Giamatti at Yale: Professor Turns President

A. Bartlett Giamatti's life-long dream was to become president of the American League. But last December an offer came up for him to be president of Yale University, and he decided to give it a whirl.

Few university presidents have to their credit a "best sportwriting of the year" award. Giamatti does, for his 1977 Harper's magazine article eulogizing Tom Seaver's relationship with the New York Mets the fall after Seaver was sold. Giamatti in fact proclaims that baseball is "a sport that touches on what is most important in American life"--a belief enhanced by a whole theory he says is epitomized by Seaver. "The sadness of Seaver was that he came East with a dream and somehow it didn't work."

"Somehow the rules were changed, the game was changed, and he got sold," Giamatti says leaning back and gesticulating as though he were teaching a class. He goes on. "You know, the interesting thing about baseball is that it engages the individual in a team sport which is profoundly reliant on the individual. Not like football where you can't tell where the ball is. It's clear where everything is in a baseball field, you can see it. And you're there alone, but you're part of the group. When you're the offense, as it were, you're the most alone and when you're on the defense, you've got the community behind you."

"Oooooh...Mmmmh, ooh, that's a very hard question. If I knew the answer, I would tell you." A. Bartlett Giamatti can't say why he accepted the offer to become president of Yale University last winter. He rubs his chin, shakes his head a little, pondering the question. He screws up his soft face, where a little bit of a goatee outlines his chin--but it's really in his eyes. His brown eyes grow misty and far away; and the deep sighs, mixed with a sad chuckle or two reveal a man somewhat puzzled by his situation.

Giamatti found himself a man without his profession when school started up this fall. The forty-year-old Renaissance literature scholar muses over his dilemma. He doesn't sit around feeling sorry for himself..."much," but he talks endlessly about teaching, which he misses profoundly. In his new role as a university president, Giamatti feels he has lost "the possibility for completion--the kind of purposeful wandering that teaching is like, in some sense of the word." He goes on to explain: "Classes have a rhythm, the semester has a rhythm. A piece of work has a rhythm; and in this particular situation, there is never that sense of completion." He doesn't know why he chose to temporarily abandon Petrarch and Spencer--temporarily because he plans to go back to the classroom as soon as he can. Instead, he can only recall that when the pace quickened this fall, as students returned to the Old Campus, there was some impulse in him to "start up again that way. And then I suddenly realized..."--his voice trails off.


Giamatti's acceptance of the presidence last December 20 ended the Yale Corporation's nine-month search for a successor to Kingman Brewster Jr. After 14 tumultuous years in New Haven, Brewster opted for London and the United States ambassadorship to England, a position many thought suited him well. With Brewster's departure, the Yale Corporation had a chance to revamp Yale's Waspish image. Hannah E. Gray, Yale's provost and then acting president, was said to be in the running. But one week before the decision was announced, Gray forfeited, accepting an offer to become president of the University of Chicago. Dean Rosovsky, heavily involved in plotting reforms of Harvard's undergraduate education, was offered the office in Woodbridge Hall. Rosovsky turned the other cheek, but being the silent type that he is, nobody ever really understood why.

Gray might have been Yale's first woman president, Rosovsky the first Jewish one. It was apparent that Giamatti was not the Corporation's first choice, but with his Italian heritage, the English professor fit the bill well. Giamatti accepted Yale's offer with a good deal of grace and humor.

But Giamatti was to assume the burdens of a financially-troubled institution in a seemingly hostile environment. In order to make up for Yale's $6 million deficit, Giamatti will have to initiate cost-cutting measures, which will inevitably alienate certain members of the university. To make matters worse, he will have to face the city of New Haven, which is less than pleased with the presence of the monolithic tax-exempt establishment, considered to be both elitist and stingy.

It is still too early to predict Giamatti's response to these problems. He hopes to use a new attitude to confront these problems but declines to outline the pragmatic steps or policies he has in mind. When he goes home from work, "pounded by sensations, perspectives and urgencies--always the daily mix," Giamatti says, he is not preoccupied with money problems, strikes or community relations. His underlying concern is for the institution itself--what it will be like for the next generation of students. "That's what you worry about--the profession," Giamatti explains, "how the institution can sustain young people." He views the younger faculty, soon to be the senior faculty, noting the declining sense of the "profession." He wants to see the school teach the people who want to learn, releasing original thought out into the world.

Individual thought--the individual. Giamatti is not a man who isolates himself in an ivory tower of academia. As he told the incoming class of freshmen a few weeks ago, he laments the fact that so many students today narrow themselves to only ambitions, not affiliations. "...I raise the point about a regard for others, of individual choices leading to common concerns, because I sense in our country a growing mood of withdrawal and isolationism, a retreat from obligations stated and unstated, a desire to redefine everything in terms that only serve the self, rather than defining the self with a civic sense for others." A strong believer in academic programs with a diverse course selection and stringent requirements, Giamatti finds himself primarily concerned with the quality of education students at Yale are receiving. As president of the university, he would like to insure the endurance of the teaching profession.

Giamatti is in Boston to address a group of Yale alumni. He leans back on the couch, taking a puff on his cigarette. He had hoped to use a portion of his "freshman talk" in his speech, but abandons the plan because it just wouldn't fit. To be sure, whatever he wants to tell alumni contains the same seeds of thoughts, but maybe you can't tell alumni the same things you would a class of freshmen. "The purpose of a budget," Giamatti says, "is not an end in itself." His speech to the alumni will be about choice. "A budget is really an instrument towards deciding how you want to maintain your quality." Giamatti once again reverts to the philosophical side of running a university. No specific plans or policies will emerge, and as he waves his right hand, and shifts his position on the couch, he seems to believe that if he has the right attitude toward the minefields which await him, he won't lose any limbs.

Obviously, Yale's greatest dangers lie in the future of its fiscal health. Giamatti readily admits the crisis and says that until Yale is financially well-off (adding that "it will be") the rest of its problems aren't going to be solved. To take its community relations conflicts as an example, Giamatti says there will be no effort to establish a plan for Yale to make in-lieu-of-tax payments to New Haven, because Yale doesn't have the money. He wants to mend the fences with an attitude, which begins "before you have to talk about formal policies," he says.

Stanley E. Flink, director of public information at Yale, perhaps limits the president's ability to freely discuss his views. Flink, constantly mindful of the time limit, is quick to offer press releases instead of answers. Giamatti begins to deplore the situation in South Africa and says he agrees in principle that universities and banks could demonstrate their feelings by divesting of their investments in American corporations which prop up the white minority government. He adds, however, "everyone has ethical responsibilities, but one wants to balance them. Divestiture is not the best way to bring about change in South Africa." The reasons behind his answer, he says, are best explained in the Yale Corporation report, which bears a marked resemblance to Harvard's statement on the issue. But the difference between Harvard and Yale is the latter's admission that it would not be able to afford to reduce future investment income through the exclusion of portfolio choices that a boycott would seem to entail. Flink promises to send a copy of the report.

Giamatti answers the questions on South Africa with his usual eloquence, saying he wants to be asked questions, but thinks the corporation report speaks best for itself. The conversation stagnates. He fails to discuss specific solutions.

His manner is at once frustrating and comforting because he does have a firmly constructed approach--perhaps the solutions will come later. He has placed no time limits on how long he would like to be president, and under his guidance Yale seems to have the opportunity to get back on its feet. How Giamatti will manage to exploit his academic expertise is yet another question. He plans to return to the classroom in the near future, time permitting, but this tradeoff seems to be one of his most agonizing problems. It is not a purely selfish motivation--his students are his primary concern, but with all of Yale's financial problems, a balance will no doubt be hard to achieve.