Jonathan Levin has been named the 13th president of Stanford. (Photo/Aubrie Pick)
Jonathan Levin has been named the 13th president of Stanford. (Photo/Aubrie Pick)

Stanford’s first Jewish president will inherit a tense climate

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Any person stepping into the top role at a university faces considerable tension right now, especially regarding the Israel-Hamas war and antisemitism. Conflict has in many cases curdled into acrimony, putting a relentless strain on pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students.

The issue has been particularly acute at Stanford University, which announced earlier this month that business school dean Jonathan Levin has been appointed university president, due to take office in August. He will become only the 13th president since the university opened its doors in 1891.

“This is a historic hire — Stanford’s first Jewish president, at a historic time for the campus Jewish community,” Stanford Hillel executive director Rabbi Jessica Kirschner said Wednesday, adding that the school is currently coping with the “most challenging circumstances we’ve faced in decades.”

Jonathan Levav, a business school professor who has worked with Levin at the university for more than a dozen years, told J. that “Stanford will be a better place because of Jon.”

“He understands that some of the most important decisions a leader can make are the less visible ones, and he will never let his ego get in the way of learning and doing what’s best for the institution,” Levav said.

Levin is a Stanford alum himself who graduated with a double major in English and mathematics in 1994. He has advanced degrees from Oxford and MIT.

He is also the son of Rick Levin, who served as Yale University’s president for 20 years. When Rick Levin was appointed to that role in 1993, the Los Angeles Times noted that he was Yale’s first Jewish president.

Jon is both the sharpest mind in the room and the most curious listener.

Jonathan Levin was hired as a professor of economics at Stanford in 2000 and awarded the John Bates Clark Medal in 2011. That award is regarded as the most distinguished after the Nobel Prize for economics. He became dean of the business school in 2016.

“Jon is both the sharpest mind in the room and the most curious listener and has a supernatural combination of being both emotionally deep and cognitively fast,” Levav said. “He’s impossible to distract.”

Stanford has weathered a number of difficult moments involving its Jewish students and alumni. In 2022, the school officially confirmed and apologized for a system of quotas it implemented on Jewish students in the 1950s.

More recently, since the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre in Israel and the ensuing war, the school has been under scrutiny for how it has handled the aftermath on campus.

Only days after the attacks, Jewish students said they felt unsafe as banners supporting the destruction of Israel showed up in public places. A lecturer was also accused of separating and targeting Jewish students. (His contract was not renewed, and he is suing the school.) A commission set up to examine antisemitism on campus has also been roiled by controversy due to political infighting.

In January, a panel on antisemitism that included Stanford President Richard Saller was disrupted by protests. In March, Stanford grad student Kevin Feigelis testified before a congressional committee with harsh words about antisemitism at the school.

To top it off, the Anti-Defamation League gave Stanford an “F” in its new report card-style list that grades top universities for their response to antisemitism.

Levin will need to deal with all of that when he steps into his role this summer — and perhaps, by that time, more.

“I know he is aware of the work before us and sees the Jewish community as a vital component of a strong Stanford,” Kirschner said.

Levin hasn’t made any public statement on the topic, unlike Rich Lyons, newly tapped to become chancellor of UC Berkeley after Carol Christ steps down. As reported by the New York Times, Lyons said that UC Berkeley must balance the need to protect free speech with rules to ensure that protests and other speech do not infringe on the rights of others.

In a 2022 interview with business school website Poets & Quants, which named him “dean of the year,” Levin discussed his thoughts about the importance of recognizing multiple points of view.

“One of the things I say to students is that part of the value of the campus is that education is fundamentally about encountering different ideas, cultures and people,” he said. “When I think of the goals around diversity and inclusion, a lot of it is achieving that benefit of education, giving people exposure to different backgrounds, arguments and perspectives.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.