Benno Schmidt Jr., Leader at Yale and CUNY, Dies at 81

Mr. Schmidt, wearing a dark suit and tie and round wire-rimmed eyeglasses, carrying a report on the City University of New York titled “An Institution Adrift.”

Benno C. Schmidt Jr. in 1999. .Credit…Fred R. Conrad

Dear Commons Community,

Benno Schmidt, former president of Yale University and later chairman of the CUNY Board of Trusteess, died earlier this week at his home in Millbrook, N.Y. He was 81.  Here at CUNY, Schmidt served as a trustee for seventeen years, during which a number of reforms and changes were made to the system especially with regard to open admissions. He worked well with Chancellor Matt Goldstein and whether you agreed with the reforms or not, in  my opinion, CUNY became a better institution.  Student enrollments grew substantially and there were many new faculty hires after several decades of stagnation.  Below is his obituary.

May he rest in peace!


The New York Times

Benno Schmidt Jr., a Reforming Leader at Yale and CUNY, Dies at 81

By Clay Risen

July 10, 2023

Benno C. Schmidt Jr., a constitutional law scholar who became one of the country’s leading education executives, bringing difficult but necessary reforms to Yale and the City University of New York, died over the weekend at his home in Millbrook, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley. He was 81.

His daughter Elizabeth Hun Schmidt confirmed his death but said the cause had not been determined. It was unclear if he died late Saturday or early Sunday.

A child of Manhattan privilege with a perfect academic pedigree, Mr. Schmidt seemed destined to lead a university like Yale. He was president there for six years, during which he fought with the faculty over painful but necessary budget cuts, changes that left many people bitter but the university better off in its finances and academic direction.

He spent much longer turning around the beleaguered City University of New York, a sprawling system of two- and four-year colleges and graduate programs that once competed for the city’s brightest minds. It had fallen into disarray by the time Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani put him in charge of a rescue task force in 1998.

“CUNY was in a very sad state — it had no energy, no ideas,” Matthew Goldstein, the former chancellor of CUNY who worked closely with Mr. Schmidt, said in a phone interview. “We got hardly any students from Bronx Science or Stuyvesant” — two of the city’s most selective public high schools — “or any of the city’s top schools.”

In 1999, Mr. Schmidt and his colleagues presented a plan to gut-renovate the system, and over the next 17 years, first as vice-chairman and then as chairman of its board, he executed that vision.

Mr. Schmidt hired faculty by the hundreds. He created an honors college and several graduate schools. He boosted SAT scores of admitted students and brought up the bar-exam pass rate at CUNY’s law school from about 25 percent to nearly 80 percent.

Most education executives focus on either the K-12 or college level. Mr. Schmidt did both. He left Yale in 1992 to become chief executive of Edison Schools, a new company with a plan to build a nationwide network of 1,000 for-profit private elementary schools.

Edison never achieved its goal. But under Mr. Schmidt and the company’s founder, the entrepreneur Chris Whittle, Edison helped change the landscape of primary and secondary education by opening the door to charter schools and to other for-profit ventures.

Mr. Schmidt had already achieved renown as an expert in constitutional law when Columbia University selected him to be dean of its law school in 1984. Less than two years later, Yale named him, at age 44, as its 20th president.

He inherited a troubled institution, with a ballooning deficit, crumbling buildings and a frosty relationship with the surrounding city of New Haven.

Mr. Schmidt arranged for Yale to invest $50 million in neighborhoods around campus, primarily in affordable housing. He started a $500 million revamp of Yale’s physical plant. And he went on a whirlwind fund-raising campaign, nearly doubling Yale’s endowment during his six-year tenure, to $3 billion from $1.7 billion.

Though he retained the support of Yale’s board and alumni, he clashed repeatedly with parts of the faculty and student body, who found him aloof and imperious. He forced through major changes at Yale’s business school and, later, in its philosophy department, taking over decisions about hiring and tenure that were traditionally left to faculty.

And though he lived during the week in New Haven, he returned to Manhattan on the weekends, leaving the impression among some that he was not fully committed to the university.

In early 1992, Mr. Schmidt announced that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences would need to cut its budget significantly both to shrink the school’s deficit and to make way for expansion in the hard sciences. The plan was, for many, the last straw.

Mr. Schmidt met with hundreds of disgruntled faculty members, and he pointed out that a majority of their number supported what he was doing. But the criticism remained that he had begun major changes without doing the hard work of consensus building.

“Benno was a leader who often didn’t take the time to get his troops to understand what he was doing,” Sam Chauncey, the former secretary of Yale, said in a phone interview. “He had a lot of good ideas, but he was impatient.”

Mr. Whittle first approached Mr. Schmidt about joining Edison in 1991, and a year later just before commencement, he announced his departure, shocking the Yale community.

“I began to feel it was responsible for me to consider leaving Yale,” he told The New York Times Magazine in 1992, “because while the university may have been in a kind of emotional upset, the basics of the situation had been stabilized.”

Although Mr. Schmidt continued to have his detractors, many people say Yale is a much better place because of him. Today the university is world renowned in the medical and hard science fields, and its endowment is more than $42 billion.

“Benno was president during a really important transition for Yale,” Peter Salovey, the university’s current president, said in a phone interview. “He helped push the university from being a college with strong professional schools into a university with outstanding professional schools and a college at its center.”

Benno Charles Schmidt Jr. was born in Washington, D.C., on March 20, 1942. Benno Sr. was a founding partner at J.H. Whitney and Co., considered the world’s first firm to specialize in venture capital — a term the elder Mr. Schmidt is credited with coining. Mr. Schmidt’s mother, Martha (Chastain) Schmidt, was a homemaker. After his parents’ divorce, she remarried and took the married name Orgain.

Benno grew up among Manhattan’s upper crust, attending St. Bernard’s School on the Upper East Side, then Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

He studied history at Yale and, after graduating in 1963, went directly into its law school, from which he emerged three years later at the head of his class.

He clerked for Earl Warren, the chief justice of the United States, then spent two years working for the Justice Department before joining Columbia Law School in 1969.

His first three marriages, to Kate Russell, Betsy Siggins and Helen Whitney, ended in divorce. Along with his daughter Elizabeth, he is survived by his wife, Anne McMillen; his son, Benno C. Schmidt III; another daughter, Christina Whitney Helburn; his stepdaughters, Leah Ridpath and Alexandra Toles; his brothers, John and Ralph; his stepsister, Ruth Fleischmann; five grandchildren; and two stepgrandchildren.

At Columbia, Mr. Schmidt established his name as an expert in First Amendment law, both inside the academy and with the general public. Working with the lawyer Floyd Abrams and Fred Friendly, a professor at Columbia’s journalism school, Mr. Schmidt created and hosted a series of televised panel discussions about the Constitution for PBS.

He also took a turn at acting, with brief character roles in two films by Woody Allen, “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) and “Husbands and Wives” (1992). And Mr. Schmidt became known at small venues around New York as an adept folk musician, playing both solo and in a group.

Mr. Schmidt stepped down from the CUNY board in 2016 and left Avenues soon after. He served for many years on the board of the Kauffman Foundation and the New-York Historical Society.

He never lost his commitment to change in education.

“I’d rather take the risk of being wrong,” he told a group of Yale faculty and administrators in early 1992, “than go down in history as the president who did nothing in the face of the real conviction that there was a problem.”


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