May 14, 2018

Yale's Alexander leaves legacy of growth, town-gown partnerships

Photo | Yale University
Photo | Yale University
Bruce Alexander

Few people have had a bigger impact on New Haven and Yale University in the last 20 years than Bruce Alexander.

His plethora of accomplishments includes attracting national retailers to the Broadway shopping district; supervising construction of Yale's two new residential colleges; negotiating acquisition of the school's West Haven campus; greatly improving town-gown and labor relations and helping ignite New Haven's biotech and downtown housing booms.

Now after two decades in the trenches, Alexander is calling it quits. The university announced last week that the 75-year-old redevelopment and governmental relations whiz would retire at the end of June.

"I came back (to Yale) as a labor of love," said Alexander, who received his bachelor's degree from the school in 1965. "I said I would do it for a couple of years. That was 20 years ago."

Yale President Peter Salovey heaped praise on Alexander, crediting him with sparking New Haven's renaissance and strengthening the university's relationships with the city and the state.

"I want to express my deepest appreciation to Bruce for his outstanding service to Yale," Salovey said in a written statement. "For years to come, our students, faculty, and staff will benefit from his wise leadership and the many ways he has strengthened our campus and community,"

Alexander's long and successful tenure at Yale was unexpected and unplanned. It was the late 1990s, and he had recently retired from a long career in urban redevelopment, where he had worked on Baltimore's Inner Harbor and rehabilitation of Boston's Faneuil Hall, when his alma mater came calling. Yale wanted his advice on improving New Haven's economy and relations with the city. Alexander agreed to have a look on a volunteer basis, expecting a brief break from retirement. Soon, however, he found himself intrigued.

"I got very interested in what I thought was the potential of New Haven and how the university might impact it (the city) in a favorable way," Alexander said. "So they asked me to take on this inaugural position of New Haven and state affairs."

Alexander accepted the job, a new position that signaled Yale's new commitment to greater cooperation and collaboration with its host city. Early on, his focus was on reaching out and listening.

"I spent a lot of time taking to people," Alexander said. "I met individually with every member of the board of alders, the mayor, business leaders, community leaders."

The result was a five-pillared strategy: economic, real estate and human capital development, partnership with the city and its neighborhoods and marketing and promotion, Alexander said. It worked, he said, helping drive a new era of growth and partnership.

Former New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who for years worked closely with Alexander, agreed that his approach was a success. He praised Alexander for recognizing that the city and the university share a common fate. Alexander brought credibility, consistency and continuity to the school's relationship with the city, said DeStefano, adding that he came to view him not only as a colleague but also a personal friend and confidante who always gave it straight.

"I think the great thing about him is that you knew where he stood," DeStefano said. "There was not a lot of drama there. He got things done."

Over the years, Alexander's responsibilities expanded into other areas, including buildings maintenance, planning and construction. In that role, he got involved in union negotiations, where he helped usher in a new era of labor peace.

So what is Alexander most of proud from his years at Yale?

"I would say the relationships that we've developed in the community, with the city, with the unions," he said. "That creates the greatest power for good in the community."

Another of Alexander's accomplishments was promoting entrepreneurship at the university. When he first arrived, many researchers viewed commercializing their work as a potential conflict of interest, he said. He took steps to change that attitude, including backing students who wanted to create an entrepreneurial society. On a practical level, Alexander addressed the city's lack of commercial lab space by facilitating the transformation of the former Southern New England Telephone building into just that, he said.

His efforts have paid big dividends. Students are much more interested in creating companies than two decades ago, and lab space he created has helped keep their startups in the city.

"There was a cultural change that needed to take place in institutions with strong liberal arts traditions," Alexander said.

Alexander may be retiring, but he's not going away. He will continue to work on special projects for the university and plans to remain in the New Haven area. His first priority will be to find a house, as he now lives on campus, he said.

Alexander's parting advice to his successor: "Listen to the community. Make sure that in every decision that affects the community, you consider the community's sensitivities and sensibilities."

Christopher Hoffman can be reached at news@newhavenbiz.com

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