President Yellen Shares Vision for Marist
Marist's Fourth President Shares his Thoughts and Plans for the Road Ahead
When David Yellen bought an "old van" with a friend and embarked on a cross-country road trip after college, his career in higher education was not yet on his radar and Marist was just a small, local institution on the Hudson. 40 years later, Marist College's profile has grown nationally, and even internationally, and David Yellen has chosen to continue his accomplished career in higher education as the fourth president of Marist College.
Originally from New Jersey, Yellen grew up in Ridgefield and Paramus before attending Princeton University, where he majored in Politics. After graduation, he hit the open road with a friend, taking odd jobs and seeing parts of the country that he had not seen before. It sounds like something from a Bruce Springsteen song and to a young, idealistic David Yellen, it probably felt like one. A self-professed Bruce fan, he cites "Thunder Road" as his favorite song, the one where Springsteen sings that "these two lanes will take us anywhere." After his road trip he then volunteered for Vista, the domestic Peace Corps, and worked with a number of other organizations. The main organization he worked for was a group in San Francisco that did litigation on children's rights issues. He notes that "juvenile justice and kid's issues more broadly" had become an interest of his in college. He then enrolled in law school at Cornell, where he met his wife, Leslie, and graduated in the class of 1984.
After graduating from Cornell Law, Yellen clerked for a federal judge and worked for a law firm, doing white-collar litigation. As he was always interested in the academic world, Yellen realized he wanted to become a professor and began to teach law at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. In 2001, he was named Dean of the Law School and held that position for three years before stepping down, and a year later was hired to become Dean of the Law School at Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois. in 2005.
When the presidential search at Marist began, a consulting firm reached out to Yellen so he decided to apply. "I knew that if I became a college president, there would be a few criteria for me to leave a job I really liked and a field I was comfortable in," he explained. "It had to be in a place where my wife and I could imagine living and somewhere near a major urban area. It had to have values I identify with and a similar approach to higher education and that all came together in the interview process. I really liked the dynamism I saw here. Marist is a place embracing change and open to continually evolving. I also really liked the people I met. It's such a warm, friendly, and positive place."
Yellen spoke specifically about the changes that Marist has embraced. A recent report released by the school showed that the freshman class of 2020 is the most diverse class that Marist has had, with 22% of the students coming from minority backgrounds. "We're dramatically changing as a society in terms of society in terms of diversity and higher education ought to be at the leading edge of that," Yellen said. "It's a significant priority but will take a lot of structure and multi-faceted efforts." Yellen stated that he emphasized this during his time as Dean of Loyola Law and stressed the need to enhance financial aid in order to be more socioeconomically diverse. "It's not an easy undertaking in a society where people from underrepresented communities face greater obstacles in becoming college ready and being able to afford college," he said. However, he is optimistic because of the "momentum there the way the last few years have gone and we certainly hope to grow that."
When discussing campus diversity, Yellen was asked about the process behind making the decision for Marist's basketball team to play Duke University in North Carolina, due to the state's controversial Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act. The decision to play Duke's has sparked criticism from Timmian Massie, an openly gay former professor at Marist, who posted on Facebook his views on the topic. Yellen stated that he would not try to quantify the number of those who agree with the decision versus those who disagree. "It was a very thought out decision," he said. "Playing this game is a unique situation. It does not change our approach to the LGBT community."
He referred to his involvement in the creation of an LGBT law group at Loyola School of Law that is known as OUTLaw. According to the group's website, it aims to be the voice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer law students, faculty, and allies at the Loyola School of Law.
"I just didn't think it was appropriate for Marist as a private institution to boycott North Carolina as a state because of one law," Yellen said. "Aside from state colleges, not many private colleges are actually boycotting. Duke itself has made a strong stance against the law and throughout the entire process of this decision, I have been in contact with the Duke president and their athletic department. We also have room for some students on a charter flight to travel to the game to express their support for LGBT rights and their opposition to the law. It was certainly not the controversy I was expecting though in my first few months here."
Given President Yellen's long history in law and legal education, some had speculated if he had planned to bring a greater focus on legal education to Marist and specifically the possibility of a law school at Marist. As far as a law school is concerned, Yellen stated "the possibility of a law school in any near-term horizon is very unlikely," given that this is a time of retrenchment for law schools as enrollment is down and the job market for lawyers is down. He did point out, however, that the role of law in society is expanding as people in almost any sector have to understand the law and be able to apply at least some legal concepts. So, while they are not part of his agenda at the moment, paralegal programs and graduate programs for non-law students who want some legal training are more likely possibilities, according to Yellen.
President Yellen was also asked about his previous support for experiential learning and what his plans are to implement those ideas at Marist. He mentioned that Marist has hired a new executive director of career planning who is starting to develop new programs. "The best kind of education is in a sense interactive," he said. "There are some things you can only learn from reading and discussing things in a classroom environment and then there are things you can only learn by doing them under supervision of someone who is experienced in the area. The best kind of education blends the two."
A goal of Yellen's is to engage students in political activism on campus. "It's such a vibrant part of the college experience," he said. "With such prominence with the Marist Poll, I would love to see Marist become a regular stomping ground for major candidates. Imagine if there could be a presidential debate here one day. Maybe someday we'll be able to host a presidential debate." He also expressed encouragement for students who are activists and want to express their own political views.
On the topic of tuition and concerns over rising prices, Yellen explained that Marist's tuition is "very competitive" and in some cases lower than that of peer schools. "We've been frugal in our spending which has helped to keep tuition on the lower side," he said. "We're not in an era where you would see tuition increasing at a rate faster than the rate of inflation, as it has for the past twenty years." He expressed the importance of raising money for new amenities to "continue to be a first-rate institution." As for how to balance the need for maintaining academic standards with a desire to keep tuition low he stated that the school is seeking to expand philanthropic support in order to take the pressure off of students.
The future that President Yellen hopes to guide Marist into involves continuing the "arc of Marist College from a small, local institution to an institution that is neither small nor local." He wants to continue the trend of Marist's increasing national and international presence. In his vision, Marist can do this by increasing the amount of work by faculty that gets noticed, and the range of things that are students and alumni do. In terms of Marist's growth, he indicated that the school will likely grow more at the graduate level than the undergraduate level.
Editors' note: As our discussion came to a close, we felt we had a good idea of President Yellen's values, approach to education, and goals for the future, but there were a few lingering questions that still needed answering. As we've noted before, the Jersey native is a big fan of Bruce Springsteen and attended his show at MetLife Stadium over the summer. We learned that President Yellen is a lifelong Giants fan and in fact even attended Super Bowl 46 when the Giants beat the Patriots. He also grew up a Yankee fan but his time in Chicago imbued in him a great affinity for the Cubs and a desire to see them finally win a World Series. Will that desire be fulfilled this postseason? We'll find out in November.
Written by Adriana Belmonte '17 & Ryan Slaney '17
Photographs by Victoria Dearden
This story originally appeared on the Marist MediaHub
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