Up Toward Mountains Higher

From the Foothills to the Bay, Jonathan Levin sees a range of opportunity.

June 24, 2024

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Jon Levin

Photography by Toni Bird

To run the headwaters of the Kern River, in eastern central California, you strap a 45-pound kayak to your back and hike 21 miles via Whitney Portal, the gateway to Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental United States. Then you kayak 54 miles downstream, largely through Class V whitewater (“extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids,” according to the International Scale of River Difficulty). At multiple points, you have to portage—pull to the side, climb out of the kayak, and carry it along the bank till it’s safe to put in again.

“When you’re kayaking something like the Kern, you’re dependent on your partner,” says professor of medicine William Robinson, ’89, PhD ’95, MD ’96. “You never run a rapid unless you can see a very clear line. Your partner’s helping you portage, and then holding your boat when you get in and launch. It is the ultimate in trust.” Which is why Robinson, then a Stanford fellow in rheumatology, embarked on the adventure in 2002 with Jonathan Levin, then an assistant professor of economics. Their bedrock confidence in each other dated back to their days at Camp Kabeyun in New Hampshire, where they learned to paddle canoes, roll kayaks, and prep wilderness meals. “Jon’s just cool and collected and clear-thinking,” says Robinson. 

Levin, a member of the Class of ’94 who double-majored in English and math, the winner of the 2011 John Bates Clark Medal for the most significant American economist under 40, and the dean of the Graduate School of Business for the past eight years, becomes the university’s 13th president on August 1. He succeeds classics professor Richard Saller, who has served as interim president since September. Levin will be the first Stanford graduate to become the university’s president since J.E. Wallace Sterling, PhD ’38, who served from 1949 to 1968, and the first undergraduate alumnus since Donald Tresidder, Class of 1919, MD ’27, who served from 1943 to 1948.

Robinson believes Levin’s even-keeled approach to looking for a line down the river—“collecting oneself, clearly thinking about the situation, not letting too much emotion get injected, and then helping make decisions such that the group traverses the rapid in a highly successful and safe way”—will serve him well in the high-pressure situations that a university presidency can present. “I couldn’t think of a more perfect person to be the president of Stanford,” Robinson says. “I think it’s a very challenging job in this time. I mean, you see all these other university presidents in the crossfires of Congress and of protests, and I think Jon’s experience and perspectives, but also his approach and his thoughtfulness, will go a long way to helping Stanford be effective in this pretty wild world we have right now.”

The Adventurer

It was the promise of the Sierras that drew Levin, at 17, to Stanford. “I grew up reading obsessively about wilderness exploration, including Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins and Lynn Hill, who were putting up these climbs in Yosemite, big walls,” he says. “In my mind, the intellectual part of Stanford has always been tied to the place, to being outdoors, to the sense of exploration of being in California.” Many weekends, he and his friends—some, like Robinson, whom he’d known since Camp Kabeyun, and others he made at Stanford—would head for the hills, climbing and skiing and kayaking. As president of the Stanford Kayak Club, Levin taught others how to kayak on an often-full Lake Lagunita. “That was my first leadership experience at Stanford,” he says. “It was not a highly structured organization.”

Levin carries his kayak on Mount Whitney Trail (left) and paddles through the middle fork of Northern California’s Feather River (right). HAVE KAYAK, WILL TRAVEL: Levin on Mount Whitney Trail (left) and the middle fork of Northern California’s Feather River (right). Photos: William Robinson (2) 

Levin majored in English because he loved literature, and in math because it was hard. The first day of frosh year, he was sitting in Math 43H, Honors Calculus, surrounded by about 90 nervous classmates. The professor, Peter Sarnak, PhD ’80, walked in, leather jacket and all, “and he doesn’t even look at the class,” Levin says. “He just comes in and he just starts writing math. And I have no idea what he’s talking about. I mean, none. It’s just math. So much math.” The second day, the same thing happened, except with about 60 classmates. The third day, there were perhaps 30 remaining. “And he walks in, and this time he takes off his leather jacket and he hangs it up and he looks at the class and he says, ‘This is about the right size.’ And then he starts teaching.”

Levin was energized. “First of all, I had not been in an environment where I knew everyone else in the class was smarter than me and better at math,” he says. “I never understood anything that was happening during class.” So he’d knuckle down outside of class, a process, he says, that helped set his professional path. “That is really what research is,” he says. “You find things that you don’t understand and then you just want to go figure them out. And you have to have the confidence that if you don’t understand something and you work hard enough at it, it will come together. It will crystallize.”

Three years later, as a senior, he found himself drafting an application for grad school. It wasn’t crystallizing. “I wrote one of my essays about being out on a kayak trip with friends and bouncing around on a dirt road trying to do a math problem set,” he says. “I was trying to link these things in this essay, and I was struggling. And I showed it to a friend and he said, ‘Oh, there’s a common theme in the things that you like to do. You like to navigate difficulties.’”

Levin sees this mindset all around him. “Everyone who comes to Stanford is an explorer,” he says. “You could be coming as a first-generation student from the Central Valley. You could be coming as a robotics PhD student from Delhi. You could be studying political science, or you could be trying for the Olympic swim team. Everyone who comes to Stanford has this sense that you’re going to set some ambitious goals and you’re going to work hard and persevere.” 

Out and Back

In 1994, Levin planned an expedition suitable for commemorating his graduation from Stanford. “I had this brilliant idea, which was I would take my roommates and Amy, who was then my girlfriend, and we would go on an expedition in the Brooks Range of Alaska north of the Arctic Circle, hike into this river, and canoe out,” he says. “It was a 28-day trip, and it rained for 27 days. And I didn’t realize that the batteries in my camera were dead until afterward. So we ended with no record of that trip except a bunch of blurry, dark photos. And Amy still married me, which was a good outcome.”

Jonathan Levin and Amy Nussbaum met in English class as high school sophomores in New Haven, Conn. “I had noticed Amy, and she had noticed me a little less,” Levin says. “It wasn’t until we were seniors that we started dating.” Soon, he was off to Stanford and she to Cornell. “We wrote letters, physical letters, actually, because it was very expensive to call long distance,” Levin says. Grad school brought greater adoption of email, as well as opportunities to be in the same locale on and off, while Jonathan earned a master’s degree in economics from Oxford and a PhD from MIT, and Amy an MD from Yale and an MPH from Harvard. The Levins married in 1999, and the following year, moved to the Bay Area, where Amy began an internal medicine residency at UCSF—she now practices in Menlo Park—and Jonathan joined the Stanford economics faculty.

Levin returned to California as an economic theorist. “Stanford was like, here’s a stack of yellow pads and a box of No. 2 pencils and get to work,” he says. Levin’s early scholarship was on how to optimize relational contracts—those in which the parties (say, employer and employee) are typically more motivated by the desire to stay together than by the terms of a formal agreement. But he soon found himself captivated by the empirical possibilities enabled by big data. “There was this huge change happening in the field—actually in all the social sciences—which was the availability of data just started to go up exponentially,” he says. “It just opened up all these questions of things that people had theorized about, that people had ideas about. And now you could go measure them.”

Jon and Amy Levin walking outdoors.MEET THE LEVINS: Jonathan and Amy. Photo: AbiElaine Photography

A large dataset is a boon to an economist, especially one with an exploratory bent. In collaboration with economics professor Liran Einav, and often additional colleagues, Levin examined markets in subprime auto loans, eBay transactions, and health care. For example, by comparing Medicare Advantage with traditional Medicare, they were able to see that while the private Medicare Advantage plans provide benefits at lower cost, most of the savings is in the form of reduced utilization of care and accrues to insurers rather than participants. “Some of that care is what you would consider wasteful, and some of that care is what you might consider not necessarily wasteful,” says first author Vilsa Eliana Curto, MA ’13, PhD ’15, then a doctoral advisee of Einav and Levin and now an assistant professor of health policy at UCLA. “Overall, the papers help contribute to a more informed understanding of the consequences of having this large expansion of people enrolling in private health plans to receive their Medicare benefits.”

Another major thread of Levin’s research is applying economic theory to optimize the design of auctions and marketplaces. “I came to Stanford right at the time when there was the emergence of a new field in economics:  market design,” he says. “Not only could you use the tools of economic theory to understand things around you, you could take an engineering approach to the world and get out and try to solve problems using the tools that we had.” With economics professor Paul Milgrom, MS ’78, PhD ’79, and others, Levin helped design the FCC incentive auction that repurposed traditional broadcast TV spectrum into the wireless broadband licenses that underpin modern broadband services. He also worked with a team led by Michael Kremer, who was on the faculty at MIT when Levin was a grad student and is now at the University of Chicago, to design an advance market commitment for pneumococcal vaccines in the developing world. 

Kremer’s concept, Levin says, was to combine the advantages of an incentive for innovation with those of demand in the marketplace: set aside money to subsidize the vaccine, but only disburse it to those who met the market test. “And so that’s when I got involved, was how do you design that system?” Levin says. “At first, it was like an intellectual puzzle. And then of course you think, OK, what does it actually mean when you design an economic mechanism that works? In this case, it changes the access that children in dozens and dozens of countries have to early childhood vaccines. Pneumococcal disease had been one of the two leading causes of death in the developing world, and vaccines are one of the most cost-effective ways to improve health,” he says. “So it was incredibly rewarding. I can’t take credit for hardly any of it, because there were so many people involved. And Michael really had the idea.” The idea, by the way, also underpins Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government program that subsidized the development of vaccines for COVID-19.

The pneumococcal project is characteristic of Levin’s body of work, says Einav. “It’s a collection of very elegant ways to approach theory and data and marry them together, all in the context of, how is it going to make the world a better place?”

Curto is thrilled to see Levin appointed president of Stanford. “Jon is somebody who clearly has a lot of integrity,” she says. “He cared a lot about our analyses being correct, about publishing things that were accurately reflecting the data.” Moreover, she says, “he is the type of person who could really build consensus and listen to different groups of people and be able to distill different views and make good decisions based on that.”

Milgrom, who shared the 2020 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with GSB professor Robert Wilson for their work on auctions, agrees. Milgrom has known Levin since childhood, when Milgrom and Levin’s father, Richard, ’68, were colleagues at the Yale School of Management. Rick Levin would go on to serve as Yale’s president from 1993 to 2013. But back in the day, “I could tell in faculty meetings, before [Rick] had any administrative appointment, that this is a guy who understands,” Milgrom says. “People would say stuff that made no sense to me, and he was able to hear them. And Jon inherited that. Jon really listens. He can really hear what people are saying, even when their conventions are different. And I thought, Oh, I’m looking at like father, like son.”

Not only that, but Levin’s work “is so, so celebrated,” says Milgrom. “That’s important for a university president.”

An Optimist’s Mission

It’s no secret that it’s been a tough year to be a university president. Consider the headlines: “Wanted: New College Presidents. Mission: Impossible” (the Wall Street Journal). “Is Running a Top University America’s Hardest Job?” (the Economist). “You Could Not Pay Me Enough to Be a College President” (the Chronicle of Higher Education). And, perhaps, a tonic: “Why Being a University President Is the Best Job in the World” (Forbes).

Levin is naturally inclined toward the latter camp. “Jon’s the perpetual optimist, glass overflowing all the time, but not in an over-the-top way,” says Robinson. “It’s understated, and it’s like, ‘We can do this.’” 

Take the question uppermost in the public’s mind: how to handle free expression, dissent, and protest on campus. “I think the principles are very simple. The execution is not always simple,” Levin says. “The university has a very noble and distinctive purpose, which is inquiry and learning. And in order to support that mission, we give students and faculty a very broad range of freedom of inquiry—what to study and think about; and expression—what they can say and write. It’s actually different than in a democracy. In a democracy, it’s there to protect the citizens from tyranny. At the university, the freedom is there to promote inquiry and learning. And at the same time, we have other rules around expression that are there to protect the freedoms of other people. You can’t disrupt a class; you can’t disrupt an event; you can’t interfere with other people being able to get to class or go to events or participate in activities.”

To get a sense of Levin’s approach in action, look to the GSB. “I’m really proud of the culture of the school, and that was in evidence this year,” which he calls a “very complicated” one. “Particular students, but also the faculty and the staff, were so willing to engage in discussion and debate and to talk about complex issues and to do everything in a really open, curious, respectful way,” he says. “I think it was a model for how educational institutions should navigate challenging times.” He relies on a set of ideas from sociology, introduced to him by GSB professor Neil Malhotra, MA ’05, PhD ’08, to set the tone. “You can have an environment where people respond to disagreement or something going wrong or a conflict by escalating. It’s a culture of honor,” says Levin. “You can have an environment where they respond by appealing to authority or social media. It’s a culture of grievance. Or you can have an environment where people respond by talking to each other. That’s a culture of dignity. So we want a culture of dignity, and that’s something we talk about with the students here from the very moment that they arrive. I always tell them—I use this line from Ted Lasso—‘Be curious, not judgmental.’”

Meanwhile, the university itself, Levin says, should not be a discussant. “Universities are not social justice organizations,” he says. “They create immense societal good. And it is absolutely the freedom of the faculty and the students to be involved in political affairs, but it’s not the role of the university. Universities would do well where they can institutionally step back from politics and leave room for the faculty and students to debate and have discussion.” 

Furthermore, Levin says, he has come to the view that it’s “really not a good idea” for university leaders to issue statements on political topics. That “actually undermines the educational mission because it sets the wrong example for students,” he says. “What we really want is students to come to recognize that most of the issues that come from the world are complex and more nuanced than they might have otherwise thought. So we want students to think slowly, to ask a lot of questions, not to rush to think that everything is simple and clear-cut and has an obvious answer that just needs to be said more loudly and more forcefully than the way everyone else is saying it. And certainly not to be said in a 400-word email sent around 30 minutes after some global event.”

Levin talks with undergraduates about business research at the doctoral level.OPENING DOORS: At the IDDEAS@Stanford immersion program, Levin talks with undergraduates about business research at the doctoral level. Photo: Anastasiia Sapon/Stanford Graduate School of Business

Levin “always comes back to principles,” says GSB associate dean of external relations Derrick Bolton, MA ’98, MBA ’98. “He’s always thought about it in advance, or if he hasn’t thought about it in advance, his real-time thinking is so sharp and precise that it seems like he has. You couldn’t imagine a better spokesperson for higher education than Jon. He just deeply believes 
in universities.”

Of course, Bolton allows, Levin grew up as the eldest son of two Yale faculty members: Rick, the economist turned dean turned university president, and his Stanford classmate Jane (Aries) Levin, ’68, a literature scholar who led Yale’s Directed Studies frosh humanities program. “I think people focus too much on Rick, by the way, and not enough on Jane,” Bolton says. “The stories Jon’s told me about growing up—when people came over to their house for dinner, Jane made every person who was there the center of attention. And those are lessons that I see in Jon. He’s a hundred percent Mom and a hundred percent Dad.”

Good Natured

On the morning of April 4, Bolton was wrapping up a call with his team. “At 9:58 I said, ‘I’m going to give you a heads-up on something that’s coming in two minutes. Stanford has selected its new president, and that president is Jon Levin.’ And I couldn’t get through anything beyond that.” Bolton wipes his eyes at the memory. “I had been hoping that he would be selected,” he says. “But the level of emotion still surprised me because it renews your faith in an institution. It felt like Stanford was reasserting its place in the world: We are fundamentally this optimistic place, this forward-looking place. We are still a place about scholarship and our impact in the world. We are still a place of community and relationships.”

He wasn’t the only GSB senior administrator experiencing mixed emotions. “I feel like I responded a little bit like a toddler who doesn’t know how to manage her feelings,” says assistant dean for academic administration Charlotte Toksvig. “He’s going to be an amazing, amazing leader for all of us. He is modeling the behavior we want to see across campus for all the members of the community. And we’re going to miss him terribly at the GSB.”

Levin’s first foray into academic leadership was to chair the department of economics, which he did from 2011 to 2014. “It was not a natural step to go into leadership,” he says. He was an award-winning teacher who enjoyed being in the classroom; he had stellar colleagues and graduate students; his research agenda was going well. That left just one other consideration: opportunities were knocking. “Amy and I had actually thought about leaving Stanford, but we basically had decided, OK, we love it here, we’re going to stay,” Levin says. “And I thought, well, if I’m going to stay at Stanford for another 30 years, I want to be part of the best economics department in the world, and so I should invest some time and effort into helping to make that happen.” He became chair, he says, at a “very fortuitous time”: a generation of younger faculty was coming into its own, and the department had “a great run” in hiring, recruiting two future Nobel laureates and four Clark medalists. “It was just a lot of momentum and enthusiasm and I realized I really like helping the other people around me to succeed,” Levin says. “And I really like having this collective effort to have a common goal and to have strategy for getting there and then to have collective successes.”

A couple of years later, then-provost John Etchemendy, PhD ’82, called. Would Levin consider becoming a candidate for the deanship of the Graduate School of Business? This, too, was not a natural step. The department of economics is in the School of Humanities and Sciences. “I had never been in a business school,” says Levin. Being a business school dean “was not an aspiration of mine.” To Etchemendy, he said no. “And then he called me back two weeks later and he said, ‘Have you thought more about it?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘I think you should think more about it.’ Then when I started talking to the GSB faculty, I realized he was right.”

Jon Levin in the colonnade in the Quad

‘The strategy for academic institutions is really not complicated. You go get the best faculty in the world and the best students in the world and you make sure they have the resources to succeed and the freedom to do it.’

At the GSB, Levin has focused on faculty recruiting—some 40 percent of the faculty has been hired during his tenure—as well as increasing student diversity and financial aid. He has also tried to make the GSB more open to the world, through executive education and global programs, and to the university, with a pilot program that offers undergraduate courses. The school has ignited a Business, Government, and Society initiative that aims to address complex societal issues that affect organizations and leadership: “sustainability, the strength of democracy, geopolitics, the broad societal effects of technology, and then concerns about how well our systems create broad shared prosperity and what is the role of business in ensuring that we have broad societal progress,” he says. In the end, Levin says, what matters most is the strength of the school’s faculty and students. “The strategy for academic institutions is really not complicated,” he says. “You go get the best faculty in the world and the best students in the world and you make sure they have the resources to succeed and the freedom to do it.”

Well, maybe it’s a little complicated, says Paul Oyer, the GSB’s senior associate dean for academic affairs. “Over my time here, faculty have gotten more abstract and technical, and the students have gotten more focused on the practical,” Oyer says. “Part of our job is trying to help people see that there’s a positive side to that tension rather than just a negative side.” Levin, Oyer says, brings to that process “total credibility with the faculty,” because of his academic credentials, and at the same time, “street smarts and ability to sit down and talk to students about what they’re doing.”

Those types of conversations invigorate Levin, says his chief of staff, Michelle Bhatia. “There’s a lot of structure to his calendar, but there’s actually a lot of space for him to walk around, talk to people, learn, interact with faculty. He loves his colleagues, he loves the students. He gets his energy that way,” she says. “He takes his meetings a lot of the time down in GSB Coupa”—the café downstairs from his office—“so that he can just be out and talking with people and learning from people.”

In fact, say his GSB colleagues, Levin’s approachability could pose a conundrum as he assumes the presidency. “I think one of the challenges for him as president is going to be how tight his schedule is and how tight access to the president is,” says Bolton. “Because most of my meetings with Jon, we tend to do walk-and-talks. And it’s inevitable that as we’re walking, a student will stop and ask for a selfie, or a student will stop and ask for something. And inevitably Jon takes the time to do it. I think he really loves that.”

Vantage Point

These days, Levin doesn’t get up to the Sierras as often as he used to. A new generation of Levins and Robinsons attends Camp Kabeyun together, and Levin says his sons, Ben and Noah, who are entering their senior and sophomore years of high school, respectively, have surpassed him at whitewater kayaking. His daughter, Madeline, a rising senior majoring in English at Yale, is a strong hiker and “a much better reader than I ever was,” Levin says.

On the weekends when he can’t get to the mountains, Levin contents himself with running the Dish (counterclockwise if possible; clockwise if the knees demand the more gradual downhill). “I’ve been doing that run for more than 30 years, and I still get that same feeling,” he says. “When you come up over the top and you look out at the beautiful California hills and look down at the campus, you just envision all of the aspirations and adventures people are having.”

Those people, Robinson points out, are everyone from frosh to faculty. “When we go whitewater kayaking, frequently you’ll have all these people at different experience levels. Some people are completely novice and other people are super expert. But then you help them function together to traverse a river—and rivers take you to places you can’t access by foot; they take you on journeys in this very special way to new places and new experiences.” Similarly, at Stanford, “the whole enterprise needs to go on this journey for excellence in all these different fields,” he says.

“You need everybody to succeed,” Robinson says. “And so how do you work with a group such that everybody has both a safe and amazing experience?” With, he says, a leader who is calm in choppy waters and who likes to see around the bend. 

Kathy Zonana, ’93, JD ’96, is the editor of Stanford. Email her at kathyz@stanford.edu.

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