Q&A: Rick Levin

Fifteen years on the job

Science funding, leaky roofs, unions, and stamina. 

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

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Y: You've just completed 15 years as president of Yale. You're the longest-serving Ivy president. You have everyone from the college newspaper to Yale trustees saying, we think he's the best who ever led Yale. How do you feel?

L: I feel fortunate that I have been able to recruit so many extraordinarily able people to leadership positions, and I am very pleased that together we have made great progress. Yale is physically transformed; it is stronger in many academic dimensions, and it is looking outward to the world and acting more responsibly as a local citizen than ever before.

Y: You gave a speech in which you enumerated your priorities and achievements over 15 years. When you first started, your priorities were the crumbling infrastructure and the poor relationship with New Haven. Since then, Yale has spent $3.5 billion on capital improvements. And I recently read in the Yale Daily News an offhand reference to New Haven as “famous for its restaurants.” When I went to school here, that was not what New Haven was famous for. What led you to put those issues first?

L: It was an easy call. In 1993, Yale's physical plant was horrendous. My predecessor had done an inventory and found dozens of buildings with leaky roofs, and numerous other problems. As for New Haven, a promising and popular Yale College student, Christian Prince [’93], had been murdered on campus in the spring of 1991. The surrounding neighborhoods had falling home prices and a high vacancy rate. A significant fraction of the stores downtown were boarded up. We had to attend to this; we needed our host city to be a place that attracted students and faculty, as it does today.

Y: These were clearly money issues. How did you go about getting the funds?

L: We had a big budget deficit, largely because we had started a renovation program and had taken on debt to finance it. There were plans already under way to cut expenses and reduce the size of the faculty, and I carried them out. We squeezed the budget pretty hard for the first five years in order to make room for the costs of renovations and for the investments we made in New Haven, starting with the homebuyer program [which subsidizes mortgages for Yale employees buying homes in New Haven]. We also made it a priority to reach out to the city of New Haven. The deans and directors at Yale all got the message that their programs had to have a local outreach component.

Y: Then, as Yale's capital campaign began to succeed, you started on internationalization and science.

L: Around the turn of the millennium, we made internationalization a very explicit objective, as we had earlier made it a priority to reach out to New Haven. This time we asked deans and directors to start expanding their international programs. It's no coincidence that I entrusted both these initiatives to [Yale vice president and secretary] Linda Lorimer [’77JD], who has been my right hand and senior counselor since the day I was inaugurated. She founded Yale's Office of New Haven and State Affairs in 1994 and the Office of International Affairs eight years later.

Y: You've said that America is parochial. In choosing to make Yale international, do you have a larger view of academia's role?

L: Absolutely. What we are doing in higher education benefits the United States by building an understanding among future American citizens and leaders about the rest of the world. And bringing foreign students to the United States is an investment in national security. Either these students stay here and contribute to the strength of the nation, or they go home, where much more often than not they become ambassadors for American values. This is not just Yale's agenda; it is an agenda for the nation. I delivered a speech on this subject last April.

Y: You've committed to spend $1 billion on science infrastructure. When you came on, Yale was already in the top ten in most rankings of research universities. But Yale remains much smaller in science than a lot of its rivals -- Harvard, MIT, Cornell. How did you decide what direction to take?

L: Being in the top ten is not good enough. Our first step was to develop a plan for better facilities, to help us attract the most outstanding faculty. There was an attitude that we couldn't compete effectively with MIT and Stanford. So we took the position: let's go for the best, and let's provide the facilities to make that possible. We have built five new laboratory buildings for science, engineering, and medical research since 2000, and with the recent acquisition of the West Campus, we are poised to advance Yale science well beyond what we imagined a decade ago.

Y: How far do you think Yale has come?

L: We're getting there. Some of our departments have strengthened considerably; for example, MCDB [molecular, cellular, and developmental biology] has been very successful at recruiting outstanding younger faculty.

It will take some time to get all of the science departments into the top five among their peers, where the majority of our humanities and social science departments and almost all of our professional schools rank. It could take 15 more years, but we are on course.

Y: One problem you didn't mention in your SOM speech was Yale's relationships with its unions.

L: That has been another slow, steady march to progress. Early in my presidency, as our contracts came up for renewal [in 1996], I approached the union leadership and said, let's bury the hatchet. Let's bring in consultants and try to develop a different way of interacting. They were not interested, and they wanted to fight.

As the next contract negotiation approached, I proposed a peace treaty again. It took a long time for the unions to embrace it. But the contract that was finally executed in September 2003 built in opportunities to mend relationships by creating more collaborative committees and structures. And we gave ourselves a long time -- an eight-year contract. These were both good outcomes. At the leadership level, our relationship with the unions today is better than in all my years here. But it may take some time for the new spirit of collaboration that exists at the leadership level to spread through the ranks of management and the unions.

Y: What about problems you weren't aware of? For instance, soon after the government announced the audit [of Yale's grants, in June 2006], a high-level administrator in finance retired, and you hired an expert in grants administration. Had you overlooked a problem?

L: Prior to the government investigation, some of our internal audits had produced evidence that we were transferring too many charges from one grant to another, sometimes months after the fact, sometimes without proper documentation. We did not find malfeasance -- legitimate expenses were charged. But our behavior was not always in compliance with federal regulations. So we initiated a search for a new leader in grants administration. Before we concluded the search, the government opened its investigation. We reacted by completing the search, declaring that we would move quickly to become model citizens and improve our practices, and following through on that intention.

Y: If you were to pick something of which you'd say, “I could have done this better,” what would that be?

L: The [Lee] Bass gift [of $20 million for the study of Western civilization, which Yale returned in 1995] remains the best example. I should have moved quickly to implement the program Mr. Bass intended. Because the issue was complicated, I didn't deal with it immediately. It was a good lesson. Subsequently, when there has been a sign of trouble, I have been much more vigilant.

Y: In your SOM speech, you said that a manager must set the goal and then say it over and over again.

L: I am pretty clear about communicating. It is no mystery what the big objectives are for the next few years. Delivering on the new residential colleges and making them successful. Using the West Campus to ratchet up even further the quality and visibility of science at Yale. Intensifying our internationalization effort. Making Yale a leader in environmental practice. And there are others, like moving the School of Management to top-tier status.

Y: Aren't you an extremely unusual person -- being in this job for 15 years? This is a round-the-clock job that takes you jetting around the world constantly. How do you do it?

L: I have a lot of stamina. [Laughs.] And I love my job -- I encounter so many different kinds of people and different kinds of challenges. I thrive on it.

Y: And if you had to project your career path?

L: I think I'm on the highest step. I used to wonder what would I do after this job. I don't worry about it anymore. I wouldn't want to stay longer than people want me, but at this point I think I'm still serving a useful purpose. 

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