Levin of Yale

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

 

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.

 

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.

 

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. 

 

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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