Who's next?

What should Yale be looking for in Levin's successor?

Diana Jean Schemo, a former education reporter for the New York Times, is a founder of 100 Reporters, an online journalism project.

Ask Raymond Cotton, a lawyer who specializes in negotiating contracts for college presidents, about the qualities Yale should seek in its next president, and his answer is straightforward: “the ability to walk on water.”

The overarching challenge for the person who takes over from Richard Levin ’74PhD next summer, Cotton explains, will lie in stepping in after a long tenure that is generally regarded as highly successful. He predicts the expectations will be “sky high,” and all but impossible to meet.

“His successor will be judged not by [Levin’s] first year, but by his 21st year as president,” says Cotton, vice president for higher education at ML Strategies, LLC. People will assume that the new president is “starting at the same level the outgoing president left on.” It is not unusual, he adds, for new presidents in such situations to last only a few years in the job.

Nannerl O. Keohane ’67PhD, who has served as president of both Wellesley College and Duke University, considers the Yale presidency “the most protean job: mayor of a large city, fund-raiser, manager—this job requires everything,” she says. But the bedrock quality that she and others identify as essential for Yale’s next president is a deep familiarity with the culture of the university and a commitment to the institution that will resonate with alumni and the university community. Ideally, many say, the next president would be an alumnus and a hands-on manager who will roll up his or her sleeves and work alongside the faculty, staff, board, and alumni.

“It’s a distinctive place, and people who went there are passionate about that,” Keohane says.

For his part, Edward Bass ’67, ’72ArtA, believes the university’s next president “must be a scholar and educator who can command the respect of the faculty and inspire its members to work with him or her in moving the university forward.” Bass is senior fellow of the Yale Corporation, the university’s board of trustees, which will choose the new president. “At the same time, he or she must be a skilled manager and CEO who can steer the operations, finances, and long-term strategy of a very large-scale enterprise.”

At least a few people in the Yale community would like to see some changes to the Levin approach. Victor Bers, a professor of classics who has clashed with the administration over Yale-NUS College and other issues, said he is hoping for a president who would lead in partnership with the faculty. Bers has openly criticized Levin for what he describes as “a top-down leadership style.”

“What is wanted is somebody who cares about what is actually done here in the teaching and the research and is not going to be swayed too much by a need to imitate for-profit corporations,” Bers says. “Obviously, we are a private university dependent to a considerable extent on private donations, and Rick has raised a lot of money,” he notes. Still, Bers says that the next president should lead with a strong moral compass and not always follow cues from alumni or donors. “We saw in Kingman Brewster somebody who was willing to do a lot of things that the alumni did not favor.”

The next president will have to balance these countervailing tensions. Academia generally has moved toward a more corporate approach to management, as a way to bring some systematization to institutions made up of disparate, semi-independent departments. Yet Yale’s identity lies in the quality of its faculty, its students and their achievements, and in the alchemy of scholarship and how to foster it.

“How do the nation’s top universities evolve as knowledge becomes increasingly available in clouds?” asks James Johnson Duderstadt ’64, former president of the University of Michigan. “Nimbleness is a very important attribute. Change will be a powerful force, and Yale has to develop the capacity to respond to change.” Given technological advances, scholars in any given field may collaborate more with colleagues across the globe than across the hall, creating new ways of tackling problems and new avenues to discovery. The most successful presidents at institutions like Yale provide an environment where experimentation and excellence can flourish. “All of these good things are never top-down,” Duderstadt adds. “They work from the bottom up.”

As for the legacy question, Keohane, for one, does not believe Yale’s next president will be jinxed by Levin’s record. Quite the opposite.

“You’re very lucky to have a strong predecessor,” she says. “If you’ve had a weak predecessor there are an awful lot of messes you have to clean up. Rick isn’t leaving any messes for his successor to clean up.”


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