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Professor Richard Charles LEVIN

72nd Congregation (2012)

Professor Richard Charles LEVIN
Doctor of Laws


It is our privilege this morning to honour Professor Richard Charles Levin, who is not only one of the longest-serving presidents of Yale University, but one of the most admired among the presidents of America’s Ivy League universities. It is a reflection of Professor Levin’s distinguished leadership that senior university managers who have worked closely with him at Yale have gone on to hold the top posts in renowned academic institutions elsewhere. These include the presidents of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke University, Swarthmore College, Wellesley College, Carnegie-Mellon University and Colgate University, as well as the Vice-Chancellors of both Cambridge and Oxford universities. When Tsinghua University celebrated its centenary in 2011, in a ceremony attended by President Hu Jintao, it was Professor Levin who was chosen to speak on behalf of the assembled presidents of the world’s leading universities.

That honour reflected something more. More than anyone else, it is Professor Levin who has drawn the world’s attention to the spectacular rise of Asia’s top universities. As an economist and educator, Professor Levin has studied the rapid growth and renewal of these universities and the focal role they are playing in Asian nation-building. When he was invited by the Royal Society in London to give the Seventh Annual Lecture of the Higher Education Policy Institute in 2010, he chose as his theme “The Rise of Asia’s Universities”. On that occasion he talked of the economic importance of the growth of research, while pointing out that the development of research capacity alone is not sufficient to meet the needs of Asian societies. Those responsible for the renewal of Asian universities, he says, have become conscious of the need to turn out “well-educated citizens of broad perspective and dynamic entrepreneurs … capable of independent and original thinking.” These Asian leaders aim to build “world-class universities”, distinguished by the values of a liberal education: “multidisciplinary breadth and the cultivation of critical thinking.” They realize that it is not sufficient for “students to pick a discipline or a profession at age eighteen and study little else”; or for students to be “passive listeners” where “they rarely challenge each other or their professors in classes;” or for pedagogy to focus exclusively “on the mastery of content.” Such universities, while cherishing what is precious in their traditions, are moving away from some aspects of “the traditional Asian approaches to curriculum and pedagogy, [which] may be highly functional for training line engineers and mid-level government officials, but … are perhaps less well suited to educating elites for leadership and innovation.”

It is characteristic of Professor Levin to have put his finger so precisely on the very challenges we in Hong Kong universities are wrestling with in order to nurture independence of mind and creativity in our students “to drive the innovation that will be necessary to sustain economic growth in the long run.” As we know, Hong Kong has been given a unique opportunity to implement such renewal in its move to a four-year tertiary curriculum, which has come into operation for the first time in this very academic year. We have all worked hard for several years now to respond to the challenges so clearly articulated by Professor Levin. How well we succeed only time will tell.

Professor Levin began his academic life at Stanford majoring in History. He then studied at Oxford where he briefly encountered the future United States President Bill Clinton. At Oxford he discovered that the life of an historian was not for him. “They sent me to the archives to do primary source work,” he said. “I guess I learned that I was allergic to dust. I was too much of a people person to stay in the archives.” He returned to the United States where he did a PhD in Economics at Yale, graduating in 1974 and taking a position on the faculty. Just 13 years later the “people person” began his life of distinguished academic leadership as a chairman of department who “won praise for ushering in greater tranquillity.” He was described by one of his colleagues at the time as a “very principled, fair-minded, natural leader.” After a short stint as Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, he was appointed President of Yale in 1993. He was only 46 years old. In a search that began with hundreds of candidates he was selected partly because of a “warmth, integrity and steady judgment” that suggested he had the makings of a “great President”. After almost 20 years in the job, Professor Levin has demonstrated by his achievements that that view of him was not mistaken.

Drawing on his celebrated capacity to take “a hard edge off a situation when there’s conflict in the air” Professor Levin set about his ambitious programme of institutional reform, building and development. His achievements are so many they can only be cursorily summarized here. While sustaining Yale’s renowned scholarship across the arts and sciences, Professor Levin presided over a renaissance in Engineering, with the emergence of such fields as biomedical and environmental engineering. Fields such as Architecture, Divinity, Music and Nursing moved to the top rank, while new areas of study such as Cognitive Science, Computing and the Arts, Ethnicity, Race and Migration and South Asian Studies have been developed into areas of excellence. He has overseen a huge building programme, including new medical laboratory buildings, the new West Campus which houses six research institutes, as well as a core major facility in genomics, where Yale has become a world leader. 2009 saw the opening of the Smilow Cancer Hospital, which has positioned Yale as one of the major centres for oncology research in the country.

One of Professor Levin’s signature contributions to higher education has been his leadership in the area of internationalization. In the belief that a contemporary education requires the capacity for cross-cultural understanding, Professor Levin has greatly expanded the numbers of international students enrolled in undergraduate programmes at Yale. He also presided over the shift to need-blind admission of foreign students, awarding such students the same aid as United States citizens. At the same time he greatly expanded the opportunities for Yale College students to study overseas. Now all undergraduate students at Yale are guaranteed an opportunity to work or study overseas; Yale was the first among its peer institutions to make such a guarantee. It was also the first to support any student on a study abroad programme with a need-based scholarship.

Other exceptional contributions include Professor Levin’s engagement and partnership with the local New Haven community, with the aim of making the University a model of institutional citizenship. He has spearheaded the renovation of campus buildings, increasing usable areas for teaching and research by 53%. He has led initiatives to make Yale a sustainable campus, targeting reductions in greenhouse emissions of 43%. He has introduced major initiatives in the arts, dramatically expanded financial aid programmes and led the effort to secure over US$7 billions in gifts to the University. In all, Professor Levin’s 20 year period of stewardship at Yale has been outstanding.

In addition to his work at Yale, Professor Levin has also worked to serve the nation. He is a Member of the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology, a Member of the Bipartisan Commission, a Member of the Board on Science, Technology and Economic Policy at the National Academy of Sciences, as well as Chairman of a committee to review the nation’s patent system. He was also a Member of the Iraq Intelligence Commission, the Presidential Commission to Review the US Postal Service and a Member of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics.

Collaboration between Yale and The Chinese University of Hong Kong began several decades ago. The Yale-CUHK Programme for Chinese Studies was established in 1991 to provide fellowships for doctoral students and for research partnerships between scholars working on related areas. The colleges of CUHK have provided avenues for faculty and student exchanges. Through New Asia College, CUHK and Yale have been operating a student exchange programme since 1993. In 2009 the divinity schools of Yale and Chung Chi College signed a Memorandum of Understanding to advance student and faculty exchanges. A CUHK party visited Yale in 2004 to participate in the Yale-China Advanced University Leadership Programme for presidents and vice-presidents of China’s leading universities. In 2007 CUHK also sent a delegation to Yale to foster research collaboration and promote CUHK’s international status in research.

Professor Levin is the Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is no stranger to honorary degree ceremonies such as this one. He has been awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, Peking, Tokyo and Waseda.

Mr Chairman, it is my special privilege to present to you Professor Richard Charles Levin, an educator and university leader of very great distinction, for the award of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.


This citation is written by Professor David Parker