08/30/2012 09:55 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2012

Richard Levin, Yale's President, To Retire After 20 Years, Leaving Remarkable Legacy

Thursday morning, the Yale community awoke to a momentous email: Richard Levin, the president of the university since 1993 announced that he would step down at the end of the academic year.

Yale's dean of undergraduate education Joseph Gordon, whose roughly 35 years at Yale overlap almost entirely with Levin's, expressed the feeling of many on campus when he said that, although he'd known Levin would eventually retire, the assurance and ease of his presidency makes the thought of his departure difficult to absorb.

"It's hard to separate him from the whole place for the last 20 years," Gordon said. "He changed so much. He made Yale so much a better place. He took a great place and made it even better."

Many of those changes will linger on far beyond Levin's departure, forming a remarkable legacy that has led some to call him the greatest president Yale has had in its 311-year history.

His longtime vice president Linda Koch Lorimer told The Huffington Post that Levin began building the foundations for that legacy as early as his inaugural address.

"Rick had a vision from the very beginning. He was a man with a mission," she said.

That first speech laid out several ambitious goals for his tenure: He wanted to shift Yale's focus to global issues, to increase the university's emphasis on scientific research, to use the university's resources to help revitalize the downtrodden city of New Haven and to make a Yale education accessible to more students from all financial backgrounds.

In the 19 years since then, he accomplished much of his agenda from that inaugural speech.

Making Yale accessible? Trained as an economist, Levin helped make Yale free for the children of parents who make less than $65,000 a year. He also oversaw construction on two new residential colleges that will allow Yale's undergraduate student body to expand by 15 percent.

Reviving New Haven? The university gives the city more than $10 million in voluntary development funds every year. Violent crime, a significant problem in New Haven, has been halved since the early 90s. There's now an Apple store and Shake Shack downtown.

As far as the school’s science program goes, Levin prioritized hiring top biologists like MacArthur-winning ornithologist Richard Prum, boosting Yale to among the top few universities in the country for life sciences. He also dedicated significant resources to Yale's science facilities, long a neglected ghetto several blocks from campus. He made Yale's engineering school an independent part of the university and, in 2007, Yale purchased 137 acres of laboratories a few miles from campus.

Yet Levin said he is most proud of his strides in the global arena.

"I felt very strongly that the world was changing and that students were going to need a different kind of training, that would let them understand other cultures, to succeed in the 21st century," he told The Huffington Post.

On campus, he increased financial aid grants for study abroad and established a program to bring foreign scholars to research as fellows at Yale every year. Overseas, Yale set in motion a plan to open an outpost of the university in Singapore in 2013.

Elizabeth Bradley, who's worked with Levin to start the Yale Global Health Initiative, praised Levin's ability to find and pursue partnerships that might have passed others by. "He was able to see opportunities and go after those places where Yale could not only contribute and be part of the global debate in all kinds of areas," she said.

Lorimer said that Levin's platform kept evolving long after his inaugural speech.

"He has a capacious mind that is always having new ideas. That's one of the joys of working with him. There's never a day goes by when he doesn't have new ideas -- and a commitment to making sure that the ongoing agenda is advanced," she explained. "There are a lot of people who have an idea a day and don't pursue any of them."

During his tenure, Levin raised $7 billion for the university's endowment, a greater amount than the total endowments of all but 10 universities in the world. Overall, Yale's endowment increased from $3.2 billion in 1993 to $19.4 billion in 2012, but many attribute a good portion of that increase to the school's endowment manager Dean Swensen, who's been hailed as something of a wizard in financial circles. However, the financial crisis resulted in a 29 percent decrease in the endowment, which Levin said forced him to cut back on several priorities.

"Had it not been for the financial resources, we would have had many more resources to address some projects that are important to me, like the new residential colleges and our push for environmental sustainability," he said.

Still, while the endowment was growing, Levin made architectural improvement a central priority of his administration; the results of that decision today are throughout Yale's campus. Structures built during Levin's tenure account for more than half the total square footage of Yale's campus, and 70 percentage of the remaining square footage was renovated significantly in that same time.

Levin's influence now also extends to other top universities around the world. Officials who worked immediately under him at Yale have gone on to assume the presidencies of MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, Duke, Wellesley and Carnegie Mellon, leading Bloomberg's Oliver Staley to dub him the Jack Welch of higher education.

Levin, 65, met his wife, Jane Levin, now a senior lecturer at Yale, while they were undergraduates at Stanford. He got his Ph.D. in economics at Yale, then joined the school's economics faculty, so the couple has lived in New Haven since their college graduation. They raised four children in the city.

Those close to Levin say that he hasn't strayed far from his background as a professor. He makes an effort to make himself accessible to students, hosting annual receptions for undergraduates on Halloween, matriculation and graduation.

Yale senior Brandon Levin (no relation) got to know President Levin while he was the president of the Yale College Council, and said that the elder Levin was always extremely excited to learn about the nitty-gritty of undergraduate life.

"He always asked us, at the beginnings of meetings with council members, not only to give him our sense of the general pulse of campus life, but he would also at times have pointed questions about policies that had been enacted recently," Levin said. "He was absolutely concerned with how the work he was doing and the vision he had for the university was affecting university."

Lorimer said those same tendencies toward engagement and Socratic dialogue also inform Levin's demeanor in the boardroom.

"He's first and foremost a teacher," she explained. "In any meeting that I've been in, like a great teacher conducting a seminar, he'll bring out the very best in the people who are assembled to get to the wisest conclusion."

It's been years, though, since Levin actually taught his own class. Next year, he's taking a sabbatical to rest and work on a book about higher education. After that, he said he may go back to teaching, but he's also open to "other leadership opportunities outside the academy."

The hunt for his successor at Yale has barely begun, but Levin nonetheless offered the search committee a bit of guidance.

"My main advice is find someone who truly loves this institution and will invest heavily in its well-being," he said. "Who will not seek personal satisfaction in the job and the title, but will be a servant to a great institution."

Joe Satran graduated from Yale College in 2011.

UPDATE: 8/31/12 2:08 p.m. -- This story has been updated to reflect comments from President Levin made Friday morning.