Commentary Magazine


How Are University Presidents be Judged?

Yale University President Richard Levin has announced that at the end of the school year, his twentieth at the helm of Yale University, he will step down. The New York Times coverage outlined his achievements:

Under his presidency, the university has greatly expanded its academic facilities, including new quarters for science and medicine and a new business school campus; has overhauled its buildings, including all 12 undergraduate residential colleges; has started construction of two residential colleges to make room for the first major expansion in undergraduate enrollment in decades; and has embarked on new programs overseas. “Rick’s presidency hasn’t been revolutionary,” said Anthony Kronman, a former law school dean. “It’s been a steady, persistent accumulation that, I would say, add up to a massive set of achievements.” Dr. Levin’s administration has increased Yale’s endowment faster than those of its peers, despite heavy capital spending; as of mid-2011, it stood at $19.4 billion, second only to Harvard’s.

Levin has certainly between a master fundraiser, and he has increased the quantity and quality of university facilities that had deteriorated after many years of deferred maintenance. He has also improved relations with both the city of New Haven and the local unions, largely by giving into their demands, in a sense another type of deferred maintenance.

When it comes to intellectual leadership, however, Levin’s epitaph should not be so sunny.

First, Levin has presided over a contraction in the embrace of free speech. In 2012, the university came in fifth on a list of the top 12 university violators of free speech. Compromises inherent in Yale’s overseas branch in Singapore are only the latest in a series neatly summarized by recent Yale graduate Shaun Tan. Levin also presided over unprecedented editorial interference in the Yale University Press to prevent publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in an academic work about the controversial cartoons. Levin has also presided over an increase in punishment for controversial and offensive speech, such as some students’ crude ridicule of the university Women’s Center.

Infantilizing students has been an even greater and more deleterious Levin legacy. Rather than let students sink or swim on their own merits and excel on their own initiative, Levin has built a formidable support structure to coddle students at almost every level. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with providing tutoring services for those who require and request it, but monitoring a student progress at every level to blur the distinction between hard word and entitlement does both students and employers a disservice. The infantilizing has expanded into the extra-curricular and even off-campus spheres. While bureaucratic logic can explain the requirement for student organizations to register their activity, big brother management runs roughshod over student initiative and increasingly inculcates students to the idea that they must always rely on larger government structures. The university’s most recent initiative to regulate off-campus student activity and parties is questionable at best. Lawyers might explain university actions in terms of the concept of in loco parentsis, the idea that the university is legally required to act in place of parents to protect students, but a true leader would have defended individual liberty in court instead of constantly taking the path of least resistance in the face of cynical litigiousness. Yale—or any other university—could not do better for its matriculants than inculcate the notion both of individual liberty and its inherent responsibilities.

Eviscerating donor intent is a third Levin legacy. Levin has capped student prizes and awards to equalize them across departments, diverting any excess into the university’s general fund. Never mind that Levin’s salary has continued to increase, even as funds for student opportunities have been cut. No longer will top Classics majors, for example, be able to study in Greece because their funding has been cut to less than that of roundtrip airfare, a move meant to demonstrate fairness to other groups like sociology majors, whose alumni hadn’t given equal amounts to enable such scholarships. Likewise, Levin has moved to equalize experience among Yale’s 12 residential colleges to whom alumni sometimes feel closer than to the central administration. Those like Pierson College Master Harvey Goldblatt undertook rigorous fundraising which enabled graduating class trips to Italy, for example, while other master—like those I lived under during my undergraduate years—were content to do little unless they could get handouts from Levin. This understandably bred some content. But rather than channel that content into a healthy competition to promote college experiences, Levin seized control of the funding to redistribute and equalize it regardless of donor intent. In a sense, his was a microcosm of Obama’s philosophy to redistribute wealth rather than promote the mechanism to grow it. As for Goldblatt—not surprisingly Yale’s most popular master in a generation—Levin ordered him forcibly retired so as to no longer break the curve.

Universities have become a big business. If Levin is judged just by the financial balance sheet, then perhaps he succeeded. If he is judged, however, by the inculcation of liberty, individual responsibility, and a willingness to stand up for intellectual principle, than, alas, he has failed.

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