University Priorities and Academic Investments

Date: 
Monday, November 21, 2016

Dear Colleagues,

This holiday week, as our campus community pauses to reflect and give thanks, seems an opportune moment to share some thoughts about Yale’s future. And so, in place of my regular “Notes from Woodbridge Hall,” I am writing to you today about the academic priorities we have been developing for the years ahead. You, our faculty and staff across the university—the standard-bearers of our mission and shared goals—have informed and helped determine what those priorities should be.

Over the past two years, in the normal course of retirements and term appointments coming to an end, we have seen a renewal of Yale’s excellent leadership team, with eight new deans and five vice presidents joining our ranks. At the same time, through hard work and collaboration, we have brought the university to financial equilibrium, balancing our budget for the third year in a row. (Provost Ben Polak and I will soon be sending you our annual comprehensive budget update with additional details on the university’s financial state.) This combination of renewed leadership and fiscal stability means that—after several years of consolidation—we are now in a position to move forward on the strategic academic investments that will reinforce and advance Yale’s standing among the world’s great universities.

To determine where to focus these investments, we began by asking: What distinguishes Yale? Yale is the research university most committed to teaching and learning. We are emphatically interdisciplinary and collaborative. And we are guided by our mission of improving the world through the education of leaders for all sectors of society. If our goal is to build a more excellent Yale—a university that is the best possible version of itself—these areas of special distinction form the roadmap for moving forward. Because we know we must make choices about which initiatives to pursue—we cannot and should not try to invest equally everywhere—two key strategies will underpin our decisions. The first is to build on Yale’s iconic strengths; the second, to invest where we require greater strength—that is, in the key areas where a leading, global research university needs to be strong. These investments are not about getting bigger but about getting even better at what Yale does best—and at what Yale must do best. They fall into four overarching categories: faculty excellence, the sciences, arts and humanities, and social sciences.

Our greatest strength, of course, is the people who make up the university, and as we consider academic investments, the natural starting point is our faculty. Yale’s faculty are the lifeblood of the university. Excellent faculty define the university for our students and for the world, and in doing so they draw the very best students and academic colleagues to our campus. This means that we must redouble our efforts to recruit and retain the very top people in every field: in each of our hiring searches we must keep looking until we find the best individual for the post. And to succeed in recruiting and retaining preeminent scholars, we will need to provide the resources to allow them to thrive: facilities, equipment, research funds, and named chairs. Investing in an excellent faculty provides the foundation for everything else that follows.

For an example of investing where Yale must be strong, I want to touch very briefly on rankings, although I share your nervousness about being overly reliant on what are far-from-perfect indicators. With our unabashed emphasis on undergraduate education, strong teaching in Yale College, and unsurpassed residential experience, Yale has long boasted one of the very highest-ranked colleges, perennially among the top three. In the ratings of world research universities, however, we tend to be somewhere between tenth and fifteenth. This discrepancy points to an opportunity, and that opportunity is science, as it is the sciences that most differentiate Yale from those above us on such lists.

Why science? First, because science can change—and improve—the world. The discoveries and new knowledge that emerge from our faculty members’ research will help solve some of the most pressing issues of our time. The physical sciences can help us learn to live sustainably. Advances in life science save lives. And technology allows us to pursue solutions we never would have dreamed possible even a decade ago.

Second, science is the key variable in bringing Yale to the level where it belongs: in order to remain a great research university on the world stage, we need to invest further in Yale science. This ambition is not a matter of bragging rights; it is fundamental to our mission of educating leaders and improving the world. Tomorrow’s leaders—whether they are scientists or not—need an education including the sciences, technology, engineering, and quantitative reasoning so that they will have the tools to understand the world and shape the future. Empiricism and experimentation were the core of the Enlightenment and are still the tools with which to illuminate the world around us.

Science at Yale is a university-wide endeavor, including the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health, Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and beyond. By the year 2020, we will have finished the first phase of an ambitious investment in STEM research and education at Yale: the complete transformation of Science Hill. This includes new, state-of-the-art teaching labs for chemistry, biology, and soon physics in the renovated Sterling Chemistry Laboratory; the Yale Science Building, slated to open in 2019, which will house two of our FAS biology departments and part of our physics department; and common spaces including a pavilion and large auditorium that will bring together faculty and students from across the scientific disciplines—and draw faculty and students from other fields and parts of campus. This is just one example from one part of campus; we will need to make these kinds of investments—and keep making them over time—in the sciences across the university.

It is important to recognize that we cannot—and we will not—invest in university-wide science at the expense of university-wide investment in the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences. Our commitment to these areas of strength is too great and too important. The arts and humanities are an undisputed area of excellence for Yale, a true comparative advantage. We stand with the very best in the humanities throughout the world, and we are preeminent in the arts as well. These are areas in which we will invest to build on existing strength. Again, our plans are university-wide in scope: the arts are not only in our world-class collections and unparalleled professional schools, but also in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and our undergraduate programs; the humanities are in the FAS, parts of the Law School, the Divinity School, and beyond.

In recent years we have made great strides in integrating our arts across the professional schools—in drama, music, art, and architecture—more closely with each other, with undergraduate education in Yale College, with other parts of the university, and with the collections. Now is the time to pursue an even more integrated arts strategy. In addition to expanding on the connections already in place among our arts schools and collection resources, we will invest in faculty by adding professorships in the arts with an explicit mandate to teach across schools. And, following the renovation and revitalization of other parts of our arts campus, we will invest in drama at Yale by building a new theater complex that will support not only the School of Drama but also theater in the college and across Yale. The arts are perhaps the foremost example of how we can become a more unified university. This level of excellence and innovation in the arts is something that Yale alone—as the only major university with four top-ranked arts schools—can achieve.

We are making a major statement about the place of the humanities at Yale with the renovation of 320 York Street (the Hall of Graduate Studies) to house the majority of our humanities departments along with the Whitney Humanities Center. This is, we believe, the largest investment in the humanities happening anywhere in the world. It is not just about renovating a building. We are not merging departments. However, just like on Science Hill, it is about bringing departments—and the faculty, students, and staff who populate them—together, and making them stronger in the process. Why is this investment in the humanities so essential? There is a reason the humanities are the cornerstone of a liberal education: they help us to learn who we are and what we believe. They teach us to think creatively and critically, asking questions that matter. Just as with the sciences, the leaders of tomorrow need this education, and fostering excellence in the humanities contributes to the intellectual life of our campus.

Finally, a word about the social sciences—and by this I mean not only the departments in the FAS, but also the social scientific scholarship taking place in the Law School, the School of Management, parts of Forestry, Public Health, and elsewhere. Social science at Yale is quite strong, thanks to investments we have already made in people, programs, and facilities. But one area that spans schools and departments, and that could complement existing strengths, is the application of empirical social science to public policy problems and questions—the great issues of our day. Health and health care, elections and voting, aging and social security, growth and innovation—these are some of the issues to which empirical social science can be applied. A great university should be engaging in the great debates of its era, and our students—the leaders of tomorrow—should participate. But that engagement must be grounded in evidence-based inquiry and rigorous analysis of facts. The provost’s office is convening a faculty working group to advise on how to build our strength in this area.

The descriptions above are, of course, not comprehensive. Rather, they are meant to provide a sense of our overall academic focus for the near and longer term, and to serve as a starting point for the continued discussions with you that are necessary to developing our plans more fully. You are integral parts of that process. The provost and I will be meeting with groups of colleagues in the various schools over the next several months; the deans will be communicating with you about the schedule of those meetings as they are confirmed. I also welcome your comments and ideas related to our academic priorities at any time—to send me your thoughts on the subject, click HERE.

Ultimately we all share one goal: for Yale to be a great university, its best possible self. These, I am confident, are the strategies that will get us there. I look forward to your partnership in the work that lies ahead.

Sincerely,

Peter Salovey
President and Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology