Fall 2016 Letter to Alumni

November 1, 2016

To the Yale Alumni Community,

As I write, students are strolling by my window on their way to class, autumn has painted the trees, and there’s a crisp breeze blowing the leaves across Hewitt Quadrangle in front of the Beinecke Library. It’s a season on campus that you likely remember well.

Given the many ways I engage with alumni, I am mindful of the memories that connect you to Yale, as well as the distance at which most of you live from campus. I also know your extraordinary loyalty, thoughtfulness, and interest. So I wanted to take some time, in the midst of the fall splendor, to give you my sense of where we are and where we are going.

First, we have been sharply focused on renewing our senior leadership team. In the past two years, in the normal course of retirements and term appointments coming to an end, I have named eight new deans out of a total of fifteen: Jonathan Holloway ’85 Ph.D. for Yale College; Lynn Cooley at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; Tamar Gendler ’87, the inaugural dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Deborah Berke in Architecture; Marta Kuzma at the School of Art; Ann Kurth ’90 M.S.N. at Nursing; and Indy Burke in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. We will welcome Sten Vermund as the new dean of the School of Public Health in February.

In the vice presidential ranks, Alex Dreier ’95 J.D. joined Yale as general counsel, Eileen O’Connor was recruited to the new position of vice president for communications, and Jack Callahan ’80 assumed the new role of senior vice president and chief operating officer. Steve Murphy ’87 became our vice president for finance last year, and Pericles Lewis, currently president of Yale-NUS College in Singapore, will rejoin us next summer as vice president for global strategy. And as most of you already know, we named a new executive director of the Association of Yale Alumni, Weili Cheng ’77, who started in July.

Yale’s financial position is both healthy and secure thanks to careful stewardship, successful endowment investing, and the generosity of our alumni. Prudent management helped us balance Yale’s budget for the third year in a row, and our disciplined cost structure prepares us to weather financial shocks far better than the one we had in place in 2008. David Swensen ’80 Ph.D. and his Investments Office team also delivered another outstanding performance. Yale bested all of our peer institutions with an endowment return of 3.4 percent this past year, as compared with many who reported negligible or even negative returns. Just as importantly, we benefited from exceptional alumni generosity, which fueled Yale’s third-highest fundraising year ever, and the largest outside of a capital campaign. Highlights include record-setting contributions to the Yale College Alumni Fund and the School of Management Alumni Fund. 

After several years of consolidation, we are in a strong position to move forward on the long-term initiatives that are crucial to advancing Yale’s leading role in higher education. During the most recent meeting of the Yale Corporation, I initiated a comprehensive examination of the academic aspirations that will guide us in the years ahead. The strategy is both to renew our investment in Yale’s signature strengths and to build our excellence in those areas where a great university cannot afford to be weak—all while recommitting ourselves to Yale’s tradition of innovating by bringing people and ideas together across disciplines.   

Yale’s academic strengths are widely recognized. We boast the greatest art collections and finest arts schools of any research university in the world. Scholars regard our humanities faculty as among the very best. Yale Law School continues its long run as the most highly rated in the country. Our other professional schools and our faculty in the social sciences can all rightly claim preeminence. And, as we have grown as a research university, we have remained steadfast in our commitment to deliver an unparalleled educational experience in Yale College. 

Some key initiatives in these areas are already established or well under way. In the arts and the humanities, the Adams Center for Musical Arts is poised to open, encompassing a renovated and significantly expanded Hendrie Hall and Leigh Hall serving both undergraduate and graduate students of music. The Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage is bringing together experts from across many of our collections to pursue ground-breaking conservation research and practice. Many of our humanities faculty and graduate students across all the disciplines will soon find themselves working side-by-side in the fully renovated Hall of Graduate Studies on York Street.

We are also focusing intently on areas where we must take significant steps forward. Yale cannot be a great global research university without excellent science, mathematics, and engineering. We are strong in basic science, particularly the life sciences, but we now need to make additional major investments there and elsewhere. To that end, we have initiated or completed a number of facilities projects on Science Hill: the renovation of Sterling Chemistry Laboratory to house state-of-the-art undergraduate teaching labs across the sciences; the overhaul of Wright Laboratory as a home for innovative research on neutrinos and dark matter; the creation of the Center for Science and Social Science Information in Kline Biology Tower; and soon, the construction of the long-awaited Yale Science Building on the site of the J.W. Gibbs Laboratory.

Along Prospect Street, we are developing new engineering teaching spaces and adding computer science faculty. The Center for Engineering Innovation & Design continues to fire the imaginations of our most enthusiastic future engineers, as well as students grounded in many other disciplines. On the West Campus, researchers at the Cancer Biology Institute have moved into their newly renovated spaces. In short, we are committed to fostering a new generation of innovative leaders in the theoretical, experimental, and applied sciences.

I hope you are beginning to get a sense of why I am excited about Yale’s future. We are making strategic investments that will enable us to build on Yale’s iconic strengths and advance rapidly the areas in which we cannot afford to fall behind. We have a great deal under way … and a great deal to accomplish.

What about our challenges? Over the past year, I know that many alumni have been concerned about the political and cultural issues confronting both higher education and American society as a whole. Yale faculty and students have engaged strongly with these issues, as we often have before. We have been wrestling with difficult and complex matters: how to ensure and encourage free expression while prohibiting harassment, intimidation, and coercion; how to make our campus welcoming and inclusive to an exceptionally diverse student population; and how to understand and commemorate the past.

At the end of this message, I have attached an editorial I published recently in the Wall Street Journal. Over the past year, some commentators have presented partial or inaccurate accounts of the events that took place on campus last fall, including misrepresentations about our treatment of free speech. I appreciate the Journal’s editorial board providing me space to respond, and I wanted you in particular to know what I had to say. 

Given the limits of such a short piece, I also wanted to expand on it for you, those who care most deeply about Yale. As I noted in the editorial, higher education confronts a dangerous false dichotomy where some wish to pit the principle of free expression against a commitment to inclusion, and others wish to pit a commitment to inclusion against the principle of free expression. I believe we must sustain both.

I want to be very clear in particular that our entire leadership team is dedicated to the free exchange of ideas at Yale—all ideas. In my writings and lectures—including to the incoming freshmen in 2014, and at the baccalaureate service for the Class of 2016 last spring—I have addressed our community about the duty to speak fully, listen carefully to others speaking their minds, and seek common ground to move forward. It is our responsibility as educators to ensure our campus is a model for the free exchange of ideas that represent diverse points of view.

Sadly, we live in a fracturing world, where partisanship and polarization are rampant not only in politics but in society as a whole. We simply cannot afford to splinter into groups of narrow self-interest or rigidly-defined views. We cannot choose to align, work, or socialize only with people who feel precisely as we do. As John F. Kennedy urged his audience at American University in 1963: “Let us not be blind to our differences. But let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved.” Over fifty years later, the world still demands “attention to our common interests.”

Institutions of higher learning have a special role to play in this work, and none more so than Yale. We must remain a community of diverse individuals living, working, and learning together, in pursuit of light and truth. We cannot continue that pursuit without our bedrock, unshakeable commitment to free expression set forth in the Woodward committee report more than forty years ago. We are working hard to create a campus culture that both celebrates diversity and is characterized by the willingness to hear and consider perspectives antithetical to one’s own.

Will members of our community sometimes test the university’s commitments, and will they sometimes make poor judgments about the exercise of their rights to expression? Yes, of course they will. Every generation has to learn its own lessons about these matters, and universities are not isolated preserves of perfectly achieved understanding. Yale is always a work in progress. Still, the only answer on this campus to speech with which one disagrees is the same as it has been at Yale for many years: more speech.

Before I close, let me preview one additional matter that will be coming to your attention later this fall. In conjunction with our own deliberations at Yale regarding the commemoration of John C. Calhoun, we have both witnessed and learned something from a full range of similar conversations about renaming buildings taking place at Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, Vanderbilt, the University of North Carolina, the University of Oregon, the University of Texas, and elsewhere. In fact, we have seen vigorous debates about renaming monuments, buildings, counties, streets, and other public spaces taking place throughout the country—and indeed, around the world.

At Yale, I decided in April to retain the name of Calhoun College, following a year-long process of engagement with the Yale community, including Yale alumni. However, in the weeks and months that followed the decision, many faculty, students, alumni, and staff raised additional concerns about that decision. I recognized in particular that we could have drawn more effectively on our own campus expertise, and I also came to see that both for this decision and others that may arise, we needed to develop a set of reasonable and well-understood principles.

I therefore asked John Witt ’94, ’99 J.D., ’00 Ph.D., the Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law and Professor of History, to chair a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. I charged the committee to articulate principles that could guide Yale in decisions about whether to remove a historical name from a building or other prominent structure or space on campus—principles that are enduring rather than specific to particular controversies.

The committee consists of six faculty members with expertise in history, law, and management; three alumni (Len Baker ’64, Tom Bernstein ’74, ’77 J.D., and Mimi Wright ’86); one staff member; and two current students. Their work includes consulting with experts; communicating and coordinating with other universities that are addressing similar issues; and collaborating with other groups at Yale that have been charged with related work, such as the Committee on Art in Public Spaces. We expect the committee to finish its work and issue a report by the end of this fall semester, when I will share it with you.

In closing, I want to remind you of the most exciting project coming to fruition right now: the long-awaited expansion of Yale College. As I walk to my office each morning, I pass the sites of the new Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray residential colleges. They are taking shape rapidly, preparing to welcome the freshmen of the Class of 2021. These buildings will be marvelous additions to the campus, adding two hundred aspiring, spectacularly talented undergraduates to each Yale College class. Along with the many other initiatives we are pursuing, these students’ imminent arrival next fall gives me great hope for the future.

As always, I welcome your ideas, your enthusiasm, and your support.


Peter Salovey
President and Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology