Exit Levin, smiling

The highs and lows—and Yale's next act.

Richard Levin ’74PhD in 1992, shortly before becoming president of Yale (left) and in spring of this year (right). Levin announced in August that this academic year will be his last as president. View full image

It wasn’t like nobody saw it coming. Richard Levin ’74PhD has been president of Yale for 19 years, longer than any of his Ivy League counterparts and longer than any Yale president since 1921. Speculation about when he might decide to pack it in had been a parlor game on campus for at least five years.

But it was still a surprise to almost everyone when Levin announced on August 30 that this academic year would be his last. Levin had given no public hints that such a decision was coming, and his morning e-mail to faculty, students, staff, and alumni was the talk of the campus.

“As my 20th anniversary approaches,” Levin wrote, “I recognize that this is a natural time for a transition. We stand between the realization of many important institutional goals and another round of major initiatives.… It is a source of great satisfaction to leave Yale in much stronger condition—academically, physically, and financially—than it was when I began in 1993.”

The consensus is that this president will be a tough act to follow. Levin didn’t say so outright, but Yale was at a low point when he took over as president. His predecessor, Benno Schmidt Jr. ’63, ’66LLB, had resigned unexpectedly after a contentious six-year term, and the university faced a budget crisis and a host of problems. Proposals for draconian cuts to academic programs had sparked the ire of the faculty: engineering, linguistics, and sociology, to name three, were threatened with extinction. A 1991 New York Times headline asked “Can Yale, With Budget Troubles, Still Be Great?” The buildings, long neglected, needed expensive renovations. Relations with the unions were as dysfunctional as ever. And New Haven was experiencing an alarming increase in crime, a fact that hit home for many at the university when a Yale sophomore, Christian Prince ’93, was shot to death during a robbery on Hillhouse Avenue, just a block from the president’s house.

As the search for a new president began, US senator and Yale trustee David Boren ’63 (now president of the University of Oklahoma) told the Yale Alumni Magazine, “Every president is important, but once or twice in a century, you have a defining moment. I think we’re facing one of those moments now.”

Richard Levin is not the person Hollywood would have cast for that defining moment. He is decidedly low-key, even introverted, and not naturally drawn to the oratorial role that predecessors like Kingman Brewster Jr. ’41 and A. Bartlett Giamatti ’60, ’64PhD, enjoyed. But he had developed a reputation as a capable leader when he chaired the economics department, bringing harmony to that once-fractious corner of the campus, and he had been appointed dean of the Graduate School in 1992.

And over the last 20 years, Levin has not only had considerable success with all the problems he inherited, but has also built up the university’s international engagement and strengthened Yale science. Of course, the turnaround has been fueled by more than Levin’s leadership. The first years of his tenure coincided with two trends that made a big difference: a dramatic national decline in urban crime that made New Haven, like other cities, a more attractive place to live and invest; and a booming global economy that allowed Yale to raise billions in donations and—under the prodigious stewardship of chief investment officer David Swensen ’80PhD—earn billions more in returns on its endowment, making all kinds of problems much easier to solve.

Levin’s first priority on taking office was the university’s fraught relationship with New Haven. Schmidt had more or less commuted to Yale from New York City during his presidency, but Levin and his wife Jane had raised their children in the city’s East Rock neighborhood. He realized that Christian Prince’s murder—and the drag New Haven’s reputation was putting on student and faculty recruitment—made improving the city a matter of both altruism and self-preservation.

In 1994, Yale launched a program to encourage its employees to live and invest in the city; it offers cash payments of up to $30,000 to employees who buy homes in selected neighborhoods. The university has also sharply increased direct payments it makes to the city in lieu of property taxes, invested heavily in retail development downtown, and put Yale volunteers to work in city schools and neighborhoods. Levin spoke proudly of his administration’s engagement in an interview in August: “New Haven is demonstrably a better place to live than it was 20 years ago,” he said, and one reason is that “we’ve made what used to be an aloof ivory tower into the leading corporate citizen of New Haven.”

In academics, Levin gained the faculty’s confidence and avoided radical cuts by encouraging “selective excellence” within departments: Yale engineering, for example, wouldn’t be eliminated, but it also wouldn’t try to excel across the entire span of the discipline; instead, it would pick areas in which to focus and build strength. As the endowment swelled and the economy improved, Yale was able to expand the faculty, adding 100 new full-time professors by 2010 to the 600 on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 2000. Levin also worked to raise Yale’s profile in science and engineering through new facilities and new initiatives; improved facilities for Yale’s art schools and museums; presided over an overhaul of the college curriculum; and increased financial aid in the college, the Graduate School, and some professional schools.

At the same time, he went to work restoring the campus’s badly neglected buildings. In 1993, the street-side façades of many structures were covered in soot. Interior walls and artwork were grimy. Sterling Memorial Library was so drafty that students’ papers would blow off the reading tables. As of this year, the renovations completed under Levin include all 12 residential colleges, the Law School, the Divinity School, Sterling Library, Sterling Hall of Medicine, and many others. And after 20 years of almost no new construction, Yale added 19 new buildings, including a new home for the School of Management (now under construction) and five new science buildings. Alumni visiting Yale now routinely, and enviously, remark on how much more posh today’s campus is than the one they remember.

Yale’s holdings were also expanded dramatically in 2007, thanks to a stroke of luck: the Bayer Corporation decided to sell a research, manufacturing, and office campus straddling nearby West Haven and Orange—a property that Yale vice president Bruce Alexander ’65 estimates to be worth at least $1 billion—and Yale was the highest bidder, at $109 million. No other buyer wanted Bayer’s state-of-the-art research labs, but to Yale, the labs and their extensive high-end equipment were an incredible windfall for science. Now known as Yale’s West Campus, the 136-acre site is home base for many new researchers Yale has recruited, along with storage and conservation space for Yale’s museums and libraries and, soon, a new home for the School of Nursing.