You would expect Peter Salovey to know a thing or two about empathy, given that, as a junior psychology researcher in the late 1980s, he developed the theory of emotional intelligence.
And Professor Salovey, who is now the president of Yale University, does indeed return to the theme frequently.
“In our mission statement, we explicitly state that our goal is to improve the world today and for future generations,” he said. “But to be able to do that, I think that you have to, as an institution, have some empathy, have an ability to understand what actually are the problems that are challenging the world. Universities have an obligation to look out the window, to engage, to try to understand that.”
Professor Salovey outlined the theory of emotional intelligence in a seminal paper co-authored with the psychologist John Mayer, which was published in 1990. The term is now widely used to describe individuals who have the capacity to identify and manage their own and other people’s emotions.
But Professor Salovey believes that the concept can also be extended to organisations, such as universities, that employ staff with empathy and awareness and “cultivate” emotional intelligence “in the culture” of their institution.
This notion of creating emotionally intelligent higher education institutions is particularly important in today’s political climate, in which there “is a sense” that universities “are not oriented towards the problems” that the public consider to be most pressing, he added.
“What we’re trying to do over the next 10 years is to create a culture in the university that is more emotionally intelligent,” he said.
In the science disciplines, this involves focusing research in areas “where we can really make a difference in the world”. For example, he explained, social science research at the institution is “moving away from ideologically based public policy solutions” towards empirical or data-driven ones.
Yale is also doing more to encourage interdisciplinary research, Professor Salovey added.
Two-thirds of the 23 departments that offer a PhD in a humanities field are located in the same quadrangle, which increases the likelihood of the generation of “a lot of interesting new teaching and research” strategies, he said.
Meanwhile, in the arts, new collaborations are forming between historically disparate subjects such as drama and business, architecture and environmental studies and visual arts and visual neuroscience.
“While our boldest moves are going to be in the sciences broadly speaking, that connection to the arts will drive innovation throughout the organisation,” Professor Salovey said.
The university’s policies aimed at widening participation also reflect the fact that the institution is “being empathic with respect to who is feeling disempowered these days in society”, he said.
For example, Yale’s financial aid programme is available for domestic and international students alike; the admissions process is needs-blind, meaning that it does not consider an applicant’s financial situation; and the proportion of students eligible for Pell Grants (financial aid from the federal government) has increased by about five percentage points to 17 per cent in recent years, he said.
The university is also expanding its undergraduate cohort by about 15 per cent, or 800 students, beginning this autumn, in order to provide greater access.
When asked for his opinion of Donald Trump’s emotional intelligence, Professor Salovey refused to take the bait: “I try to make a point never to diagnose people I haven’t met.”
However, while he remains tight-lipped regarding a psychological assessment of the US president, he said that academic leaders must “speak loudly” about the “enormous benefits to the world” of the US science and research system to “keep it from being compromised”.
In a joint statement published earlier this month, Professor Salovey, along with the heads of 11 other leading US research universities, reaffirmed his commitment to tackling climate change in the wake of Mr Trump’s decision to pull the country out of the Paris Climate Accord.
Professor Salovey added that Mr Trump’s proposal to reduce funding for the National Institutes of Health by 18 per cent – which was later rejected by the US Congress – would have “devastating consequences for scientific research and the impact of that research all over the world”.
Meanwhile, he said that immigration crackdowns on international scholars and students “would be a terrible mistake”.
“Some of the best friends that America has throughout the world are those from other parts of the world who spent some of their life studying at an American university. To limit that would be incredibly self-defeating,” he said.