The Bland Bravery of Richard Levin

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.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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