The truth is I hadn’t meant to write about Salovey specifically. I just wanted to see what kind of upbringing resulted in someone becoming president of a renowned university. It turned out to be a harder assignment than one would imagine, given the format of this blog.
See, most people who attain such stature are generally older. To put it another way, most of the current leaders of the Ivy Leagues are about sixty years old. I mean, would you want an unseasoned president running your esteemed institute? So I was at a loss. Stumped for someone to interview — given that so few sixty-year olds still have living parents.
Thus it was serendipitous that Yale’s 65 year old President Levin was retiring, allowing for a younger, fresher subject, whose parents would likely be equally younger, fresher and still in possession of their faculties. Peter Salovey, a life-long intellectual and beloved professor, is poised to become the next president in July 2013 after a 3-month vetting of over 100 candidates. I don’t need to emphasize how prestigious an appointment this is.
But the zenith of Dr. Salovey’s achievements is not his steady advancement into the annals of Yale’s leadership. A renowned psychologist, his pioneering study with colleague John D. Meyer on Emotional Intelligence, and its speedy assimilation into the psychology of education, business and family dynamics, make for a great story. I could not have asked a better confluence of circumstances for a new blogject – blog subject. (Heeey! Did I just coin a word?)
Salovey is hailed by Yale students as a brilliant, accessible, well-liked professor, as this light-hearted piece at the Yale Daily News on his now-shorn, oft-caricatured mustache demonstrates. The reason for his heinous ‘stache betrayal?
“Although I loved my mustache, it was becoming increasingly expensive to maintain. In these times of economic constraint, I have to find ways of cutting costs. I hope to regrow the mustache in Fiscal Year 2012, following significant financial recovery.”
Errmm, oh-kaaay!! Not your usual pedagogue…
After joining Yale faculty in 1986, Salovey consistently moved up the ranks, most recently as University provost. Yale’s Website lauds their president-elect who has:
- Been appointed:
- -Secondary faculty in the Schools of Management and Public Health and the Institution for Social and Policy Studies
- -Chair of the Department of Psychology in 2000
- -Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2003, and Dean of Yale College in 2004.
- Authored or edited 13 books translated into 11 languages and published over 350 journal articles and essays.
- Won the William Clyde DeVane Medal for Distinguished Scholarship and The Teaching in Yale College and the Lex Hixon ’63 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences.
- Received an honorary doctorate from the University of Pretoria in South Africa.
Such is Salovey’s impressive Yale tenure. And most would surmise he is following his father’s footsteps as an academic. The elder Salovey is a well-respected university chemistry researcher with several patents in the field.
But it seems there’s more to the younger Salovey than dry bookishness:
In 1990, Salovey and Meyer inserted “Emotional Intelligence” (EI) into modern psychology to address the importance of emotional maturity in overall cognitive prowess. Emotional Intelligence is defined, on page 31 of their eponymous work, as “the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth.” Salovey and Meyer propounded that individuals are altogether improved if they tap into their Emotional Intelligence to help with interpersonal relations in every aspect of life. EI took off as a separate area of study and is now widely used for training in forums as discrete as kindergartens and boardrooms. (Read a layman’s explanation of EI here).
EI struck me as a sophisticated, complex hypothesis that had to have sprouted from personal experiences. I sought to uncover what triggered Salovey’s initial interest in emotion, its relation to cognition, and what got him on his path to excellence.
Recently, I chatted with his mother (coincidentally on the day her first great grandchild was born). And while she requested anonymity, she recalls family plays, where Peter, his brother and sister enacted different scenes from popular literature. She “always tried to develop their imagination.” They listened to music, sang and played musical instruments; the family always had a piano, and she played the accordion. Peter himself reminisces,
“As a kid in the 1960s, I listened to a lot of folk music because my parents – from Brooklyn and the Bronx – were really into the New York City wing of the folk revival and exposed us from a young age to the music of Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Hoyt Axton, and many others.”
This was his preface to explaining his interest, and avid participation in, bluegrass music. Dr. Salovey, you see, is founding member and double bass player of the Professors of Bluegrass Band. He is also on the board of the International Bluegrass Music Museum. And apparently, Salovey is one heck of a bluegrass bass player! (Coverage here). Not at all what one would expect of a crusty professor, but clearly Salovey is not of the stereotypical mold.
His mother paints a picture of a typical middle-class family. She was a nurse for fifty years while Dad was a professor. She couldn’t help but laugh when I asked if they had a maid. No, she said, she worked because they needed the money to ensure good colleges for the children and because she enjoyed nursing. Taking care of and helping people was rewarding — she was immensely proud of her career. So the kids had to pitch in; she feels “guilty” now for being “so hard on the boys”, but she “needed the help”. Laundry, yard work, cleaning, putting their stuff away – everything. If their toys weren’t neat, she confiscated them. She worked a shift that allowed her to be home with them, and she “did the best she could”. Instilling this ethic in the children too, but also reassuring them,
“You don’t have to be perfect…your best changes from day to day. When you go to bed at night, know that you did your best, whether in relation to people or in your work”.
Peter was always “bright”, studious, enjoyed learning, and didn’t need to be pushed to do his school work. He was such a good student, when he had to switch high schools because the family moved, the principal of his old school offered to board him, but his mom encouraged him to stick with the family. As usual, Peter excelled at his new school and was the top student. At year end, however, in spite of his outstanding grades, the school didn’t want to make him valedictorian as he’d only been there for one year. His mom intervened and advocated for him to get the honor he justly deserved. That year, the school awarded two valedictorians.
He was an “easy baby”; later a cub-scout; and wasn’t really good at sports, though he and his brother played little league. He was in the marching band, and he and his father participated in the Indian Guide. Peter got along well with his siblings, and was very protective as big brother. He was always willing to explore new things, but also followed the rules: crossing the street one day as an infant, Peter reminded his mom to hold his hand, “Because that’s the way we do it!” She remembers also the time she was a bit tardy getting him from day care, and he looked down at the new wristwatch his grandparents had gifted him, and admonished, “You’re late – I’m handing out the cookies!” This was at three years old!
To help pay for college, Peter, according to Liz Oliner of the Yale Herald, “…[C]ooked in a Mexican restaurant and assisted an electrician. His most unusual job was at a bank, where he examined signatures on checks [for fraud].”
Peter’s mom is quick to point out they “only had him til he was eighteen” and Peter’s wife, Marta Moret, a “wonderful woman”, helped make him the man he is. Yet I’m convinced his early family life shaped Dr. Salovey’s outlook to become such an accomplished individual. It must have helped to be brought up by two parents, both clearly fulfilled in their respective occupations. Who spent quality time with their children, performing plays, enjoying music, and having fun, even while teaching the value of collaboration and hard work. All this had to have contributed to his interest in the role of emotions and empathy on cognitive enhancement.
In a nutshell, while his father’s profession must have influenced young Peter, he took that, with his mother’s commitment to helping people, plus his inherently curious and expansive nature, to create something uniquely his: a double-bass-playing-pioneering-psychologist-sometimes-mustachioed- Ivy-League President! What do you think?
DOB: February 1958
DOB: February 1958
Place of Birth: Cambridge, MA
Complications at birth: four weeks premature
Breast or bottle: breast
Talked when: late
Walked when: late
Siblings: 1 brother and 1 sister
Birth order: first born
Raised in: Northern New Jersey/ Upstate New York
College: Sanford University, A.B. in Psychology and an A.M. in Sociology, with departmental honors and university distinction, 1980
Grad School: Yale University, Ph.D. in Psychology, 1986