UP CLOSE: After Calhoun debate, Salovey seeks to redefine presidency

After Calhoun debate, Salovey seeks to redefine presidency

Published on April 24, 2017

At a crowded faculty meeting in Davies Auditorium last May, University President Peter Salovey faced hard questions about Yale’s decision to keep the name of Calhoun College. Like the undergraduates Salovey had addressed a few days earlier during a famously combative gathering in Battell Chapel, professors from across disciplines rose to dispute his reasoning.

“There was anger. There was firm criticism. There were a few people openly hostile,” Civil War historian David Blight recalled recently. “There were very direct challenges to the whole of the decision.”

Nearly a year after the campus backlash to the renaming decision, Salovey has reached a major crossroads in his nearly 4-year-old presidency. Yale’s finances are stable, new administrators are in place and the campus has quieted, after 18 months of protests and deliberation that culminated in the renaming of Calhoun in February 2017. Now, Salovey is seeking to steer Yale away from the recent tumult and toward the broad ambitions he outlined in his inaugural address at Woolsey Hall in 2013.

But the controversy of the last year and a half, and the skepticism about the Salovey administration left in its wake, raises a crucial question: Can he move past the Calhoun debate, or will it define his presidency?

(Photo by Robbie Short)

In two months of interviews with more than a dozen alumni and around 25 faculty members and administrators, supporters of Salovey praised his attentive listening and adaptive leadership. But as Yale moves on from the renaming debate, his critics — from faculty members to student activists to alumni donors — argued that he was slow and indecisive during the controversy over Calhoun, delaying the announcement of his academic priorities and raising broader concerns about his administration. As has been customary since the 1990s, the Yale Corporation is also scheduled to begin an institutional review of the University, coinciding with the fifth year of Salovey’s presidency.

“Many people around the University have recognized that Yale’s a strong institution, but that President Salovey’s leadership has not been up to the task,” said one senior faculty member with administrative experience at the University, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

But Salovey is focused on moving forward. Yale is about halfway through a two-year planning phase leading up to its next capital campaign, the first major fundraising push of Salovey’s tenure. His administration is also working on an academic investment plan for the University — a set of targets to guide fundraising and advance Yale’s educational mission. The objectives include greater investment in the sciences and the humanities, better integration of the arts across different professional schools, continued faculty excellence and improvements to Yale’s social science offerings.

“The vision that I’ve been spending this year articulating all over campus is a long-term one,” Salovey said in an interview earlier this month. “We’re talking a vision for the next five to 10 years. I’m totally committed to achieving that vision. And I have been anxious to get it started.”


In his Freshman Address in August 2015, Salovey opened the latest round of the Calhoun debate, challenging the new batch of undergraduates to wrestle with Yale’s history. But the academic discussion he envisioned on that summer day was soon overtaken by the racially charged protests that swept Yale in the fall. Last April, following months of deliberation, Salovey announced that Calhoun would keep its name, citing concerns about “historical erasure.”

After the decision set off campus protests from Battell Chapel to Davies Auditorium, Salovey’s 25-person cabinet — an advisory body that includes the provost, academic deans and vice presidents — discussed the possibility of immediately reversing the decision. Although Salovey remained composed in public, the student and faculty backlash took a personal toll, said Gregory Sterling, the dean of the Divinity School, who participated in cabinet discussions last spring.

(Photo by Alex Zhang)

“Anytime you go through a situation where feelings are strong and emotions are high on both sides, and you become a point person for criticism, it’s very difficult,” Sterling said. “President Salovey is a sensitive person. He has a toughness, but he’s also a sensitive human being, so he felt it.”

In August, Salovey created a faculty-led task force charged with outlining broad principles for any renaming decision, starting with a re-evaluation of the legacy of John C. Calhoun, class of 1804. In February, on the basis of those principles, the Corporation voted to rename Calhoun in honor of the pioneering computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper GRD ’34.

Political science professor Steven Smith said that Salovey’s decision to rethink the original announcement was “not a good precedent.” And Salovey has said repeatedly that he wishes he had handled the debate differently.

“In my gut, I thought early in that debate we should bring together faculty and develop a principled way of thinking about the issue, and I should’ve trusted my gut about that,” Salovey said this month. “That would’ve been a good place to start the process rather than end the process.”

Over the course of those 18 months, Salovey’s collaborative leadership style prolonged the decision-making process — which ultimately spanned two semesters of debate, a decision not to rename, another six months of debate and then a reversal of that decision. Last year, an investigation by the News showed that Salovey delayed the naming debate for months by seeking consensus within the Corporation — a stark deviation from the more assertive approach of past presidents, especially his predecessor Richard Levin GRD ’74. Princeton and Harvard both resolved similar controversies over historical symbolism in significantly less time than Salovey took to settle the Calhoun issue.

The extended process also left Salovey frustrated that Yale was unable to move onto other matters, even as he insisted on taking the time to listen to different perspectives, said Robert Alpern, the dean of the School of Medicine.

“As time went on, Peter wanted to be working to make the University better and felt that these issues were taking too much time,” Alpern said. “He had a frustration that there were so many things he wanted to do to make Yale a better university, and I think he felt there was too much energy going into these other issues.”

In an interview in March, Vice President for Development Joan O’Neill said the naming issue was a “distraction” during Yale’s fundraising efforts over the past year and a half. Edward Snyder, the dean of the School of Management, said the months spent debating Calhoun exacted an opportunity cost.

“We only have so much time,” Snyder said. “I did ask myself, when are we going to give sustained effort to other important questions: academic priorities, the next campaign. That’s what universities struggle with. There are issues of the day, and you also need to think about the long-run health of the institution.”

Salovey denies that Yale’s academic planning “was in a holding pattern” during the racially charged debates of 2015 and 2016. Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler said that, while the public conversation centered on naming, administrators continued to concentrate on research and teaching.

“We continued to hire faculty, we continued to focus on how we could do our jobs as faculty and as administrators, so I don’t feel like we lost focus,” Gendler said. “A lot of us whose day jobs it is to keep the institution running kept doing what we’ve been asked by the president to do.”

As the naming debate unfolded, Yale dedicated new funding to faculty diversity, added new professors to the Computer Science Department and embarked on a major building project designed to transform the Hall of Graduate Studies into a centralized base for the humanities.

Still, according to two faculty members interviewed, poor planning and tentative decision-making seemed to push essential academic issues to the periphery during the heat of the renaming debate. One member of the FAS Senate, who supported the renaming decision and asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly, said the president’s management of the debate lacked “a moral vision,” from the freshman address to the University’s reversal in February.

“It enraged a lot of people when really our focus should have been on making Yale a great place,” the faculty senator said. “So much of the energy in the room was around this issue, when really we could’ve spent all of this time and all of this committee work and all of the emails and all of the protests on things that really have a ‘there’ there for students and for faculty.”

(Photo by Robbie Short)

Salovey’s management of the Calhoun debate offered an illustration of his collaborative leadership style, which contrasts starkly with his predecessor’s more assertive approach. In interviews over the past month, Alpern and another high-ranking administrator described Salovey as less decisive than Levin, who dominated meetings with a commanding presence and immersed himself in the details of strategic planning.

“Rick was incredibly effective, and he also served for 20 years, said Sterling, the dean of the Divinity School. “Anybody that follows an iconic figure like Rick will have some challenges just in meeting people’s expectations.”

Salovey declined to comment on the comparisons between him and Levin. But he acknowledged that the length and intensity of the racially charged debates last year precluded the public rollout of his strategic priorities.

“When to announce plans, goals, when to get a planning process underway, even when to commit to a building project, is both a matter of the president articulating those goals, but also the campus community being ready to engage in a conversation about them,” Salovey said. “And I think for a while we had other issues that were commanding many people’s attention.”


To inquire into Yale’s planning for the next 10 years is to encounter a whirl of academic jargon. In administrative circles, the big-picture ambitions Salovey outlined in November are known as “institutional priorities”: promises, as vague as they are expansive, to invest more in the sciences or to cultivate faculty excellence. Specific subtargets within those areas, such as building lab space or funding new programs, are known as “academic investments.” Connecting the two — the process of turning broad institutional priorities into specific academic investments — is “strategic planning.”

In his 2013 inaugural address, Salovey planted the seeds for the institutional priorities he outlined last fall, emphasizing the importance of a unified and accessible Yale. But four years later, the University must move from ambitious mission statements to a concrete and actionable vision for the future.

“The institutional priorities are broadly articulated versions of what the University has been committed to for two centuries,” Gendler said. “The way in which we operationalize those commitments is what the current conversation is addressing.”

In recent months, Salovey has dedicated much of his time to the development of the academic plan. He and Provost Benjamin Polak gave one of their first major presentations on new academic priorities at a cabinet retreat in August, according to high-level officials who attended. Last November, in an email to faculty and staff members, Salovey released an initial outline of his plans for the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities. Since the summer, Salovey has sat down with faculty members to discuss those priorities on more than a dozen occasions, including at a meeting of the FAS Senate.

“There’s been a fairly quick pivot to those issues during the academic year, and I don’t think that’s a surprise,” said Snyder, the SOM dean. “There’s been a pent-up interest in those issues that’s been deferred. We have a lot of new deans on campus. People wanted to get at those questions about academic priorities and related issues.”

Aleh Tsyvinski, an economics professor, praised Salovey for his outreach, saying he has shown a clear interest in hearing faculty perspectives on the strategic planning process.

“He mainly listens, because the faculty knows the broad direction that the academic strategy is taking,” Tsyvinski said. “The president, no matter how much he knows, no matter how prescient of a scientist he is, feels he does not have the knowledge of the departments, the academic language. So that’s why it’s so important to ask a very broad spectrum of people for their input.”

So far, Yale’s strategic planning in the sciences has more structure than the University’s work in the humanities and social sciences, Gendler said. In a Jan. 25 email to faculty and staff, Salovey announced the creation of a committee led by Scott Strobel, the vice president who oversees planning on West Campus, to recommend specific investments in the sciences. Anna Pyle, who serves on the committee, said she appreciates Salovey’s enthusiasm for the sciences, and that the committee is working to “put a face on it rather than have it be a completely abstract concept.”

Polak said Salovey’s commitment to advancing the sciences dates back to the first few days of his presidency, when he called for the administration to accelerate work on the seven-story Yale Science Building currently under construction on Science Hill.

“He said to me, ‘Go fix that. Make sure that gets done first,’ and that was done first,” Polak said. “The demolition of Gibbs [Laboratories] that you can see from Science Hill or Whitney Avenue is the upshot of something that Peter laid out essentially his first week as president. Right from the start, he sets the direction, and then we work on getting it done.”

But other areas of the academic plan are significantly less developed, said Daniel Harrison MUS ’86, a music professor who participated in Salovey’s outreach to the faculty and has worked on the arts initiatives. According to Harrison, one of the president’s recent presentations was greeted with skepticism from faculty members in the social sciences, where Yale’s investment targets are less specific.

“The approach he’s taken is riskier, because it means trialing things that aren’t completely thought through, and that is risky because as academics we like to think things through,” Harrison said. “He’s getting feedback. What remains to be seen is how that feedback is taken on board.”

And, despite Salovey’s outreach to the faculty and his collaboration with Polak, some argue that his presidency still has yet to coalesce around a coherent vision for the future of the University.

“There’s a feeling he doesn’t have a plan. He doesn’t have a vision,” said the senior faculty member with an administrative background at Yale. “Maybe this will become it, but I don’t think people feel like in the last few years he’s demonstrated that he has that.”

(Courtesy of WTNH News 8)

The source described the November rollout of Yale’s institutional priorities as a “top-down” process conducted at high speed without much faculty input — a view echoed by the faculty senator who criticized the administration’s handling of the renaming process.

“Sometimes it feels like initiatives drop from the sky,” the faculty senator said. “Even in the message about ‘We’re going to promote the sciences,’ it just seems like people decided something, and everyone just goes along.”

 In the next month, Salovey is scheduled to meet with four different groups of faculty to discuss academic investments.

“My style is to be as consultative as possible. My style is to align my leadership team around a vision and get everyone working together. My style is to look to expertise,” he said.

But the development of academic investments is just one step in a longer process. Once the investment plan is clearly articulated, Yale will have to pitch its targets to potential donors. And that process, which has just entered the planning phase, seems likely to produce its own set of challenges.


 In a recent News survey of nearly 2,000 alumni from across the generations, 61 percent of respondents said they supported the renaming decision. But of the 150 alumni who said they had given $50,000 or more to Yale in the past, 52 percent of respondents said the renaming decision would affect their donations either “negatively” or “very negatively.” That group included six alumni who said they had donated more than $1 million to the University.

Richard Glowacki ’54, a former real-estate mogul from Toledo, Ohio, began giving to Yale in the 1970s, around the time of his 20th reunion. In 2014, he endowed an entrepreneurship initiative in SOM. By the beginning of this year, Glowacki had donated just short of $1 million in total to Yale, with several million more earmarked in his will for the SOM and the School of Architecture.

But earlier this semester, dismayed by the racially charged protests that swept campus in 2015 as well as the debate over Calhoun, Glowacki instructed his lawyers to remove Yale from his estate plan. “Yale’s leadership has become so politically correct that it has lost sight of lux et veritas,” he told the News. When he was asked to meet with Salovey to discuss his decision, Glowacki refused.

“I didn’t want to meet with him. He wanted me to reconsider the withdrawal of my gift,” Glowacki said. “I knew what the meeting was for, and I wasn’t gonna take it.”

Glowacki’s discontent with the current administration offers a snapshot of the sort of resistance Salovey may face as he presents his academic plan to donors following the Calhoun decision. While many campus critics have focused on Salovey’s decision-making process, outside the University’s walls, a subset of alumni dislike the substance of the decision as well.

“There will be people who will decide [the renaming decision] is the reason they wouldn’t want to give — there’s no question,” O’Neill said in March.

Salovey declined to comment on Glowacki or any other individual donor. But he expressed hope that critics of his leadership and decision-making would stay open-minded.

“I very much hope that any donor who is questioning their commitment to Yale, that they give me a chance to sit with them,” he said. “I’d like the opportunity to earn their support.”

Still, many alumni do not share Glowacki’s disappointment. Antonio Magliocco ’74 — whose contribution to Yale’s Science Teaching Fund was featured prominently on the website of the Development Office in 2014 — said the renaming decision made him more likely to donate in the future. And 22 percent of alumni surveyed said the name change has encouraged them to give to Yale.

The backlash against the decision comes at a time when the University already trails its peer institutions by certain fundraising metrics. In 2016, Yale’s fundraising total of $519 million ranked it 10th among American universities, according to the Council for Aid to Education. Columbia, Harvard and Stanford were among the schools outperforming Yale, the council found, although some of the higher-ranking schools are currently involved in capital campaigns, making the comparison inexact.

Glenn Murphy ’71, who served as president of the Yale Club of Boston in 2009–10 and was on the governing board of the Association of Yale Alumni in the mid-2000s, said the renaming decision and the administration’s handling of the campus protests “will definitely have a damaging effect on the capital campaign.”

“The inmates were running the asylum,” Murphy said. “The leadership failed to lead.”

(Photo by Kaifeng Wu)

In the wake of the decision, the Development Office has lost some long-serving volunteers, including Chris Chapin ’67, who was an active fundraiser for Yale for more than three decades and resigned as the co-chair of his class alumni fund after the decision was announced in February. Chapin was one of multiple alumni in the class of 1967 — which is celebrating its 50th reunion in May and has made record-breaking reunion gifts in the past — to resign from fundraising positions, he told the News in an interview.

Chapin said he stepped down partly because Salovey demonstrated weak leadership on the naming issue, as well as the other race-related controversies.

“Crises are telling about the qualities of leadership, and I’ve been disappointed about President Salovey,” he said.

Salovey defended the renaming process in a series of large conference calls with alumni after the decision was announced in February. According to Tom Gottshall ’67, who participated in one of the calls, Salovey emphasized that the new principles were narrowly tailored to prevent a “slippery slope” of name changes. Gottshall said Salovey carefully differentiated Calhoun from other prominent namesakes like Jonathan Edwards, class of 1716, and Benjamin Franklin. “His statements were well explained,” Gottshall said.

Indeed, the alumni who will lead Yale’s next fundraising push say it is too early to tell what impact the renaming controversy will have. Chair of the Alumni Fund Tom Leatherbury ’76 said it was hard to predict whether the events of the last year and a half would have any bearing on the capital campaign. And Randolph Nelson ’85, the co-chair of the Development Council, expressed optimism that the campaign would succeed.

“The alumni body has a tremendous amount of confidence in the president,” Nelson said. “He’s a very effective fundraiser because he’s so good at developing relationships person to person.”

O’Neill compared the alumni disgruntlement over the renaming decision to the anger of Yale parents whose children are rejected for admission. “They may not want to talk about Yale, but they may feel better with a little bit of time,” she said. “It may be that they don’t make their annual gift this year, but we hope that we get them back.”

As Yale College dean and later as provost, Salovey gained significant fundraising experience. He worked on the last capital campaign of Levin’s presidency, Yale Tomorrow, which ended in June 2011 and raised nearly $4 billion, the largest total in University history. Over the years, Salovey has developed a reputation as a charming salesman skilled at connecting with donors.

However, the task of winning over alumni in the runup to a capital campaign that he will spearhead presents a new kind of challenge. Many faculty and administrators are optimistic about the next stage of Salovey’s presidency. But the aftermath of the renaming debate continues to cast a shadow over his institutional priorities. And with the University gearing up for the campaign, Salovey must formulate a vision for the future that excites the donor community.

“I’ve thinking about this a lot — What is the role of the president?” Salovey said. “One is [to] set a vision, and I’ve been doing that since my inauguration: a more unified Yale, a more accessible Yale. I’m not done.”


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