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“I Must Say I’m Very Optimistic”
On the eve of his inauguration this month as Yale’s 22nd President, Richard C. Levin spoke with Yale Alumni Magazine editor Carter Wiseman ’68 about the University and its future.

Yale Alumni Magazine: You’ve been at Yale as a student, faculty member, and administrator for more than 20 years. Based on that experience, what are your immediate goals for the University?

Levin: Short-term, I have been largely occupied with putting together the best possible team of administrators I can. I inherited vacancies in the office of the Vice President for Finance and Administration and in the Secretary’s office. And I’ve had to replace myself as Dean of the Graduate School. All those positions have now been filled, and with people in whom I have an extraordinary degree of confidence, people who I believe will do a superb job for the University in every respect. Next, we will be looking at improving the ways in which we manage our business and real estate-related affairs in and around campus and in New Haven.

And your longer-term goals?

The long-term goals are in a sense most clear. First and foremost is maintaining the academic excellence of this glorious institution. There are great strengths at Yale that we want to perpetuate. Yale College remains, I firmly believe, the premier undergraduate educational opportunity in America, and I intend to keep it that way. As I look at my colleagues—including new presidents at Stanford, Chicago, and Harvard—-focusing so much of their energies on improving undergraduate teaching and undergraduate educational programs, I think how lucky we are to have what we have here at Yale.

Are those colleagues coming to you for advice?

Yes, we’ve talked about it. It’s a very special feature of this institution, and it takes work to preserve it—-it doesn’t just happen. There are professional pressures on faculty members to contribute to the literature in their disciplines, to attend professional meetings and conferences, to establish their professional identities outside the University and in the community of scholars in their field. And, of course, our people do that. They have very distinguished reputations in their fields. But it’s also the case that within that very select group of scholars and scientists, those at Yale have a real dedication to undergraduate education.

Nevertheless, I hear some parents asking why they should pay $25,000 to send a student to Yale College to be taught by teaching assistants. Has the commitment of regular faculty to teaching undergraduates eroded a bit?

Very little. We’re doing extremely well. True, we have had a very substantial growth in the number of teaching assistants over the past 15 years. But we peaked about three years ago when we began a program of actually reducing the number of teaching fellows in Yale College. And the growth took place in support of courses in which ladder faculty were the primary instructors. In this respect, we’re quite different from most of our competitors. That is to say, we have a great many courses in which full-time faculty are the primary instructors and graduate students go in as section leaders for one hour a week. We have very little teaching that’s done primarily by graduate students. The principal exceptions to this are some of our introductory language courses and a subset of our freshman English courses, where it is a combination of assistant professors, graduate students, and part-time faculty (such as my wife) who do the teaching. If you take out introductory English and foreign language courses, there are approximately 1,200 courses in Yale College, and only 30 of them are taught primarily by graduate students; 1,1’0 are taught by faculty. This is a record that I dare say is not met by any of the other leading research universities.

A major effort of Benno Schmidt’s six years as President was “restructuring” the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to help deal with an anticipated deficit. There are those who would say that it was his undoing. Yet the problems he identified—particularly finances, deteriorating buildings, the size of the faculty—have not changed dramatically. Are you bringing a new strategy to bear on this?

Yes, I think so. Benno Schmidt did a great service to this institution by focusing our attention on the deteriorated state of our physical plant and in launching an effort to restore the campus. I intend to continue that effort, because it’s absolutely necessary. The residential colleges, Sterling Library, the athletic facilities, the science laboratories—these are central to our academic life. So we will be pushing ahead. How do we make it happen? We have already been able to absorb modest, but nonetheless significant, reductions in the size of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In the end, we’ll probably be reducing it by about 6 percent. And departments have adapted to that with a great sense of responsibility and participation.

I think Provost Judith Rodin’s efforts to elicit from each department plans for reductions appropriate to the long-run strategy of maintaining their excellence worked very, very well. That, however, produces only a very modest amount of operating savings, perhaps $3 million a year. But we have managed to realize economies in a variety of other areas as well. Administrative savings are still possible in the coming years, and Joe Mullinix, whom I’ve just hired to be the vice president for finance and administration, is a person with long experience and considerable acumen in identifying opportunities for saving resources while maintaining the high quality of service. I’m really looking to him to suggest some modifications on the administrative side that would help to close the remaining budget deficit.

Certainly part of what irritated some people under the Schmidt administration was the decision to consider eliminating or reducing a number of departments. Sociology and engineering were included on that list, but they are still with us. Are you planning to review any other programs for reduction or elimination, or will you be trimming across the board?

Neither. Part of the different strategy is to identify areas to save money outside the core academic programs. But within academic programs I think opportunities remain for reshaping existing entities without overall reductions. That is, you can have strategies for achieving first-rate departments that don’t require the degree of research commitment that would be entailed by a strategy of improvement through growth. The typical way academic departments improve is by just adding faculty: You have an existing faculty and you decide you’re going to build up a new area of research, and so you hire three or four people in that area without making commensurate off-setting reductions elsewhere. One solution to the problem of achieving excellence is to have a more strategic view of how to hire and build departments than we had in the past. That is to say, adopt a strategy of recognizing that some are going to be—by national standards—relatively small, but specialized. We can focus on building strength in one, or two, or three sub-fields of the entire discipline rather than covering the whole discipline. So there will be, over time—and with thorough consultation—thoughtful restructuring more in the sense of strategic planning for particular units than an overall attempt to look at the whole set of programs and identify those that should be cut out.

Could you be more specific?

Sociology is a good example. One area in which we are not currently well represented, but in which it would seem natural for us to build as an area of strength, is the constellation of topics in sociology that has to do with the problems of cities. New Haven is a natural laboratory for research on urban problems, and we have an institutional commitment to taking a more active role in the community. And so in looking forward to hiring in sociology (and there will be opportunities for this even while the department shrinks because there is a wave of retirements coming over the next decade), I think we can build an excellent program in urban sociology and the related fields: health care, educational services, questions of racial discrimination. Those areas could be built up in sociology without expanding the department at all. To emphasize sociology focused on the problems of cities is of course to say that we’re not going to hire extensively in certain other perfectly legitimate fields of sociology, some of which we’ve been quite strong in in the past.

Would something similar apply to engineering?

Yes. I feel very committed to strengthening engineering at Yale, but I think that this can be done by emphasizing fields in which we already have some strength. Perhaps we’ll be launching initiatives in one or two new areas, but over time, as retirements come and as there is turnover in the faculty, undoubtedly we’ll be abandoning certain areas of research that we now cover. We cannot be a full-service engineering program. At the same time, if we have a faculty that, say, centers on five or six general areas of engineering instead of 20, we can build research groups of critical mass. Meanwhile, we’ll try to hire the kind of faculty who have an interest in undergraduate teaching so they can teach outside their particular narrow areas of confidence. But we want to maintain an accredited program. We are convinced that we simply have to do that if we’re going to attract talented students.

Inevitably when one talks about making such choices, one tends to make comparisons with other institutions. It would seem that Harvard long ago decided it was going to be a truly global enterprise, and some would say that as a result it is now somewhat out of control. At the same time it would seem that Princeton has decided to focus on its traditional collegiate missions, and as a result remains comparatively limited. Yale has always rejoiced in the curious identity of a “university college.” Can we have it both ways?

I really think so. Princeton is in certain respects in an enviable position because it has the college, an excellent graduate program in arts and sciences, and an endowment that’s the same size or a tad bigger than our own. So they’re in a very strong competitive position. Nonetheless, we’ve managed to be more than competitive. In many fields in the humanities we have departments that are superior to Princeton’s despite its emphasis in this narrower domain. I would love to see some of our departments move up to the level of Princeton and Harvard in physical and biological sciences. One of the central tasks for Tom Appelquist as the new dean of the Graduate School is going to be to work very much with the science departments, as well as admissions and faculty development, to improve the quality in those areas. We have some strong science departments, but there are a number of fields in which we’re not in the top three or top five nationally. And that’s where we’re used to being over on the humanities side.

No matter what the strategy, money remains a critical issue. In its current fundraising campaign, Yale has set a goal of $1.5 billion, more than any other university has ever asked for. How is that going?

Very well. We passed the halfway mark at the end of the fiscal year, and I must say I feel very optimistic. I feel that we’ll make our targets. It’s proven a bit harder than we expected to raise money for the building renovations. But we’ve done a little better on raising money for endowment than the original projections.

Speaking of the endowment, should Yale release a portion of it to deal with pressing current needs, particularly the need to renovate the facilities?

I think for the time being we’d like to keep the endowment management and the “spending rule” where they are and develop plans for reaching financial equilibrium that don’t involve infringements there. One never knows. But we’ve done very well with our endowment. One can’t get too gloomy about the prospects of an institution with a $3.2-billion bank account.

One of the unusual qualifications you bring to your job is your background as an economist. Do you feel that your academic and practical training give you a special understanding of Yale’s finances?

There’s no doubt that it helps to be comfortable with budgets and numbers and financial-endowment management. I don’t think it’s essential. What’s most essential is a commitment to the central values of the institution, and the ability to relate to a wide range of people and to understand how to motivate and work with them effectively.

Among your challenges as President is one that is clearly far more difficult to control even than finances: the condition of the city of New Haven. I have heard it alleged that New Haven’s problems are causing trouble for Yale in recruiting faculty, administrators, and students. True?

I think that the concerns, at least reflected in the data we see to date, are probably exaggerated. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take them seriously. We have had pretty good success at recruiting faculty, particularly this past year, so I’m not sure that that is a significant problem now. It could become one in the future if we don’t take steps to assure that New Haven is an attractive place to come to work.

What are you planning to do to ensure that?

I think we have to be willing to look at our local environment, with its physical setting and its economic conditions, in a way that’s active and creative and long-run in our orientation. We have become more involved with New Haven in the past years, but largely in a reactive mode. Most of the projects in which we now participate, some of the investment initiatives we’ve launched—for example, the strengthening of our security programs on campus—have been in reaction to events rather than planned, premeditated, and thought through with our own interests in mind. I think that Yale, as one of the major employers in the city, as a leading corporate citizen of the city and region, needs to take a leadership role. We need to look for opportunities to make constructive changes, instead of simply sitting back and reacting to them. That’s why I hired someone of Linda Lorimer’s sterling capabilities as secretary of the University. We want to look for opportunities to make a difference. Not by spending our money on it necessarily, but by thinking of ways of putting partnerships together that involve resources brought to bear by private investors, and by the state and federal governments. We also want to make use of the resources we have here at Yale: a very committed faculty and staff and a student population that is doing a lot in the city.

Do you have any specific goals in mind?

I’m hopeful that we can make some significant improvements in the development of the downtown area, and in job creation through possibly expanded transfer of technology from our own science laboratories, as well as in managing our own real estate in the immediate vicinity of the campus. This is particularly important in some of the perimeter residential areas, which we’re thinking about very seriously. We can help both the city and Yale by working with private sources of capital to develop these areas as mixed housing that will include community people, Yale staff, Yale students, and younger faculty.

You mention helping the city through the transfer of Yale technology for commercial use. There is an ongoing debate about whether an institution that is about learning for its own sake is not selling its soul by cashing in on its research. Where do you stand?

This is an area that I’ve been very concerned about and intimately involved in for some years. I was a member of the committee that drafted the guidelines that govern faculty conduct with regard to participation in cooperative endeavors with industry, that set the guidelines for licensing of Yale’s technology, set the guidelines for the terms under which we will accept grants from organizations seeking access to our research results, and so forth. Since then I’ve been involved in authoring various advisory memoranda for faculty on what’s appropriate in consulting arrangements with outside business. The purpose of all these policies and advisory memoranda has been to see that our basic quest for knowledge-and in particular the way in which senior investigators relate to their graduate students and to junior faculty colleagues-is not in any way contaminated by the pursuit of commercial interests. You need absolutely to have clear guidance about what’s appropriate conduct. You don’t want situations emerging where graduate students are told to do their dissertations on projects that are commercially attractive rather than those that are most attractive to them in terms of developing their careers as scientists. We cannot compromise.

Does that mean we can’t cooperate?

No. We are producing, as are many academic institutions, socially useful knowledge that has direct potential for the improvement of humankind, and very often that improvement can come only through the commercial development of such knowledge. Take, for example, a pharmaceutical product. To do the scientific research at the initial stages of developing a drug can be relatively inexpensive. It may cost a million dollars, but it may only cost a few hundred thousand, and it rarely costs tens of millions. But it often does cost tens of millions to take that idea through all the various stages of testing that the federal Food and Drug Administration requires. Now, if you have a cancer therapy that you’ve developed in your laboratory, you need the cooperation of a pharmaceutical company willing to put up the money to take the drug through the necessary testing before it can get to the user. It’s a natural area of collaboration: We do the science, industry does the commercial development. And we would be more than foolish to forgo some share in the returns. With the appropriate guidelines, this is something that can be pursued to the financial benefit of the institution without altering its scientific and academic orientation. But it requires constant vigilance.

Every institution of higher learning is unique. What do you think makes this university different from our sister institutions?

Well, I would say again that the principal thing that makes Yale unique is that, among research universities, we’re the most committed to undergraduate education. But there are other things that complement that emphasis. One of them is the Law School. We’ve maintained now for more than 50 years a distinctive approach to legal education which is that legal education is part of liberal education, and that education in the law is more than memorizing cases and preparing for the legal practice narrowly perceived, but rather an intellectual enterprise that considers the role of law in society and seeks to understand public institutions and their purposes. Another special aspect I would note with great pride and pleasure is our unusual constellation of outstanding schools of fine arts. None of the other great universities has the range that we have in outstanding schools of music, drama, art, and architecture. And this not only does great service to the arts community worldwide, it enhances our undergraduate programs, as well as the cultural life of the whole New Haven community.

Some would argue that, unlike the schools of law or medicine, the arts schools are also expensive, and don’t tend to generate much in the way of grants or alumni giving.

Well, we simply can’t measure all these things in dollars. All you had to do was walk down to the Yale Art Gallery and take a look at the recent exhibit, “Yale Collects Yale"-which was made up of paintings by faculty and former students of the Yale School of Art that are in the holdings of various Yale alumni collectors-to see what an extraordinary contribution this school has made to our cultural life. And, of course, we know what impact the Drama School has had and the Architecture School. All of them have had significant impacts on American culture and significantly enriched this campus in very important ways. I think we have something very special, and I would hope in the course of the current fundraising campaign to put these institutions-and the galleries and collections that support them-on a firmer financial footing.

We see at institutions all around us what some might call special interest groups, or “politically correct” organizations, questioning the traditional Western liberal curriculum. Recently, undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania confiscated copies of the student newspaper because they found its contents offensive, and a university report concluded that this was an appropriate form of protest. Does anything go these days?

I can answer that by referring back to your question about what is unique about Yale. Nearly 30 years ago, Yale adopted as official policy something called the Woodward Report, on free speech and its implications in the institution. It’s a remarkable document and its principles have been consistently upheld, I think, here, more consistently than at virtually any other major university. We believe in freedom of expression, and we’re permissive with respect to what people can say. But we also believe that civility should govern conduct on campus and that the disruption of the rights of others to express their views should be treated as a serious infraction of academic regulations. You must preserve civility in order for the exercise of each right to be meaningful. Without trying to make direct analogies to the situations at other universities, I think that one thing that we can say with pride is that we’ve upheld the rights of people of all persuasions. Some of the incidents about protecting rights of free speech at Yale, if you go back some years now, had to do with protecting the right to speak of people with very unpopular views on the extreme right of the political spectrum, and I would certainly intend to maintain that stance. Open discussion and the exchange of ideas is what we’re all about. It’s a very slippery slope if you let that principle lapse.

One event that tested the limits of civility occurred seven years ago when the School of Organization and Management was reorganized over the protests of many of its alumni. How do you feel about the results?

Well, as a longtime member of SOM’s faculty, although one who’s not been active these past seven years or so, I remain enthusiastic about the mission of the school pretty much as originally conceived. That is to say I believe that a school that focuses on the acquisition of skills required for management in both public and private sectors remains a good idea. The original conception that we would be training managers who would have career patterns that crossed from the public to nonprofit to for-profit, private sectors, I think is largely borne out in the career paths of some of the alums of the earlier generations. I think it’s an idea that will have more appeal in the 1990s than it had in the 1980s. You could say one of the problems with som was timing, that we founded an institution on a conception of the relation between private and public sectors that became unfashionable in the 1980s. I think that while we have a greater degree of skepticism today about the efficacy of government, a balanced view would suggest that government and the nonprofit sectors are going to play a significant role in American life in the years to come. And the idea of managers who can walk these boundaries-and work these boundaries-seems to be very attractive. It gives us a niche. Again, it’s a way of specializing in the field of management education that allows us to stop short of replicating the very large institutions that some of our competitors have, while still attracting very high-quality students.

It wasn’t so long ago that this and many other universities limited the number of Jews in the student body. The quotas have vanished, and your appointment brings to four the number of current Ivy League presidents of Jewish parentage. Has this been an issue for you?

I have to say that being Jewish at Yale has never been an issue for me. This is a campus in which I’ve always been treated in ways that are appropriate to the contribution I could make intellectually and administratively, as a teacher and scholar. And I think most of the people of my generation would feel the same way. You don’t have to go back very far, though-a mere decade or 15 years-to find that things were rather different. We’ve come a long way. I think now we have what does amount to a meritocracy in which people are treated according to what they can achieve and what they can contribute. That’s another thing worth preserving.

Speaking of origins, you bring a couple of firsts to your position. Does a Stanford alumnus from San Francisco have a special perspective on this centuries-old New England institution?

Well, I am very much a San Franciscan and a Californian in ways that many of my friends can’t quite comprehend. And I think it does lend a kind of refreshing perspective. There is a bit of a tendency to insularity east of the Hudson River, and it’s good from time to time to offer people an alternative perspective.

Any examples?

Well, the very idea that one might think of sending one’s children west of the Hudson River to college has astounded many of my faculty colleagues for years. (My son, as you know, is at Stanford.) I’m constantly finding myself in the position of suggesting to young people here for whom Yale might not be the best choice as an undergraduate institution-or who might just like to get out of town-that they should look westward (certainly in preference to what we have 140 miles northeast of here).

Do those institutions provide you with any models from which this university might profit? Not everyone does it the way Yale does it.

I have looked at institutions both west and east to try to understand better how they are governed and what their administrative structures are like. But I’m pretty much an incrementalist when it comes to administrative change, because a model that works well in one setting may not work as well when superimposed on a different one with a different culture and history. I think we have administrative structures and ways of governance that have, by and large, served us pretty well for a long time. So I’m not about to import any alternative models wholesale, but around the edges there are ways of making changes. For instance, we could learn things from the University of Chicago, which looked at the problem of being in a depressed urban area much earlier than did any of the East Coast schools.

For a variety of reasons Yale in the past few years has been taking its lumps in the national press. There are those who would say that it’s Yale’s fault, that the University hasn’t paid enough attention to public relations, that it hasn’t been selling itself properly. On the other hand, there are people who argue that you can’t manage the news and that if you’ve got a good enterprise it will eventually triumph over whatever temporary setbacks it may undergo. How do you see the role of publicity?

I think improving our public relations effort is very important, and I intend to work on that. I hope to upgrade the Office of Public Affairs and be more aggressive about getting the good news about Yale out before the public in a variety of ways. But public relations means much more than what kind of story appears in the New York Times. There are many facets to public relations that are ill-attended to here and at most universities. We’ve taken steps in some areas. For example, our new dean of undergraduate admissions, Rick Shaw, has put together an admissions brochure that I’m sure would surprise some alumni. It’s an elaborate, glossy, beautifully laid out book that might make some people ask why we need to “advertise” Yale College. After all, Yale College is the best. But the truth is, we do need to advertise Yale College. There are all kinds of other things about public relations that I would like to see addressed in time, such as how we, in our various offices, interact with the public. I mean, people by and large around here-faculty and staff-aren’t given any direction or encouragement about how to interact with the public. Just how we answer the telephone makes a difference, how we greet visitors. We could do better. We could be a little more sensitive to these things.

I couldn’t close an interview with a San Francisco Giants fan without a question about athletics. We regularly get letters at the magazine lamenting the state of Yale’s football program. What part does it and the other sports programs play in a Yale education?

Everyone would like to have a winning football team. I, too, would enjoy a winning football team, but that is hardly all there is to the athletic program. We have 33 varsity sports and an extraordinary level of participation in our intramural activities. One reason there aren’t so many students at the Bowl on Saturday afternoons in the fall is that a lot of them are off playing on their own teams! While Yale football has had mixed results in the last few years, we have had some success. And when you add the results of men’s hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, lacrosse, baseball, and softball, it’s not an unattractive record. By the same token, it’s hard to imagine Yale making the kind of very substantial investment that would be required to take it out of the Ivy League and make it competitive with Stanford and Notre Dame. You have to remember that athletics at Yale are much more than football—ever so much more than football.  the end


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