. I remain a long-term optimist. I think we're in an economic situation that was avoidable. We're trapped in military interventions that were avoidable, but I do think that the underlying core of innovation and productive capacity in this country is great. If we only learn a lesson about how to behave in the world, about being a leader but not a self-absorbed parochial power, then the future could be very bright."

With Levin at the helm, Yale's future appears to be very bright as well. His "to do list" is as long as it was in 1993, maybe longer considering Yale's 2007 purchase of the 136-acre Bayer HealthCare complex in West Haven, with its 17 buildings and 550,000 square feet of new laboratory space. He has also committed Yale to drastically reducing its carbon emissions by 2020.

He isn't thinking of leaving anytime soon, although he surely knows that his boyhood hero played centerfield a few years too many. Willie Mays loved the game that much. When asked to articulate his love for Yale, Levin laughs and quotes a lyric from the 1965 Lovin' Spoonful song, "Do You Believe in Magic?":

"I could tell you about the magic that will free your soul
But it's like trying to tell a stranger about rock n' roll."

Levin of Yale

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