Yale's Bluegrass-Playing President

Yale's Bluegrass-Playing President


Peter Salovey, Yale’s new president and its 23rd since 1701, is slightly out of breath after rushing back from New Haven City Hall where he congratulated Mayor-elect Toni Harp. He seems genuinely relieved to be on time for his next appointment, at the end of which he hands out his card, a gesture more commonly associated with sales reps.

Sales, come to think of it, is an exceedingly apt job description for Salovey, who is less than six months into his tenure. He needs to convince skeptical New Havenites that Yalies truly want to give and not simply take. He must sell an oftentimes curmudgeonly faculty on the notion that their university can be an expanding scientific research institution that still cares about educating students in the humanities and social sciences. He also believes that America’s politicians need to better understand how important higher education is: how its laboratories and classrooms help to fuel the national economy, how it prepares young people to start businesses and solve problems, how Americans do higher education better than anyone, and that what is good for places like Yale is good for the country.

Time will tell if Salovey can close these deals, but he clearly has the tools to make the pitch.

Personable and optimistic, Salovey cheerfully puts in 12-hour days and appears to relish the challenges ahead. He is grateful to be succeeding his friend Rick Levin, who is almost universally acknowledged as having come to the rescue of a floundering Yale 20 years ago. Salovey is widely liked and respected on campus, and beyond, for his 32 years of service to Mother Yale as a student, teacher, scholar, administrator, upright bass player, and, on occasion, mustachioed cutup.

His rise is almost eerily similar to Levin’s: Stanford grad comes East for advanced Yale degrees, settles in New Haven to teach, chair his department, become Dean of Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, Dean of Yale College in 2004, and Provost in 2008 (Levin didn’t hold the last two posts). Campus wits speak of it as a “Stanford sleeper cell.” But by selecting such qualified “Yale lifers,” the university is aiming to get maximum mileage out of each of its presidential picks.

For all that, Peter is not Rick. As Yale historian and professor emeritus Gaddis Smith puts it, “Rick is congenial, but not entertaining or demonstrative.” The Groucho Marx mustache may be history, but Salovey still can ham it up. At his inauguration in October, he played artfully to the Blue masses: His band, the “Professors of Bluegrass” — with Salovey at standup bass, as he has been for two decades — performed sets at both the graduate and undergraduate student parties.

“The kids were going absolutely wild, it was insane,” recalls Sten Havumaki, the band’s guitarist and lead singer. “They were chanting his name. It was like a rock concert, completely surreal.”

Salovey will be playing to tougher audiences in the years ahead, and none tougher than the people who live and work in the shadow of Yale, Inc., which is New Haven’s biggest everything: visitor destination, employer, landowner, taxpayer, developer, tax-exempt nonprofit, philanthropist, and arts and athletics impresario. The old troika of Levin, outgoing Mayor John DeStefano, and former Schools Superintendent Reginald Mayo that ruled the roost for two decades has been replaced by Salovey, Toni Harp, and Garth Harries. Their relationship will determine, in large measure, how both Yale and New Haven will fare.

Salovey maintains that he is sensitive to the concerns of many residents who feel Yale has the upper hand in the town-gown relationship and that it can and should do more for its host city. The university contributes roughly $4 million annually to New Haven in property taxes on its commercial holdings plus a voluntary payment of another $8 million. But by one accounting, if Yale paid taxes on all its city property, as a business would, the bill would come to a staggering $112 million annually.

Yale does contribute directly to the city in a number of other ways – such as up to $4 million a year through the Promise Scholarship Program for deserving New Haven students bound for college – as well as indirectly by, for example, attracting more than half a million visitors to the city each year. Building two new residential colleges in the next four to five years will spell jobs for New Haven and the region (Yale requires that at least 20 percent of construction jobs go to New Haven workers). The state also reimburses New Haven for a fraction of the tax revenue it loses to Yale and other nonprofits, such as Albertus Magnus College and local hospitals, but the amount for the current fiscal year, $38.4 million, has declined steadily since 2001. The state does not specify how much of its contribution reflects Yale’s exempt holdings.

“I understand that concern,” Salovey says. “And, of course, Yale’s voluntary payments to New Haven are the most generous of any university to any host city, and also the state reimburses some of the tax revenues that would be paid by a business rather than a nonprofit. I understand, we are not a wealthy city, but I think what Yale can do is create jobs, and we also can continue to open our programs and resources to participation by New Haven residents.

“We will continue to support the Promise Scholarship Program for New Haven students applying to colleges. I’m a New Haven resident. I have lived in the city for more than 32 years. I think encouraging our employees and faculty to live in the city with financial incentives, as we do, and pay property taxes is important,” Salovey said. And “I think we can do more. The great spirit of our faculty and students for community service can be focused on the neighborhoods. I want to be part of the effort to make New Haven a better place to live.”

If much of that doesn’t sound particularly new, it’s because it isn’t. Salovey says that he plans to keep doing what Levin did with and for New Haven, which was considerably more than Yale did before 1993. He also says he will collaborate with Harp, Harries and others before getting too specific about future initiatives. He did cite one area that he will emphasize: economic development – and not simply, as in the past, in the retail districts that cater to Yalies.

“What we can do as a university is encourage the entrepreneurial activities of our students and faculty and work with them to keep those activities in the city,” he says. “There are many examples of that already: Alexion moving to Downtown Crossing and Higher One, started by Yale students, are now major employers in the city. If we can encourage our faculty and students to build these kinds of companies here, we are going to create jobs. And jobs address many of New Haven’s challenges. There will be no diminution of energy in areas where we have already built a partnership, for schools, for homeownership, for the retail and cultural climate downtown, but I think we want to add economic development and job creation as a new thrust. I know the Mayor-elect shares that interest.”

Inside the wrought iron gates, Salovey has work to do as well. There are those in the Blue community who don’t think Levin did such a bang-up job, ergo, following his lead is not a good idea.

Classics professor Victor Bers is among those who are concerned that Yale has become too focused on entrepreneurship and had grown corporate-like, too top-down in its governance, venturing too far afield with its Yale-National University of Singapore partnership. In an email, he wrote, “I think it’s too soon to say [how Salovey is doing], since he’s had very little time to make, or at least to announce, his own policies. As I see it, Levin left him many messes to clean up, or at least to cope with as best as the university can, including Yale-NUS, MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses], faculty governance, and figuring out how to strengthen STEM [Science/Technology/Engineering/ Mathematics curricula] without doing harm to the humanities and social sciences.”

Salovey, of course, as Yale Provost was second in command for the past four years and riding shotgun for all of the above-mentioned issues; if Yale has wanted to change course, it wouldn’t have picked him. But Salovey, who has three advanced degrees in psychology and helped to pioneer the field of “Emotional Intelligence” in human relations, is not planning to rest on his predecessor’s laurels or be Levin Lite.

During his extended transition of nearly eight months after being selected on Nov. 8, 2012 – in what some viewed as an abridged search process – Salovey launched a “listening tour” of the campus and well beyond to see what students, faculty, staff, alumni, and donors had on their minds. After 32 years at Yale, one would think he had heard it all, but many saw this effort as a signal that his presidency would be more inclusive, more democratic than the previous one.

Salovey says of his first few months on the job, “I can’t say that I have walked into situations and been deeply astonished by something. I’ve been here too long for that. But the passion people have for this university, for what it can be, for excellence, for what New Haven can be – when I talk to people, we don’t just have a quiet conversation, they really feel the issues that they think are important. I’m impressed by that, maybe not surprised, but impressed. It gives me great hope.”

As the interview wears on, Salovey, having taken the measure of his inquisitor, becomes more animated, leaning farther forward, his hands making arcs in the air to punctuate his ideas. He is a man of diverse interests and accomplishments. His curriculum vitae is a veritable tome: he is the author of more than a dozen books (translated into languages including Turkish and Korean); he has written hundreds and hundreds of scholarly articles; and he serves on myriad boards and committees – for example, he is a trustee of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Ky.

This but lightly buffs the surface of his CV. It is a sound bet that he is at least as smart as anyone in whatever room he happens to be in, but he is astute enough, or emotionally intelligent enough, to keep his companions in the dark on that point. He seems like a fairly regular guy, an engaging fellow with interests and ideas that just happen to be eminently worth discussing.

Leaning against the wall of his office is a hockey stick signed by the members of last year’s NCAA National Championship Men’s Hockey Team. Salovey is a big fan. He says he attends two thirds of the games at Ingalls Rink, most home football contests, and volleyball and basketball (woman’s and men’s) games, too. These represent but a slice of the extracurricular activities that command his attention. He says that he still finds time to read, and mentions four books he has recently finished or is about to crack open: three of them by Yale professors.

Gaddis Smith, Yale class of 1954, has seen a lot of Yale presidents come and go. He has ranked Levin in the top three of all time, with Ezra Stiles and Kingman Brewster, and he has high hopes for Salovey, whom he has known for decades and has seen in action, in class and elsewhere. He says, “Peter makes a wonderful impression everywhere he goes, no matter the audience.” Guitarist Sten Havumaki adds that Peter always gets the job done for the band, standing in the background, keeping the beat, with nary a solo to his credit. “Peter is Peter, he hasn’t changed,” he says.

The final question for Salovey, as he is escorting his visitor to the door, is, “Are you familiar with the Louvin Brothers?” He stops, smiles broadly, and goes on a tear about Charlie and Ira and their impact on American music, on the Everly Brothers, the Beatles and beyond. A person could rip through a passel of university presidents without finding one who could rattle on so about those Louvin boys.