Yale’s “Swiss army knife”

Penelope Laurans has mastered nearly every corner of Yale.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

Longtime teacher and administrator Penelope Laurans wears a spider necklace in tribute to the mascot of Jonathan Edwards College, where she has been master since 2009. View full image

Yale, if you’re not careful, can get under your skin. Just ask Penelope Laurans, who is retiring this year after 43 years of varied service to the university.

It all started in the fall of 1972 when, fresh from earning her PhD at Harvard, Laurans arrived in New Haven for a job interview. It was, she says now, “head-over-heels” love. The trees on Old Campus had turned. The doors to Dwight Chapel were open and the organ was playing. An offer to join the English faculty came, and even though her husband, the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald, lived and taught in Cambridge, she couldn’t say no to Yale.

This became a trend.

Not long after she joined the faculty, President Kingman Brewster ’41 asked if Laurans might represent the humanities on the college admissions committee. It was an extremely demanding job for someone balancing an interstate commute with a heavy teaching load and the need to publish. But Laurans “didn’t have the nerve to say no to Kingman Brewster.” And so began a decades-long connection to the work of choosing who gets into Yale College.

In the years since, she has worn a plethora of Yale hats; former Yale College dean Richard Brodhead ’68, ’72PhD (now president of Duke) once called her the “administrative equivalent to the Swiss army knife.” She has been associate editor of the Yale Review and has overseen summer programs in the Yale College Dean’s Office. When Richard Levin ’74PhD became president in 1993, Laurans again expanded her portfolio, becoming his speechwriting assistant. The position evolved into a powerful role as one of the primary forces behind the university’s tercentennial celebrations, the Committee on Yale College Education, and the two committees that studied and ultimately supported the idea of building new residential colleges. She capped off her career with an appointment as master of Jonathan Edwards College, beginning in 2009.

After Laurans retires at the end of the academic year, she will stay in New Haven, working on some writing projects. She’s aware that it’ll be impossible to separate herself entirely from the many corners of the university she’s occupied. As President Peter Salovey ’86PhD put it in a letter to colleagues: “Penny Laurans is Yale—and Yale is Penny—in a way that can be said about precious few individuals.” 

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