Q&A: Peter Salovey

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The president talks about seven deanships, being filled in a span of two years.

The Yale Alumni Magazine regularly holds a conversation with Yale president Peter Salovey ’86PhD to provide a forum in which alumni can learn his views. (Interviews are conducted both in person and by e-mail and condensed for print.)

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

In this issue, Salovey talks about how he hires deans. View full image

Y: You’ve filled several deanships recently and have three more to go.

S: This past year we hired a dean of Yale College, a dean of the Graduate School, and a dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, a new position. We just announced the new dean of the School of Nursing. We’re actively searching now for deans of the Schools of Architecture, Art, and Public Health. 

Y: What is your procedure for hiring a dean?

S: The process depends a little bit on the local custom and practice of the school. But typically, at the beginning of any search we send an e-mail asking anyone in the faculty community, student body, and alumni community of that school to suggest possible candidates or important qualities we should seek in a dean. Then, a search advisory committee develops a long list of potential candidates and later winnows it down to a shorter list. The president and the provost, as well as the committee, interview that shorter list. Others around campus may also interview the candidates. For example, it wouldn’t be unusual to ask the chair of the Department of the History of Art to interview a candidate for dean of the art school. But ultimately, the dean is appointed by the president.

I encourage the search advisory committees to talk to me not just about the people they’re considering, but also about the qualities they’d like in a dean, in case I need to look beyond the short list. I also am very interested in these advisory committees thinking generally about the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate rather than merely ranking them. In fact, I prefer that search committees not rank the list, but simply say, Here is a group of people we are excited about—and, for each individual, explain why. As I make the final decision, I consult with the provost, with people close to the action in the relevant school, with the previous dean. Often there is a relevant alumni advisory group, and typically I’ll chat with its chair.

Y: So you’re studying the unique needs of every school before you make a choice. Do you also have general characteristics you look for?

S: The fit of the individual to the needs and goals and aspirations of a school is first and foremost. But in recent years two things have changed. One is that deans now really are the chief executives of their schools. They should be wonderful exemplars of the qualities that one would want in the faculties of those schools, but they also need to have some affinity for organizational behavior, for finance and budgets, for advancement—developing an alumni body and fund-raising. It’s an ever more challenging position.

The second thing that’s changed—and it’s a cultural change that I’m bringing about in these first couple of years of my presidency—is thinking of deans as academic leaders of the university as a whole, and not just as leaders of their schools. For example, the new dean for the School of Nursing, Ann Kurth [’90MSN], will be moving here from NYU on January 1. Her passion about nursing research, nursing education, and nursing practice made her incredibly appealing to the School of Nursing and of course to me as well. But the fact that she also does work in Africa and could participate in our Africa initiative and in our internationalization strategy more generally; the fact that she has graduate degrees in epidemiology and will have an appointment in the School of Public Health as well, and so will look to build bridges between nursing and public health, or at least look for areas of common interest; the fact that she could be the kind of person who would be very much a bridge among various parts of the university—all this made her additionally appealing to me as a candidate. I’m trying to emphasize these qualities in the appointments of deans.

Y: What do you, as a psychology professor, believe are the key qualities that make a person a leader?

S: I’m going to give you an answer based on my own research. So, first, I assume that every dean we hire is going to be smart, hard-working, and passionate about their school and the entire university. But it’s what people in the School of Management might call the “soft skills” that I think are often the big differentiators—skills like emotional intelligence.

At any given time you may need to motivate a team. You may need to counsel a distraught faculty member or student. You might need to draw on your own emotional reserves to solve a problem or be creative. That’s what emotional intelligence is all about. While I’ve never dared to give a test of emotional intelligence to potential candidates—they might run briskly in the opposite direction from New Haven—that is part of what I ask search advisory committees to look for.

Sometimes the best way to obtain evidence for these attributes is to look at what the person has accomplished in previous roles. Have they been able to align people with many different points of view and backgrounds around common goals? Have they been able to resolve conflicts? When conflict exists, could they turn it into a creative opportunity rather than a destructive one? Have they been able to harness passion, both their own and their colleagues’, in the service of some larger, superordinate goal? Those skills are harder to assess, but they’re not impossible to identify. I spent my research years looking for ways to define and assess quantitatively those very skills.

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