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The Virtuoso Manager
An admirer of Rick Levin’s once told me that she hadn’t started out that way. When he was picked as the 22nd president of Yale, she was unimpressed. He wasn’t charismatic. He lacked the rhetorical flair that had become a hallmark of Yale presidents.
“But then,” she said, “he went and he fixed this little thing”—circling her hands around a spot on her desk as if it were some roiling problem on campus. “And then he fixed that”—and then another problem, and another and another, until she had become an ardent believer.
Richard C. Levin ’74PhD is the kind of manager New York Times columnist David Brooks has extolled: “The longer I cover politics, the more I admire… the boring stolid leadership traits like being organized, paying attention to detail, and executing one small thing after another.” Levin isn’t the executive of the clichés—the 800-pound gorilla, the guy who uses up all the oxygen in the room. But, as our cover story shows, the man can truly execute: labor-management peace, a boost to New Haven, expanded science departments, a higher global profile for Yale, new and refurbished buildings, and very much more.
One of Levin’s staffers has called him “egoless.” After nine years of interviewing him bimonthly, I’d say that doesn’t quite capture it. He’s not egotistical. But he’s altogether confident—enough so to deliver facts when he speaks, rather than entertainment. He is supremely focused, analytical, and methodical. Every fall, according to former Yale trustee David Gergen ’63, Levin would present the board, unasked, with a list of his top ten goals for the year. Professor emeritus Gaddis Smith ’54, ’61PhD, the leading authority on Yale University history, has called Levin “a thorough planner” and his presidency “a record of specifics.”
When Levin is criticized on campus, it’s mostly for being “corporate.” There’s some truth to that. Old universities are organic agglomerations of self-ruling principalities; it’s Levin’s instinct to bring system and consistency to the chaos. In most cases—like the new safety rules for power tool use, put in after Michele Dufault ’11 died while using a lathe—it’s unimpeachable. In others, it’s more problematic: some faculty were left underserved and unhappy when a move to streamline business services in their departments started off badly.
And maybe some oratorical flourish would have helped defuse the most serious faculty opposition his presidency has seen, over Yale-NUS College. For all his meticulous efforts to involve the faculty and win them over—recruiting respected professors to lead in crafting the plan, holding several campus-wide discussions—Levin did not ask for a vote on the proposal, and he couldn’t stem a late-breaking burst of faculty anger and a majority vote for a formal resolution criticizing Singapore’s human rights record.
But the dissent is hardly likely to derail Yale-NUS, whose first freshmen have already been admitted and first faculty hired. And Levin says the opposition wasn’t a factor in his decision to step down at the end of this academic year. He chose the timing with his usual analytic care (see “Levin Looks Back”), and, in his methodical way, gave the university nearly a year to pick his successor before he steps down.
He was methodical even when he called his staff together to make the big announcement. “We don’t have any tissues!” someone said. But Levin had a packet of tissues ready in his pocket. He always does.