Selecting Salovey

(Christine Mi/YH Staff)

The day before Yale announced that Peter Salovey would be the university’s next president, he gave a guest lecture in my introductory psychology class. The topic was love, a theory that he has studied extensively. What makes us fall in love? One of the foremost factors, Salovey explained, is familiarity. The more often we see someone, the more attractive they become, and the more we come to like them. Salovey delivers his love lecture to 350 students each year, in both the spring and fall terms; he has appeared in the popular Yale Symphony Orchestra Halloween show; and he co-teaches a seminar, “Great Big Ideas”—all of which make him a familiar presence, arguably more so than, say, Richard Levin.

The second factor Salovey discussed was proximity, which is also relevant here. He’s been at Yale for 30 years, during which he has served as chair of the psychology department, dean of both the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and of Yale College, and finally, as provost. His selection as president of the university is the next in a long line of position he has held. Dr. Marc Brackett, deputy director of Yale’s Health, Emotion and Behavior Laboratory, of which Salovey is the director, called the selection “the trajectory we expected for Peter.”

The third factor and final factor Salovey discussed in his lecture was similarity; Salovey is an appealing candidate to at least some of the many students who expressed their desire for a president with a focus on academics. Brandon Levin, DC ’14, student counselor to the Presidential Search Committee (PSC), says that during his open office hours, he heard a diverse range of opinions, but one concern stood out to him. “Many students,” Levin said, “were adamant about the importance of Yale’s president coming from ‘the academy’—in other words, a scholar, as opposed to someone with only administrative experience.” Students wanted someone from a background they understood, to carry on the traditions of which they are now a part. Salovey, with academic interests ranging from HIV/AIDS prevention to social psychology, seems to fit this bill. “Salovey is the natural choice,” Jordan Konell, PC ’15, said.

Soon after the announcement of Levin’s retirement, dissent began to spread. This round of organized backlash against the PSC, which consists mostly of corporate figures and has no clear path for student input—struck like a meteor. Two student groups arose as visible critics of the search process: Students Unite Now (SUN) and recently-formed Y Syndicate. Both showed up in impressive numbers to the PSC’s October Open Forum event. Both groups are characterized by a desire for a transparent process, and for the administration’s recognition of student power.

The efforts of these students and others to advocate for a more transparent and egalitarian search process were effectively stymied by the Salovey announcement. Though Levin doesn’t step down until this year’s end, the PSC took less than 10 weeks to pick a new president—which, given the position, is a short search process by nearly any standard.

In email to the Herald, SUN member Sarah Cox, ES ’15, cited the search’s brevity as the first main complaint. “By ending the search so quickly, the Committee made public discussion even more impossible. Had we known the selection would be announced in early November we probably would have planned our actions differently,” Cox said. “I also am deeply skeptical of any committee’s ability to seriously and carefully consider so many candidates in such a short period, regardless of how hard they worked.”

The second complaint: secrecy. The PSC, in declaring Salovey’s ascendance, told students that over 150 candidates had been considered but never disclosed their identities. “While I recognize that Salovey will likely be an awesome president, it’s frustrating to not really know what the other options were,” Carl Chen, MC ’13, said. And could all 150-plus names really have been considered fully, especially when some were suggested so late in the game?

The third complaint—policy—reflected an anxiety that Salovey’s relationship with Levin would dominate his priorities as president. Controversial issues of the Levin era include the inception of Yale-NUS, the construction of two new residential colleges, and debates over where Yale’s academic focus should lie, especially regarding STEM focus and pre-professional programs. In an email to the Herald, Jim Sleeper, DC ’69, who lectures in the political science department, referred to Salovey as “Levin’s vice-president,” adding that “he hasn’t really been able to step out on his own.”

This concern over the maintenance of the status quo also relates to the fourth complaint: diversity. Henry Davidge, SM ’14, though a fan of Salovey, was surprised to see yet another white man selected. Cox had sharper words for Yale, as expressed in a Nov. 8 email to the Y Syndicate panlist: “Should’ve been a woman, should’ve been a person of color…but it was never going to be any of those things anyway, because of who it is that runs this place.”

Y Syndicate member Adrian Lo, SY ’15, questioned the diversity of the search committee: “I would have appreciated…more focus-group discussions between the search committee and selected campus groups (minority students and students of color, LGBT groups, etc).” He also pointed out the absence of direct representation of students or staff. (Princeton, by contrast, appointed four faculty members, two undergrads, a graduate student, and a staffer to the search committee seeking to replace University President Shirley Tilghman.)

These complaints, taken all at once, form an imposing wall of opposition—but taken in context, the picture is more complex. Brevity and secrecy are two factors connected to the same problem: students felt locked out of the process. Charles Goodyear, YC ’80, Yale Corporation Trustee and PSC member, explained in an email to the Herald why the Committee had to move quickly: “We knew that there were several other presidential searches going on simultaneous to ours (Princeton, Dartmouth, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California at Berkeley), where the pool of qualified candidates was likely to be quite small and to overlap.”

Had Salovey been hired as the president of Princeton in December (however unlikely it seems now), the PSC would have lost a desirable candidate. Goodyear and his fellow members flew cross-country over the course of more than a month to interview every candidate (including the many nominated by students, faculty and alumni). The speed of the search was, in the PSC’s eyes at least, born out of necessity, a hurried reaction to Levin’s unexpected retirement. But if the Corporation had at least informed students when they had narrowed down the pool of potential replacements, it would have given them a better chance of reacting to the decision and expressing their misgivings before time ran out.

As for secrecy, the balance between transparency and procedure is difficult. We may be curious about our other choices, but exposing applicants to the universities or corporations they sought to abandon would have left them vulnerable to all kinds of repercussions. Lo acknowledged his “appreciation/understanding of the need for confidentiality in the process”; if we want to attract the best candidates to interview, anonymity is probably required. On the other hand, Lo argued, this anonymity makes the Committee’s diversity a matter of great importance; even if we can’t know who else was considered, having students around ensures that the deliberation process will represent the best interests of every group involved.

Although the list of nominees and internal meeting notes was kept secret, much of everything else pertaining to the search was made public, searchable at a list of requirements for the next president, concerns brought by student groups, and a history of the PSC’s messages to Yale. Student survey results went out to all Yale College students; multiple grad-student groups made their own concerns public; four Committee members were present at a public hearing. None of this can replace direct representation, but for what it’s worth, some of those students who met with the Committee said they felt as if their opinions mattered. A YCC representative who wished to remain anonymous “spoke to one of the appointed professors privately, who said that they were most certainly going to read the reports solicited by the YCC and Brandon Levin. I think they were really receptive to what was said—so long as it was articulated thoughtfully and wasn’t completely absurd.”

And students’ complaints hardly seem absurd. One of the opposition’s principal targets, the voting process, seem ripe for improvement: Chen noted that a process can’t be called democratic “if only Corporation Fellows get to vote.” If the committee were to reveal the final candidates’ names, perhaps a majority of the faculty—or even the student body—could be called upon to approve them.

Yet despite the lack of transparency of the search process, Salovey seems committed to hearing student input: “It’s easy to think you know what the place needs,” he said, “but maybe because I’ve been here 30 years, it’s really important not to make that assumption and to hear with fresh ears, and to see with fresh eyes.” Certainly, there is a group of students at this school who feel that the University should capitalize on this moment of transition to enact changes they see as critical to the institution’s integrity. If Salovey is in fact ready to listen, we can anticipate a spirited dialogue in the months and years to come.

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