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Yale 62

Salovey in Detroit, with The Yale Club of Michigan

By Al Chambers

October 10, 2023. President Peter Salovey’s first visit to Detroit and the rejuvenated Yale Club of Michigan provided a well-planned and stimulating evening for the more than 100 people who attended his talk at the Detroit Historical Museum.

It was Salovey’s first meeting with an Alumni group outside of New Haven since his August 31 announcement that he would retire from the University Presidency and return to teaching.

Peter Salovey with Yale Club of Michigan’s Akousa Barthwell Evans ’90 JD

His topic was “University Update,” and he proudly covered a great deal in the hour-long session, including about 15 minutes for questions.

He said, “I like the job; I’d go on forever, but it was time and I wanted to leave my successor with wind at their back… I think our University is on a fine course.”

The same is true for the Yale Club of Michigan under the leadership of Akousa Barthwell Evans, ‘90 JD, who represents so many elements and improvements at Yale since the time that Yale ’62 graduated. She told me many weeks ago that she thought President Salovey was “just a good person.” In her closing remarks, she said she wanted “to say thank you for what you have done for all of us.” She clearly meant that she knew the mild-mannered Salovey had accepted controversy and criticism as part of his leadership.

Salovey, in accepting the invitation to Michigan, insisted that the meeting be in Detroit, and that diversity and change would be themes of his remarks. In the interests of space, I’ll limit the details of Salovey’s “Update” — they can be found on the website.

What I will do instead is mention a few elements that were surprises to me, cover three quite different questions that he answered, and close with the two principal topics of an enjoyable several minute conversation that I had with President Salovey during the reception and social hour.

The audience’s most enthusiastic responses were to details about successful efforts to continue improving the social and economic balance, particularly of Yale College. Two catchy statistics were that with the large majority of students receiving some financial aid, “86% graduate with no debt.” Another that I had never heard was that recipients of financial aid represent 98% of the population by income. What’s surprising is that such data does not quell criticism that the top universities in the country still are favorable to the wealthiest, if only because those young people receive better education and opportunities prior to college.

Salovey described a program that recruits top applicants who would be the first in their families to attend college by offering and largely funding a month on campus the summer before their first year begins to spend time with 100 other students with similar backgrounds. Not only does it help these young people to feel more comfortable when the other first years arrive, but this group has become more familiar with the campus and its surroundings and can share what they have learned with the newcomers.

Another surprise was Salovey’s description that when he assumed the Presidency, he found the University Mission Statement to be dull and uninspiring. He explained that he asked for help but didn’t get much, so he took the project on himself with the goal of making the new statement “aspirational.” Now, each part of the University has its own version, which he thinks has made a difference. Here is the first sentence of three in the University Mission Statement: “Yale is committed to improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice.”

The ”Blueprint” several years later established a reorganization of the most important teaching groups of the University, and also “clustered” faculty and staff together where they could be in better contact with faculty in similar disciplines. The element of the five distinct groups which was new, Salovey explained, was called Planetary Solutions and grouped Data Sciences, Computer Sciences, along with Climate Change and Biodiversity disciplines. Salovey further explained that as part of this effort, “Yale put a tax on ourselves to reduce our carbon usage. Funds from this effort are being used for a new building which will break ground next week and will be completed in 2025 and be connected with the Divinity School under the title Eco-Theology.”

Salovey speaking from the podium

Turning to the audience Q & A, the three that caught my interest were:

  1. Q. It is a tough time for young people. What is Yale doing to help? (The questioner did not mention that Yale had been specifically criticized for its policy of encouraging students having difficulty to withdraw, which within the past week has been modified, to again provide more individual support, which traditionally has been the policy of Yale.

    A. “After 9/11, parents got more protective. Now, we have more polarization on top of the Covid years, and now we have people choosing media with whom they already agree… We have YCC (Yale Community Care), which puts people with guidance and counseling skills in the Residential Colleges.”

  2. Q. What about Yale’s response to the Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action ruling?

    A. “We have two principles, which are diversity creates a better environment, so we want to encourage applicants to express themselves. Also, we will obey the law. We think the Court allowed room for geographical distribution.”

  3. Q. What should the profile of your successor be?

    A. “The President is supposed to take a back seat… I do think you want someone who likes the idea of community and commitment. Also, the purpose of the University is to be committed to the mission statement and wants to be aspirational.

President Salovey showed his sense of humor by reminding the audience in the first few minutes that they no doubt noticed that he was short but probably didn’t know he hailed from New Jersey. He said “Those might be kept in mind for his successor!”

Back to the beginning of the evening, my personal discussion with the President started with my reminding him that he had been our honored guest at the 2007 45th Reunion, and that I had sat next to him at our closing dinner. He remembered it well and said that he had thought of that event, when I introduced myself Tuesday night as a ’62. I believe him. Second, we turned to the world of news and polarization and specifically how top universities, particularly Harvard’s President, had been criticized, for not speaking out when numerous student groups loudly supported the Hamas attackers. Salovey was pleased that a senior Yale Administrator had put out a statement for the University on Monday and that Salovey had issued a statement of his own the following day. “Yalies4Palestine” had participated in a downtown New Haven protest, while the larger public demonstrations on campus had largely been in sympathy with Israel, but with a small number protesting about Israel’s longstanding “occupation” of Palestinian lands. The Harvard Crimson reported Tuesday, picked up CBS News and others, that “Amid fierce national backlash about the President’s initial silence, Harvard President Claudine Gay forcefully condemned the Hamas attack on Israel and distanced the University from a group of student organizations.”

Just in case anyone had doubts that being a University President is a hard job, this week showed again the complexities of when and when not to be public and how to do it. The week has been favorable for President Salovey, and that certainly included his Yale Club of Michigan appearance in Detroit.

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