Salovey steps down

After 11 years in office, Yale's president is returning to teaching, We asked him how he thought it went.

Veronique Greenwood ’08 is a writer and essayist living in England.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

View full image

I had an important question for Peter Salovey ’86PhD: Was he going to get his band back together?

Yale’s twenty-third president, who announced in August that he would be stepping down at the end of June, laughed and admitted that his presidency had not been kind to the Professors of Bluegrass, the group in which he had played the double bass for many years. He had handed out copies of the Professors’ first album, Pick or Perish, at his inauguration in 2013. In earlier years, when he was dean and later
provost, the band could be spotted around New Haven at places like the Wooster Square Farmer’s Market or Rudy’s. But for the last 11 years, the Professors have been on sabbatical. “My schedule is planned for me months in advance,” he says, a little wistfully. “I do hope we’ll be playing more as I step away.” While the band members have spread out across several states, no one is very far away. A rebirth is possible.

Under Salovey, a psychologist whose academic work explores the concept of emotional intelligence, Yale has undergone a number of transformations. Perhaps most obviously, Yale College is now larger by 15 percent; the long-planned new residential colleges, Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin, opened during his tenure. Moreover, while Yale students today are just as high-achieving as ever, they come from a wider swath of economic and cultural backgrounds. Between 2013 and 2023, the number of incoming undergraduates who were the first in their family to attend college more than doubled, as did the number of incoming undergrads who qualified for federal Pell grants—a marker of lower household income. The list of major changes in the last decade to make the university broadly more accessible goes on and on. Most recently, the university announced that graduate students in drama will no longer pay tuition.

Recalling his plans for the presidency when he started out, Salovey says, “I wanted to be able to educate students from any neighborhood anywhere in the world, regardless of the family circumstances in which they grew up. And to do that, we had to dramatically increase financial support, and eliminate the reliance on loans.” In pursuit of these policies, he has fundraised with quiet doggedness, and Yale’s endowment has doubled. As he leaves the presidency, only undergraduates from families at the very top of the US income distribution—he estimates about the top two percent—are paying full tuition, room, and board; everyone else receives help to lessen the burden on their families and eliminate any reliance on debt. When it comes to being at Yale, Salovey has gone a long way toward making money no object.  

But that doesn’t mean that it’s all been plain sailing. The last decade has brought its share of challenges, and Salovey has met them in his own inimitable style.

“As we have moved deeper into the twenty-first century, I think we have found decisions are better made when you have listened to all voices,” reflects Margaret Marshall ’76JD, who served as chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and was a longtime member of Yale’s Board of Trustees. “In many ways Peter has been somebody who has been ahead of his time. . . . But I think we all know if you are ahead of your time it doesn’t help to step forward and have nobody follow you.

“I sometimes wonder whether we are slowly learning that successful models of leadership are not the person who runs up to the bully pulpit and pulls out the megaphone and screams and says, Follow me.”

When Salovey took office, the consensus, as recorded in this magazine, was that his predecessor was leaving on a high. In his 20 years as president, Rick Levin ’74PhD helped pull the university out of a tight spot. He oversaw the renovation of vast swaths of the campus, boosted a flagging endowment, and focused on repairing Yale’s rocky relationship with New Haven. Salovey, who had been provost under Levin, inherited a university in much better shape than Levin took on in 1993. Salovey sums up his job, as he sees it, in three bullet points: “The first one is to develop and articulate a vision for the university, and, with others, work on a strategy to accomplish that vision. The second bullet is to hire and nurture a great team to carry out that vision. . . . The third is aligning the resources to accomplish that vision.”

Salovey had not been president for very long before he had to face a decision that would test his mettle as a leader. Back then, one of the residential colleges bore the name of the nineteenth-century politician John C. Calhoun, Class of 1804, who saw slavery as a positive institution until his dying days. The name Calhoun College had long drawn protests from students and alumni, starting in 1933 when the building was opened. In 2015, after a white supremacist slaughtered black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, many people at Yale demanded that Calhoun’s name be removed. At first, wary of erasing history, Salovey and his team held firm on the name. “Universities have to be the places where tough conversations happen,” he told the New York Times in April 2016.  “I don’t think that is advanced by hiding our past.”

Salovey sensed, however, that there was very little precedent to help guide people interested in facing an institution’s ugly baggage—much less than there is now, nearly ten years later. In August 2016, he drew on the Yale community to help fill this gap, asking law and history professor John Witt ’94, ’99JD, ’00PhD, and a group of faculty, staff, alumni, and students to establish rules related to renaming. Over the course of three months, the team developed a framework for institutions to use. After applying it to the Calhoun case, an ad hoc committee recommended that the name be changed. Salovey announced in 2017 that he had decided to remove Calhoun’s name from the college. (It is now named after Grace Hopper ’34PhD.) “We got to the right place in the right way,” he says.

This route reflects two essential aspects of Salovey’s personality, says Marshall. “He is a brilliant scholar, deeply, deeply committed to scholarship . . . and Peter had been a beloved teacher. One thing that teachers do, if they are brilliant teachers, is to elicit all voices—not to dominate the conversation,” she says. By finding a way to listen more deeply to what the Yale community was saying, and asking for help from the faculty, Salovey was able to arrive to a solution that felt both just and reasoned.   

Indeed, that ability to watch and listen recently helped Salovey accomplish something unexpected, says Penelope Laurans, who was a special assistant to Levin and is now a senior adviser at the university. In 2023, Yale’s graduate students voted to unionize, a step that had long been controversial at the university and had divided the community. The response to this latest vote impressed Laurans: “After many years of controversy, the university did not push back this time when the Yale graduate and professional school students voted to form a labor union,” she says. “Soon after, very quietly, the two sides had negotiated a contract, and the union voted it through.” So far, the relationship between Yale and its newest union seems to be on good footing. “I am sure that he believed that this was not only pragmatic but the right thing to do,” says Laurans.

Salovey himself puts it very simply. “We had to be democratic about it,” he said. “It turned out the vast majority of our graduate students wanted this at that point. What we tried to do is create a climate of respect and good faith. And I think you can see, we and the leadership of the new Local 33 got to a contract without a lot of drama.” The key, he thinks, was that the university and its graduate students came to an understanding early on about what aspects of graduate student work came under the purview of the labor union—such as pay and health insurance—and what aspects should remain in the hands of academic authorities, such as what constitutes a good dissertation. “It’s been, thankfully, quite a cooperative process,” Salovey notes.

“Both presidents Levin and Salovey, with whom I have worked, are optimistic and positive people,” says Laurans. “They see the cup of coffee half-full. They possess a calmness under pressure. I have concluded from watching them that it is important, for many reasons, for a good leader to be a positive, upbeat person, of a believing frame of mind.”

If these are challenges that were brought to him, a challenge that Salovey has long sought out is how to create a more unified Yale. He touched on it in his inauguration speech and has returned to it again and again. It’s the kind of process that can operate slowly, in a hundred different ways, and as a goal, it runs the risk of being rather amorphous.

There are few more obvious symbols of his push to bring disparate parts of the university together, however, than the 2021 opening of the Humanities Quadrangle, in the building long known as the Hall of Graduate Studies. 
Students of earlier generations might remember that humanities departments from religious studies to French were scattered throughout the campus. How much stronger and connected could these scholars feel, Salovey wondered, if they were together, in a space that was itself generous, and encouraged generosity?
“Humanities students and faculty often feel that they're in areas that aren't growing, that are nationally under a lot of pressure, and I never want it to feel that way at Yale. Because the humanities have always been a crown jewel of this university,” he says. “I don't think anywhere in this country, maybe even in the world, is it as intense an area of focus as it is in Yale. By bringing people together, we make a statement to the world.”

So, the Hall of Graduate Studies, a much-loved if somewhat decrepit landmark, got a renovation, one that eliminated the grim basement offices and brought in big common spaces. Fifteen humanities departments are now housed in the Humanities Quadrangle, alongside theater space and a new lecture hall.

Gone, too, are the days of Science Hill being a distant outpost of the university.
The new colleges and numerous building projects that give the science departments room to expand have made it a new center of gravity. “I’m extremely proud of what we’ve done in science and engineering,” Salovey says.  “We are using the same model as we did for the Humanities Quadrangle: bringing scientists and engineers together across disciplines but around common themes.”

Salovey and his wife, Marta Elisa Moret ’84MPH, are also frequent sights at student events and sports matches, despite busy work and travel schedules. Salovey has made frequent trips to Africa to nurture Yale’s relationships with scholars and institutions there. And his ability to raise funds for the university has been remarkable, says Marshall.

“Donors do not give to failing enterprises. They give to enterprises that are presently successful, but also where they believe the current leadership has positioned the institution to be successful in the future,” she says. “I think Peter can look back and say that’s exactly where Yale is positioned right now.”

If these things have been satisfying for him, what has been hard? Salovey thinks about it—a decade when wars, a pandemic, and escalating political tensions have all had their effect on Yale. Honestly, he says, dealing with these issues has not been the hardest part. He feels confident in the team he’s built, and enjoys the challenge of trying together to find solutions that work. “I’ve loved solving problems at Yale,” he says. “I don’t expect it all to be easy.”

The hard stuff has been personal. In 2016, his mother died. In 2017, his father-in-law died, in 2018 his father, in 2019 his uncle. And then COVID hit. It seemed endless. “I felt like my family and I were grieving together year after year after year. When was this going to end? When was the cleaning out of houses and apartments going to end?” he says. He is proud, though, that his parents made it out from L.A. to see his inauguration in 2013. It was their last trip to the East Coast.  

After he steps away from the presidency in June, Salovey is looking forward to returning to the psychology department, where he has an office. He won’t get his lab back together, but he is hoping to find projects he can collaborate on with colleagues. He thinks he will do some teaching, connect with old friends, see what the future brings.

I asked one further important question: Is he going to bring back the mustache?

He laughs. For students who knew him as a professor and then as the dean, Salovey’s thick black mustache was iconic, and when he shaved it off in 2009 soon after becoming provost, the Yale Daily News ran an obituary. “I spent most of my time as provost in an austere mode, trying to get us through the recession without having to lay off people, and without compromising our core mission of education and research. I sort of decided that required a bit of a more austere look,” he says. “It also was the case that my hair—probably due to the Great Recession!—turned white and gray, and the mustache stayed black.” It looked a little weird, he thought. But a new beginning might require a new look.

“When I step aside from being president,” he says, “I'm kind of tempted to grow it back and just see what it looks like.”  

Post a comment