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Home >> Opinion
UPDATED: 10:14, February 12, 2006
"I'm not member of Skull and Bones", Yale President
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Photo:Richard Levin (R), President of Yale University, with People's Daily Online Washington-based correspondent Tang Yong in his office.
Richard Levin (R), President of Yale University, with People's Daily Online Washington-based correspondent Tang Yong in his office.
Tang: The college ranking is one of the most controversial things in America. The US News and World Report ranking is the most read one for ranking undergraduate institutions. But many prestigious pubic schools, say UC Berkeley, University of Michigan, University of Virginia, are complaining the ranking is unfair for them. I once interviewed University of Michigan President and she grumbled that the gap between Michigan and Yale may not be as big as the US News and World Report ranking suggests.

Levin: Yes, I agree. The ranking is unfair for public universities. Private institutions get credit for the fact they have larger endowments and more financial resources. But actually state universities have the support of their state governments. Though they don't have endowments but their annual grant is very large. That is the first discrimination against state universities.

The second discrimination is alumni giving. Private schools are better in this because they depend on alumni giving. State universities get resources directly from the state government. If you put these two factors in it, probably it will take about 10 or 20 scores off from private universities. If you look at the quality of the faculty at UC Berkeley, it should be among top ten and even top five.

Some of the international rankings, like the ones done by the Financial Times in London and Shanghai Jiaotong University in China, have different bias. Their bias is toward scientific publication and scientific achievement, leaving aside lots of other important things like excellence in humanities and professional schools. In those rankings Yale is quite low, which I think is also incorrect.

Tang: So there is no perfect ranking.

Levin: Yes, no perfect rankings.

Tang: Yale is most famous for its elite education. It is called the Cradle of Presidents because there are five American presidents who graduated from Yale. They are Howard, Ford, Bush senior and Bush junior and Clinton. Is Training Presidents is the goal of Yale?

Levin: I should say educating leaders from whatever nation in whatever field is our broader and more appropriate goal. Certainly I won't deny that the reputation of our campus comes from the fact we have produced so many Presidents of America.

Tang: George W Bush was a C student at Yale. He once joked that if you are a C student, you don't need to worry, you could become American President, if you are unable to graduate, you don't need to worry either, you could become American Vice President. There is another story about Senator John Kerry. He was a D student when he was a Yale freshman. Kerry often said to his Dad, "Dad, don't worry, D stands for Distinction". It seems that the academic performance of some leaders were not good?

Levin: I don't know the story about John Kerry (laugh). The transcripts from George Bush and John Kerry were made to the public in last general elections. Usually we are not allowed to disclose transcripts of a student without permission.

Strong academic achievement prepares you better to be a leader, but marks are not the most important thing. There are other personal qualities that matter more, like taking initiative, being charismatic. George Bush was a student leader. He was someone his peers looked up to. They respected his personal charm and energy.

But we have a great many of our national leaders who went to Yale were outstanding students. Hillary Clinton was a top student at Yale Law School. Senator Lieberman was an outstanding student at Yale College. Senior President Bush was an outstanding student. He was the captain of the school baseball team. He went to the final games of national championship. So he was an impressive student.

Tang: How about President Clinton? You were his schoolmate at Oxford University?

Levin: Yeah, We went to Oxford University at the same time. He went to Law School while I went to Economics. We knew each other at that time. But I didn't contact him quite often. He used to be a good student at Yale as well.

Tang: Which one is a better student, Clinton or Hillary?

Levin: President Clinton says in many occasions that his wife is a better law student. So I am not saying that. (Laugh)

Tang: You suggest students who want to become political leaders learn history. Why? Is it because history was your undergraduate major at Stanford University?

Levin: I am a professional economist. Economists can make a lot of predictions about what would happen in the future, but all the predictions are based on theoretical model and assumptions of human behavior. History told you what exactly happened in real situations. To me history deals with all of our past collective experience with whatever questions we are wrestling with today. By learning history, government decision makers could understand better how their public policy may or may not influence people's behavior in similar situations.

Tang: Yale has produced numerous leaders in whatever field. How do those prominent leaders help Yale?

Levin: They do help in terms of publicity and reputation.

Tang: Any donations from them?

Levin: Not so much. They help Yale more in attracting students. Yale is prominent in the news because of these important leaders. Yale's emphasis in educating leaders is not driven by the interest in getting publicity for itself, but driven by a deep sense of purpose that goes back to Yale's founding 300 years ago. At that time we were a struggling group of immigrants in the large and unsettled continent. Our ancestors had a keen interest in establishing higher education institutions in order to produce leadership for the colony and the new nation.

Tang: If I were a President from whatever country or a big donor, one day I called you and said, Hi, Levin, I have a son or a daughter. He or she wants to study at Yale. Can you help me? Frankly my son or my daughter is not as good as when I was a Yale student. How would you respond to that call?

Levin: (Laugh) It happens all the time! You have to explain to them that our admissions policy is very competitive and our students need high level of qualifications. Let's talk about children of large donors. We are a private institution and we do depend on financial contributions for our success. So if a child of a wealthy donor is well qualified and able to compete with the students we admit, we are going to be likely admitting him. If the child is not well qualified, it would be a huge mistake to admit that child because when he comes, he will be unable to compete and run the risk of failing in the courses. We turn down more children of alumni and donors than we accept.

Tang: Barbara Bush, George W Bush's daughter, was a Yale student. How is she?

Levin: She was a very good student.

Tang: Not because of her family background?

Levin: (Laugh) She majored in Spanish language. She did well in her courses.

Tang: If I were a student without leadership potential, How could Yale educate me?

Levin: All students have leadership potential. It is simply a matter of finding it in each individual.

Tang: There are about 250 students organizations or societies at Yale. What role do those organizations or societies play in elite leadership education?

Levin: They are very important in getting students experience for leadership. We have 12,013 students graduated from Yale ever year. The 250 student organizations will change leaders every year. So 20% of Yale graduates had been presidents of some organizations. These organizations create a laboratory for leadership, like working with other groups, learning how to cooperate and get things done. We support it and encourage it.

Tang: The most mysterious society is Skull and Bones?

Levin: Yes, I know. The great majority of organizations at Yale are public and open to anyone to join. Unlike most student societies, Skull and Bones is secret, selective of its members.

Tang: Skull and Bones was founded in 1832. Every year only 15 best students are allowed to join. All Bonesmen, as they're called, are forbidden to reveal what goes on in their inner sanctum, the windowless building on the Yale campus that is called The Tomb. Notable Bonesmen include former President Taft and both current and former Presidents Bush. Apart from presidents, Bones has included cabinet officers, spies, Supreme Court justices, statesmen and captains of industry.

Levin: I don't know very much about that. You probably know more than I do. (Laugh)

Tang: Are you a member of that?

Levin: No, I am not.

Tang: what is the implication of Skull and Bones to American institutions of higher learning and American society?

Levin: Very little.

Tang: But there is a conspiracy theory about Skull and Bones. According to the theory, members of Skull and Bones are controlling America and even the world.

Levin: I think it is kind of media distortion. In fact, they are just students getting together to talk about each other's life and aspirations. It is not a secret power of American society.

Tang: So It is just for fun? We don't need to take that seriously?

Levin: I agree.

Part I    Part III

By Tang Yong, People's Daily Online Washington-based correspondent

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