Peter Salovey wants to be your friend. And, maybe, you should want to be his friend too.
Monday night, the Yale College Council held an open forum with Yale’s president-elect. Salovey, who will officially replace Richard Levin as President of Yale University on June 30. The forum marks Salovey’s latest effort to, as he says, “get the pulse of students.”
However, Salovey is already intimately familiar with issues pertaining Yale students. Salovey has served in numerous positions at Yale in his 30 years here—dean of Yale College, chair of the psychology department, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and, most recently, provost. Yale is his life.
Since his confirmation, Salovey has been working to make himself a public figure. In addition to holding the forum, YCC president and event moderator John Gonzalez, ES ’14, says that Salovey has been working to establish strong connections with diverse student communities since his confirmation as president-elect.
“He’s been trying to make as many rounds as he can with different members of the Yale community,” Gonzalez said. “Last week, he was at La Casa, and this weekend he was at the Yale men’s basketball game. He even conducted a song for the Yale Precision Marching Band.” According to Gonzalez, Salovey wants to hold meetings with leaders from various student groups on campus, including fraternities, varsity teams, and religious groups. “He’s showing that he’s someone who’s going to be transparent,” Gonzalez said.
The first six questions in the forum were picked from online submissions by the YCC to make sure all of the questions weren’t about, say, his mustache, but Salovey had not heard any of the questions beforehand. The last half of the forum was open to questions from the general audience.
In all of his responses, Salovey showed that he is remarkably in tune with the nuances of Yale student life. One of the questions, posed by Jacob Sandry BR ’15, directed the discussion towards the difficulties that athletes face in integrating in the larger Yale culture.
“Our biggest challenge right now is that we’ve created two cultures—athletes and non-athletes—that don’t intersect as much as they should,” Salovey said. “I think about the structural barriers that are contributing to those separations. Is it dining hours? Is it transportation out to fields? Is it library hours? How can we make these communities more integrated?” He added, “We have to encourage non-athletes to come out and support their close friends and suitemates. It’s a two-way street.”
He also points to renovations such as the Center for Science and Social Science Library and Kline Biology Café as important factors in improving student life. “Science Hill gets stigmatized,” Salovey said. “And I’ve watched that slowly change. Now, the coffee shop in Kline Tower sells more lunches than any single dining hall.”
He addressed questions about technology and the Yale-NUS program with equal savvy. Salovey already uses a flip classroom format in his college seminar, Great Big Ideas, and he’s excited about incorporating new technology and online learning into classrooms. He defended the controversial Yale-NUS program, saying that, “Yale-NUS is reinventing what liberal arts education can be.” He also addressed the postponed construction of Yale’s 13th and 14th residential colleges.
Salovey won’t be able to talk concrete details until he actually becomes president. Still, he answered questions candidly—even when the answer wasn’t positive. When Ned Downie, ES ’14, posed a question to Salovey about reducing or eliminating summer contributions for students on financial aid, Salovey spoke frankly about his doubts.
“I agree with the spirit of your question,” Salovey said, “but we’re fifty million dollars short of a balanced budget. If we had to borrow more money, we’d be putting that burden on Yale’s future faculty and students. Unlike the federal government, which seems comfortable kicking the can down the road, we don’t want to do that.”
Taking charge of an administration mostly appointed by predecessor Levin means that Salovey has his work cut out for him. “President Levin has served for 20 years and has appointed all the main administrators,” Gonzalez said. “He’s coming into a system where it’s been one way for a long time. Inertia’s kind of the name of the game.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine that inertia will dominate Salovey. Salovey is not only immersed in Yale administration; he also has an impressive track record of collaboration with student groups. The addition of a student activities fee to undergraduate tuition and the installation of locks on all bedroom doors, for example, were both results of YCC-Salovey collaboration. “When I get together with YCC we can make stuff happen very quickly,” Salovey said. The YCC is creating a presidential recommendations report that will be available to Salovey later this month.
Gonzalez notes that Salovey’s willingness to communicate regularly with students sets Salovey apart. “He’s a different kind of president,” Gonzalez said. “If you look at President Levin’s tenure, he started off visible on campus but now he isn’t someone who engages with student groups. You don’t see him walking around campus.”
We have to wait until next fall to see what kind of president Salovey turns out to be. But for now, his obvious understanding of the state of Yale and the simple fact that he is willing to hold an open forum strikes me as quite promising.