From provost to president: some thoughts on leading

Take risks. Continue teaching. Keep a strong provost’s office. Listen and connect.

Those are words of advice to Yale President Peter Salovey from some who have stood in his shoes.

They were offered by Judith Rodin, Hanna Holborn Gray, Alison F. Richard, and Susan Hockfield during the Oct. 12 symposium “Provost to President: Leadership in University Administration” — a special panel celebrating Salovey’s inauguration. The event was one of a series of special symposia and lectures held throughout the celebratory Inauguration Weekend.

Panel moderator Margaret H. Marshall ’76 J.D., senior fellow of the Yale Corporation and former chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, asked the four panelists — who, like Salovey, served as Yale provosts before being named university presidents — to share words of wisdom during the conversation about their careers. (Watch a video of the panel below.)

Hockfield, who served as Yale’s provost 2003-2004 and as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 2004-2012, noted during the discussion that “academic leadership is not for the faint of heart.”

She recalled how former Yale President Richard Levin advised her to “listen, listen, listen,” when she took her job as MIT president. To that, she said she would add: “connect, connect, connect.”

“A [university] president can bring people together in unexpected ways,” added Hockfield, who also served as dean of Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences 1998-2002. “I wish I had used that convening power more.”

She noted that she was a bit unprepared for the magnitude of responsibility she faced as a university president, dealing with issues ranging from investments to lawns to buildings, and trying to understand the needs and desires of more than 20,000 faculty, staff, and students — and thousands more alumni.

“One of the misunderstandings of each of those groups of people is they each believe you are there for them,” Hockfield chuckled.

She said that in addition to all of the managerial challenges of a university president, anybody in that role must also become the “heart” of the institution.

“You carry great intellectual responsibility but also great emotional responsibility for your institution,” said Hockfield. “And the president must carry all these responsibilities with a lightness of heart that is almost inconceivable.”

Rodin, who was Yale Graduate School dean (1991-1992) and provost (1992-1994) before serving for a decade as president of the University of Pennsylvania, shared three pieces of advice for Salovey, who she mentored while he was a graduate student. She suggested that he find a way to keep teaching, even if it is not feasible every year; to take risks; and to be bold.

She recalled how in 1970, former Yale president Kingman Brewster made national headlines — and created controversy — when he stated that he was skeptical that black revolutionaries could get a fair trial anywhere in the United States just a week before members of the Black Panther Party were criminally tried in New Haven.

“It was an era in which university presidents were very bold and spoke out. I’d love to see you in that moment, Peter,” said Rodin to Salovey, noting that the current era is likewise a time of fast-paced global change.

Gray — Yale’s provost from 1974 to 1977, its president from 1977 to 1978, and president of the University of Chicago from 1978 to 1993 — quipped that she was too old to give advice but then relented, humorously telling Salovey that when taking risks, he should remember that “two leaps over a chasm is failure.”

She also elicited laughter from the audience when — in answer to Marshall’s question about how often the University of Chicago  “raided” Yale to hire new faculty — she responded, “I think Yale probably raided us a lot more than we raided Yale. But we’ve always been the most philanthropic institution.”

Gray recalled the issue of divestment in South Africa in the early 1980s as one of the most challenging issues she faced during her presidency, while Rodin noted that in the mid-1990s, she halted a near-done plan by the school’s trustees to sell the then money-draining UPenn medical system.

“At the last minute, I had to do a real gut check-in,” said Rodin, who is currently president of the Rockefeller Foundation. “UPenn had the first hospital in America and the first teaching hospital. … It held to a tradition that dated back to William Penn and Benjamin Franklin, and was unique in its approach to its professional schools. I had to ask myself if I could do this [stopping the plan] without the faculty, and confront the board.”

Richard, who served eight years as Yale provost (1994-2002) before she was tapped for the vice-chancellorship of the University of Cambridge (2003-2010), advised Salovey to ensure the strength of the provost’s office.

“Yale is simultaneously a community of scholars and a $3 billion-dollar-a-year business,” Richard said. “It is hard to be both, and the way the provost handles those ‘irreconcilable’ things is a work of art."

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All of the former university presidents said they came to their academic leadership positions unintentionally, and, perhaps, sometimes reluctantly.

Richard, for example, said her road to the presidency began with her position as director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History — a post she had originally refused to consider because she had young children. Instead, she served on the search committee for a new director, but was offered the job again when the search — after two years — had not yet found a suitable appointee.

“In my family, I became known as the ‘Queen of the Dinosaurs,’” joked Richard.

Later, it was to Rodin that Richard turned for advice on whether to accept the job as Yale provost.

“Judy told me that it was the best-kept secret that being provost is the finest job in the world,” said Richard. “I didn’t think to say, ‘Why are you leaving?’”

She was likewise reluctant to take on the role as vice-chancellor at Cambridge, but said her family convinced her that she owed it to herself to take a day to fly to England to talk about the post.

“It turned into a seven-year day,” laughed Richard.

The panelists shared the hope that young people will recognize the merits of becoming a university administrator, but admitted that such a career can hardly be planned in advance. To those who may someday hope to follow in theirs and Salovey’s footsteps, Gray offered this advice: “Be good at what you’re doing and involve yourself as good citizens of the university.”

“I try to get people to imagine it is a wonderfully interesting job,” added Richard about being a university leader.

Another inauguration panel explored the internationalization of the university, and faculty presented talks on topics ranging from the nuclear age to game theory to undergraduate research on plastic-eating fungi.