Benno C. Schmidt Jr., Yale’s 20th president and renowned legal scholar
Benno C. Schmidt Jr. ’63, ’66 J.D., a constitutional law scholar who served as Yale’s 20th president from 1986 to 1992, leading the university during a challenging period, died unexpectedly at his home in New York on July 9. He was 81.
Schmidt had already achieved a brilliant legal career when he was appointed Yale’s president in 1986: law clerk to Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren, tenured at Columbia Law School at age 29, and appointed dean of the Columbia Law School in 1984. He was a respected legal scholar, especially noted for his expertise on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the history of the U.S. Supreme Court.
His tenure as Yale president began after a tumultuous era on campus. He followed A. Bartlett Giamatti, a charismatic president and spokesperson for the liberal arts who nevertheless had endured a long and bitter strike that led to the recognition of Yale’s clerical and technical workers. The budget, though balanced, was under stress, especially considering the desperate need for investment in facility renovation and renewal.
“Benno Schmidt was the first Yale leader in a half-century to identify the severely deteriorated condition of the university’s facilities as a high-level priority,” recalled former Yale president Richard C. Levin, who served after Schmidt. “His predecessors had built many splendid new buildings but invested precious little to maintain the old ones. Under Benno’s leadership, Yale commenced what became an ultimately successful 30-year program of comprehensive renovation.”
Schmidt was a successful fundraiser, and, partly to address the need for improved facilities, he initiated the $1.5 billion “and for Yale” campaign, at the time the largest fundraising campaign in the history of American higher education. After a two-year “silent phase” of fundraising, the five-year campaign launched officially with nearly $600 million raised under Schmidt’s leadership.
“Benno was very committed to supporting campus renovations and to strengthening Yale’s endowment,” remembered Joan O’Neil, currently Yale’s vice president for alumni affairs and development. “He made fundraising a high priority in a determined effort to achieve these goals.”
Challenges facing Yale’s home city of New Haven were also very much on his mind when he appointed Bruce Alexander, at the time a senior executive with the Rouse Company and a member of the Buildings and Grounds Committee of the Yale Corporation, to chair a new Urban Advisory Committee. The committee began identifying opportunities to strengthen Yale’s relationship with New Haven, which eventually led to Alexander’s work as vice president for New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development and a dramatically increased attention to city and university affairs under President Levin.
Schmidt and some of the others he appointed to decanal and provostial positions shared strong views about education that did not always find favor with those of the broader faculty. In recognition of the need to invest in facilities, Schmidt proposed a downsizing of the faculty that caused widespread concern and dissent.
Nevertheless, in addition to success in fundraising, prioritizing the renewal of the physical plant, and initiating efforts to improve relations with the City of New Haven, Schmidt saw through a number of important academic initiatives. He convened a committee to consider writing skills for first-year students and made significant changes to the university’s writing program, including instituting writing tutors at each of the residential colleges; he galvanized the establishment of the popular Ethics, Politics and Economics Program; and he launched a new international studies major.
He also collaborated with then-New Haven Mayor John C. Daniels to increase the university’s payments for city services in exchange for permission to close off two streets in the center of campus to vehicular traffic, paving the way for many further mutually beneficial agreements between Yale and New Haven in the years that followed.
Benno Schmidt was born in New York City. He was a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, and both Yale College and the Law School. His father, Benno C. Schmidt Sr., a prominent early venture capitalist, was a partner in business with another Yale graduate, John Hay (Jock) Whitney, later U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, and an influential Yale Corporation member from 1955 to 1973.
Educational experiment, and improvement in educational outcomes from elementary school through college, were always important to Schmidt, who was idealistic about the ability to make change and willing to engage in efforts to do so. From 1992 to 1997, following his tenure at Yale, he served as the chief executive officer of Edison Schools, a for-profit management organization for public schools, later renamed EdisonLearning. In 1998, he was appointed chair of a task force to evaluate systemic issues at the City University of New York (CUNY), and later served as chair of the CUNY Board of Trustees. He was also a co-founder of Avenues: The World School, a system of for-profit, private K-12 schools worldwide that shared a curriculum and other elements.
Former President Levin remembered Schmidt as “a lively conversation partner, and a warm and generous person.”
Yale President Peter Salovey recalled Schmidt’s support when Salovey was a new assistant professor in 1986: “He always supported younger faculty and had a kind word for those of us just starting academic careers.”
Alison Richard remembered the charm with which he persuaded her to be director of the Peabody Museum, which led to her position as provost and later as Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University.
He is survived by his wife, Anne McMillen; two daughters, Elizabeth Schmidt and Christina Whitney Helburn; his son, Benno C. Schmidt III; his stepdaughters, Leah Ridpath and Alexandra Toles; his brothers, John Schmidt and Ralph Schmidt; his stepsister, Ruth Fleischmann; five grandchildren; and two step-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held on Monday, Sept. 18 at noon at the New York Historical Society.
“Yale is grateful to Benno Schmidt,” Salovey said, “for his foresight in initiating much needed changes to the campus, the relationship between Yale and the city, and for his long service to education. It would have taken longer for Yale to make important changes without him.”