Boston — By being named president of Yale University, Benno C. Schmidt is de facto a new spokesman for American education. And in his acceptance speech in New Haven Tuesday, Mr. Schmidt, who is now dean of the Columbia Law School, stressed that within the enterprise of higher education in America, character is as important a theme as academics.
While speaking of ``an urgent need to guard against the fall of academic excellence,'' and asking Yale students to test ``the frontiers of knowledge,'' he also told the audience at Yale, one of the most competitive schools in America, that ``competition . . . is corrupting to the highest possibilities of university education. To take the measure of oneself by reference to one's colleagues leads to envy or complacency rather than constructive self-examination.''
Later, he told this newspaper in a telephone interview that ``a university is not just a place to go to class, but a place to live and grow -- a place to develop attitudes.''
Schmidt, a scholar in constitutional law who graduated from Yale Law School in 1966, was chosen from more than 430 candidates nationwide. He succeeds A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale since 1977, who has said he will return to teaching after a year's leave.
According to former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who headed Yale Corporation's search committee, Schmidt ``has the best mix of the various qualities -- political, social, and academic awareness -- we felt necessary. He was our unanimous choice.''
``He'll fool you at first,'' says Guido Calabresi, dean of the Yale Law School; ``he's so gentle and decent. But there is plenty of steel and drive behind that -- something he will need in his new job. His deanship at Columbia was special. He'll bring some fresh ideas.''
If there's a tone Schmidt wants to set before his official starting date (July 1), it is to establish that academics will take precedence over management in his administration. He has let it be known, for example, that he's interested in teaching an occasional class.
This liberal-arts priority places Schmidt at odds with the more vocationally minded, corporate-model university presidents, who are alternately fund-raisers and public relations figures.
``He wants to be known by the Yale community as first a teacher and scholar, and second as an administrator,'' Mr. Calabresi says. ``That sits well with the faculty.''
At the same time, Schmidt's work won't be conducted entirely in cap and gown. Mr. Vance notes that the new president will work, in part, to better Yale's science programs and to coordinate more exchange among graduate schools.
Schmidt is described as young, innovative, a first-rate scholar, and an excellent teacher. While at Columbia, his interdisciplinary courses in law and the media, law and history, and law and the classics were considered by faculty and students to be among the most useful in the university.
Leaving Columbia will not be easy for Schmidt. He has developed close ties with colleagues there, he says. He also ``had a bridge to cross'' in deciding that the Yale presidency would not foreclose his study and teaching of the law -- his main passion -- which he describes as ``an endlessly fascinating treasure house of problems.''
In his acceptance speech, Schmidt noted Emerson's warning not to confuse character with erudition. In the interview, he returned to the character theme, describing college as important in developing so many attitudes about adults, peers, and learning.
While noting that the moral aspects of character ``can't be taught as pedagogy,'' he nonetheless feels that it's difficult to engage in learning without ``being conscious of the transcendent importance of moral values.''
``I hope it will be a hallmark of what I do [at Yale] that these values are remembered,'' he concludes.