The Bland Bravery of Richard Levin

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Yale's resigning president won't be remembered for inspiring students or taking bold moral stances. His risk-taking was of an altogether less glamorous sort.

levin-wide.jpg Richard Levin (right) presents visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao with a portrait of the first-ever Chinese Yale student in 2006. (Reuters)

As an undergraduate at Yale, I was always jealous of other universities' presidents. Harvard had its first female president, Drew Gilpin Faust, with her bestselling Civil War books and her magnificent name; Princeton had the molecular biologist Shirley Tilghman, also its first woman leader; Brown had Ruth Simmons, beloved by students in addition to being the Ivy League's first black president.

Meanwhile, we had Richard Levin, a soft-voiced, dough-faced economist remarkable for his blandness. He was both white and male, in that way resembling every other Yale president (save for Hanna Gray, who served a year-long stint as Yale's acting president in the 1970s before moving to the University of Chicago, where she became the first official female president of a major American university).

As an idealistic undergrad whose experience of Yale was confined to my liberal arts classes and the student magazine I edited, I was skeptical of (and, admittedly, bored by) Levin. Following his forgettable convocation speech my freshman year, I was at first only aware of him via his efforts to fortify the university's global brand. He brought Chinese President Hu Jintao to speak on campus, which I remember chiefly for the angry mobs of protestors who blocked my dorm. He announced plans to increase Yale's enrollment by 15 percent and to build two new residential colleges to absorb the overflow--a decision criticized by many students and alumni as commercially motivated. Levin was a corporate shadow, irrelevant to daily life in my tiny campus subculture yet ever present in his representation of Yale as the financially sophisticated global institution we often forgot it was.

Beginning in my junior year, though, general indifference to Levin turned, among certain groups of students, to active hostility. Levin became a frequent target of frustration--for his rumored sensitivity to negative publicity, for his reliance on a never-ending stream of committees and reports and other mainstays of academic bureaucracy to respond to controversy, and most of all for his seeming indifference to what felt, to many students on campus--and, as time went on, to me--like institutionally tolerated misogyny.

The turning point for many students was his handling of a now notorious incident. In January of 2008, a group of fraternity pledges circulated a photo of themselves posing outside the Yale Women's Center, flashing gang symbols and brandishing a sign that read, "We love Yale sluts." Student activists lobbied the administration to censure the fraternity, but Yale's response was slow and typically opaque, resulting in little more than few new committees to review Yale's sexual misconduct policies.

I wrote my senior thesis placing this incident and its administrative aftermath in the context of Yale's legal history with sexual harassment. I spoke to students who had been victims of harassment and assault while at Yale--both my peers and women who'd been students in the 1970s and '80s, soon after the university began admitting women. Though the way Yale talked about sexual harassment and the mechanisms it had in place to address it had improved, both the current students and the older alumni articulated a similar point: They felt that Yale had silenced or minimized their complaints in order to protect the institution's reputation.

A year after I graduated, pledges from another Yale fraternity were filmed marching around the freshman quad chanting, "No means yes, yes means anal." When the administration managed to drag its feet responding to that incident as well, a group of students and recent alumni filed a legal complaint with the Department of Education, alleging that Yale's lackluster policies on sexual harassment and assault amounted to a violation of Title IX. Yale had been privately working on various reforms for years, but the national scrutiny brought on by a federal investigation sped up its implementation timeline.

The investigation was concluded earlier this year without any finding of wrongdoing, and Yale has revamped its policies in ways that I believe are a big step forward. But I remain disappointed by the fact that Levin didn't use the national media coverage of Yale's problematic sexual culture as an opportunity to lead a conversation about sex and gender--to make Yale a national leader in implementing a forward-thinking approach to sex on campus.

Three years removed from my self-congratulatory identity as a campus muckraker, I began to cobble together a new picture of the man I had alternately ignored or resented: a loyal Yale soldier whose flat persona--the very quality that apparently worried the presidential search committee that eventually settled on him--also made him one of Yale's most effective leaders and, in many people's eyes, the university's greatest.

Levin may have assiduously avoided scandal, but he was also an unlikely risk-taker. Expanding Yale's enrollment (a move that is still several years and $300 million away from implementation) was a hugely controversial decision, but also one that acknowledged the financial realities the university faced. Four years into the recession, when many Ivy League endowments have sputtered, Yale's is the second largest in the country, having grown from $3 billion to more than $19 billion during Levin's 19-year tenure. Arguably Levin's biggest risk was partnering with the National University of Singapore, a move that was protested by faculty and students as implicitly condoning Singapore's autocratic regime.

As university presidents go, Levin was far from a charismatic or inspiring leader. He chose to outsource this form of leadership to lower-level administrators, who interact closely with students through Yale's residential college system. He focused instead on the less glamorous side of contemporary academia: leveraging a school's brand to appeal to global audiences and to attract new revenue sources. He did an irrefutably successful job with this, leaving Yale a far more globally established and financially stable institution than it was when he assumed office.

As a student, I craved moral and intellectual direction from my school's president--if not through a revolutionary reform agenda, then at least through example. I knew little of where Drew Faust and Ruth Simmons were leading their schools, but I assumed it was farther forward than wherever Rick Levin was leading us. Now, though, I recognize that Levin's leadership was bold and brave in its own way. He led Yale in a direction that I'm still not entirely sure I'm comfortable with (and, for what it's worth, that many of my college friends also harbor mixed feelings about) but there's no denying that he led it there with persistence, clarity of vision, and great competence.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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