The news of Rick Levin's retirement as president of Yale surprised me. True, the tenures of university presidents are notoriously short, and the dangers of burnout are great for even the most well trained administrators. But Levin was the great exception. He'd been President at Yale for 20 years, and he had been a graduate student and professor there for about the same length of time. Given the new initiatives we've heard coming out of New Haven, I had no reason to think change was in the air. But it's certainly the case that Levin has more than earned his "retreat rights" to teaching and writing.
Levin has steered Yale through a period of dramatic changes in American higher education, and he has done so in ways that have made the University stronger than ever before. Many others will assess the Levin years in regard to the shaping of the curriculum, the stature of the professional and graduate programs, and the dramatic expansion of the campus. There will surely be extended considerations of his efforts to make Yale a more responsible partner to educational and civic ventures locally, nationally and internationally. Yale's work with the New Haven school district and with the local community college is a model for many schools. The New Haven Promise Program, which funds college scholarships for all New Haven high school graduates earning a B average, completing 40 hours of public service during high school, and maintaining 90% attendance, is a great example of what a financially strong institution can accomplish locally. Levin's participation in the national conversation about science education and his devotion to creating more financial aid opportunities have made a significant impact on higher education in America.
As a strong leader of a powerful institution Levin has surrounded himself with good people who have become distinguished leaders themselves. Several Yale faculty have gone on to become successful deans and then on to distinguished presidencies across the country. As I know from experience, hiring a senior administrator from Yale means hiring someone of high integrity who can quickly make a difference through leadership and teamwork.
Levin has long championed international partnerships, and it is in this area that his recent efforts have been controversial on the Yale campus. The university's collaboration with the National University of Singapore will be an important experiment in developing the liberal arts outside of the United States. The Yale faculty, and many of us who care deeply about liberal learning, wonder how an educational project can advance in a political context that punishes ways of thinking and living that have been vital dimensions of scholarship. Will the university be corrupted by these oppressive tendencies, or will the university help create currents of thoughtful change? Levin and Yale have clearly bet on the latter. What would it say about the depth of our faith in education to bet on the former?
I'm no expert on Yale or on the Levin presidency. I've met Levin just a couple of times, even though my own university is just a short drive north of New Haven. But I'll end on a personal note. When a member of my family was seriously ill and I was worried about our treatment options, I emailed Rick to see if he knew with whom I might speak at Yale. I was surprised to get a response almost immediately, and he followed up after I had talked with the people he'd recommended. The doctors with whom we met proved to be both impressively knowledgeable and wonderfully humane. That's what one wants, isn't it, from a doctor, a professor or a university president. From where I sit, it's the sweet spot of academic leadership: knowledge and humanity. Rick Levin has hit that spot more than most over the past 20 years. I'm grateful and wish him well.
Follow Michael Roth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mroth78