In a student-led interview, Levin discussed his role in fostering science and engineering at Yale during the turning point of the 21st century.
William Porayouw, Contributing Photographer
Former Yale president Richard Levin spoke to first-year students about science and engineering both at Yale and in the United States at large.
In a virtual call delivered during this year’s Science of Modern Technology and Public Policy seminar on April 18, Levin described the University’s progress in STEM during his 1993 to 2013 presidential tenure. The group of just over a dozen students gathered both virtually and in-person to hear Levin, an economist responsible for implementing Yale’s largest academic developments in science and technology over the last 60 years.
In an interview-style lecture, students asked Levin questions about his experience handling the science priorities at Yale, his academic and professional background and his take on the future of innovation.
“It is important for us, as a community, to learn how we came to where we are today, and to give credit to those who lead us in good directions,” applied physics professor Daniel Prober, who teaches the seminar, told the News.
Yale had strong STEM programs before Levin began his term, Prober told students, but was still aspiring to world class excellence. According to him, Yale lagged as a scientific research institution.
Levin said that before his time, University leaders had hoped to invest in poorly-maintained infrastructure at Yale; Yet, they did not have the money to do so. Therefore, the leaders had reallocated funds by letting go of faculty and using the money they saved to invest into the University.
But faculty were not fired equally among departments, Levin added. According to him, engineering professors were some of the first to go. When Levin entered office in 1993, he had two goals in mind. First, he wanted to improve the quality of science education. Second, he wanted to “rescue engineering” at Yale.
To do both of these, Levin spearheaded renovations of facilities that were in “bad shape” and even had new science buildings constructed.
Over the course of his presidency, Levin would go on to renovate at least 70 percent of campus buildings, with $1 billion investment in science, engineering and medical facilities. The University would use $500 million to construct five new buildings, including new centers in environmental science and chemistry.
But Levin remained wary about spreading the University’s priorities too thin. One of his goals was to engage in “selective excellence” — where leadership would selectively invest in specific areas of STEM, but not in every single particular area. Particular topics that the University has focused on have included quantum computing and the biomedical sciences, Levin said.
Levin added that over the years, the principal source of funding for science and engineering initiatives has been grants, which support direct costs for research. But grants are often not enough, Levin said, so the University generally invests as much as the government in most parts of the university, excluding the medical school.
According to Levin, he has been involved in varying projects that involve government support for research over the years.
Government innovation in technology is best when the government is a consumer of the product that they are funding, Levin said. He suggested that computers were successful because the government was buying them when they were first being made, and that advancements in science and technology are often necessary to achieve public incentives.
Levin also said that a collaborative relationship is important, particularly within a University, when it comes to pursuing strategic goals in STEM.
When Levin was president, he said that the U.S. and China relationship was flourishing. He wanted Yale to be at the forefront of that relationship, so he led “enormous numbers” of student exchanges between Yale and colleges in Beijing and Shanghai, averaging 300 to 400 students attending programs in China each summer.
However, he told students that due to rising nationalism and political tensions, that relationship has dwindled in recent years. Researchers and academics in different countries are often more in competition now, Levin added.
Following the interview, Luis Orozco Vaca ’26 told the News that he admired Levin’s ability to manage projects, especially when it comes down to pinning down particular initiatives in science and engineering.
“He [also] has a very sober understanding of the world,” Vaca said. “I think the two things go hand in hand.”
Levin received his doctorate in economics from Yale in 1974.