On Feb. 10, 1950, A. Whitney Griswold ’29 GRD ’33 and his wife, Mary, headed to New York for an evening of theater and fine dining. After seeing “Caesar and Cleopatra,” Whitney — a young Yale history professor — and Mary decided to stay over in New York and have lunch the next day with Roswell Ham, then-President of Mount Holyoke College. After hearing all about Ham’s life as a college president, Whitney remarked to Mary, “Thank God we’re not in that racket.”
He needn’t have worried. Though Yale’s president, Charles Seymour 1908 GRD 1911, had just announced his retirement, Griswold was a highly unlikely choice for the job. He had never been interviewed for the position. He was too young, just 43. He was something of a nonconformist, at least by Yale standards: a solid Democrat on a faculty full of Republicans. And though Griswold had sterling credentials — a bachelors and doctorate from Yale (the country’s first ever Ph.D. in American Studies) and nearly two decades of celebrated teaching — he genuinely did not want the job.
Yet, when he returned to the Elm City later that evening, Griswold learned that the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, had chosen him to run the nation’s third-oldest university. “When the Corporation announced its choice,” Yale’s late, great historian Brooks Mather Kelley ’53 wrote in “Yale: A History,” “many observers could not have been more surprised if Yale had chosen God.”
As president, Griswold remained intensely focused on Yale’s academics. He dismissed extracurriculars as “Bonesy bullshit” and “that Dink Stover crap,” as historian Jerome Karabel recounted in “The Chosen.” Practicing what he preached, Griswold spent much of his time engaged in scholarly pursuits.
“It was his nature. He was a scholar — he liked to think; he liked to write,” recalls Henry “Sam” Chauncey ’57, who became a Yale administrator during Griswold’s later years and eventually served as the University Secretary.
“Whit had, generally speaking, one appointment in the morning and one appointment in the afternoon — if he had to give a speech or go to a dinner or something at night, he didn’t usually have the afternoon appointment. And he generally spent a lot of his time talking to faculty members, and occasionally to students, but the rest of the time he sat at his desk with a yellow legal pad and wrote beautiful essays or statements.”
In the six decades that have passed since that winter day in 1950, six men have served as Yale’s president: Griswold (1951-1963), Kingman Brewster ’41 (1963-1977), A. Bartlett Giamatti ’60 GRD ’64 (1978-1986), Benno Schmidt ’63 LAW ’66 (1986-1992), Richard Levin GRD ’74 (1993-2013), and Peter Salovey GRD ’86 (2013-present). (I am not including in this count Hanna Holborn Gray or Howard Lamar, both of whom served only briefly as acting president.)
From Griswold’s day to Salovey’s, the job’s demands have exploded. The president has gone from a solitary, contemplative figure to a manager, speaker and fundraiser with an international profile. Keeping that in mind, the question I posed to Salovey and the two-dozen other individuals interviewed for this article was this: how has the changed nature of the presidency affected the president’s ability to effect change?
Salovey has only just begun his presidency, but his popularity seems virtually limitless. However, in our modern, international, highly corporatized, highly bureaucratized Yale, will he be able to make the changes that Yale demands?
Full disclosure: I’ve sometimes been pretty critical of Salovey in my staff column for the News. I’ve been vocal about these changes, the ones (I feel) Yale demands. In writing this piece, I’ve tried to remain constantly aware of my own potential biases. This piece began as an effort to understand why the changes I’ve wanted are not coming to fruition. Surprising no one more than myself, I’ve come to believe that the answer is not a matter of personalities, but one of circumstances.
The constraints Salovey faces can seem, to an outsider, mind-numbing. He works around the clock, nearly every day of the year. He treks across the country and around the world on Yale business.
“There aren’t many breaks in the day,” Salovey told me. “And I wish there were more, because what I love is writing and speaking.”
“You know,” Salovey continued, “the idea of a president sitting alone, smoking a pipe, reading Jonathan Edwards, and slowly, with a quill, writing a speech — that is so far from how I spend my day, I can’t tell you. But at some point in Yale’s history that is what presidents did. Those days are over.”
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During the 1950s, Yale was all male and virtually all white. Private school students made up more than 60 percent of the Class of 1957 (a figure considered startlingly low), and most of these came from just a handful of elite prep schools. Almost 100 students came from Andover each year.
At the head of this monochromatic student body, Griswold remained a traditionalist. He was largely unconcerned with the makeup of the student population, but rather wanted the University to return to its academic roots. So Griswold eliminated anything that smacked of vocational training or interdisciplinary focus: the teaching program, the transportation program, the alcohol studies program, even the renowned international relations institute (which hastily decamped for Princeton).
“From the day he got here,” recalled Chauncey, “Griswold started what he called ‘purifying’ the University … He said, ‘Yale is going to be departments: history, English, physics, and it’s going to be ‘pure.’’ And he cleaned everything out.”
This decision-making process was far from atypical. On April 4, 1959, the Yale Corporation gathered to decide the names of Yale’s 11th and 12th residential colleges, at that point still two years away. Eventually, of course, they settled on Morse and Ezra Stiles. But unlike today — when there is no shortage of debate over the new colleges’ names — Griswold named Morse and Stiles largely on his own, Sterling Professor Emeritus of English and former Stiles Master Traugott Lawler told me.
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Times have changed. The makeup of the University has changed. And the presidential decision-making process has changed.
“Let me say something very clearly,” Salovey told me. “I don’t want to go back to those more homogeneous times, ever. But I think in a more homogeneous university, everybody sort of comes at it from the same point of view, so when the president says, ‘Here’s what we’re doing,’ people go, ‘Sounds like a pretty good idea.’”
On Oct. 8, 2014, Salovey emailed the extended Yale community, soliciting suggestions for the names of Yale’s as-yet unbuilt 13th and 14th residential colleges. This came after years of intense speculation over the names, which the Corporation has yet to select.
For years, the News has seen scores of op-eds about the college names (including two of my own). As early as 2008, the Yale Alumni Magazine had created a “Name those colleges!” challenge for its readers. And after the October email went out, someone plastered campus with “Grace Hopper College” flyers. Students and alumni want to weigh in; the power to make big decisions, it would seem, is far more constrained by a world of instantaneous access to information and a multitude of demanding stakeholders.
“I can’t just announce something and expect it’s going to happen,” Salovey says. “I can champion it, I can put some resources behind it, I can go out and try to raise money to support it … But I can’t expect that by presidential fiat it will just happen.”
By Scott Stern
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“You know, the idea of a president sitting alone, smoking a pipe, reading Jonathan Edwards, and slowly, with a quill, writing a speech — that is so far from how I spend my day, I can’t tell you. But at some point in Yale’s history that is what presidents did. Those days are over.”
—Peter Salovey, University President
—Peter Salovey, University President