The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Benno Schmidt Jr., top leader at Yale and CUNY, dies at 81

He also served as dean of Columbia Law School and helped start two for-profit private school ventures

Benno Schmidt Jr., right, accompanies President George H.W. Bush at Yale University's commencement ceremony in 1991. (Bob Child/AP)
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Benno C. Schmidt Jr., who led two major American institutions of higher learning as president of Yale University and a top official at the City University of New York, and who experimented with new educational models through ventures into for-profit private schools, died July 9 at his home in Millbrook, N.Y. He was 81.

The cause was cardiac arrest, said his daughter Elizabeth Hun Schmidt.

Mr. Schmidt began his career in academia as a wunderkind scholar of constitutional law, becoming a tenured professor at Columbia Law School at age 29. He was named dean of the law school in 1984 and president of Yale two years later.

He was an alumnus of the undergraduate and law schools at Yale, a venerable member of the Ivy League that is one of the oldest and most sought-after universities in the United States. By the time Mr. Schmidt was installed as president, it had, in some respects, begun to fall into disrepair.

Although previous administrations had invested in the construction of new buildings, older ones had been allowed to decay. Town-and-gown relations between Yale and New Haven, the working-class Connecticut city where the university is located, had frayed. The school was confronting a budget deficit as high as $15 million.

Mr. Schmidt undertook a massive renovation of university buildings as well as a $50 million investment in the development of New Haven. By all accounts, he was a master fundraiser, growing Yale’s endowment to $3 billion from $1.7 billion.

Howard R. Lamar, who succeeded Mr. Schmidt as acting president, declared that his fundraising “may well have secured Yale’s future more than almost any reforms we could ever achieve.”

But in his efforts to place Yale on surer financial ground, Mr. Schmidt forced the university to consider and in some cases undertake departmental restructuring that left the faculty deeply aggrieved.

Students, meanwhile, resented Mr. Schmidt’s decision not to live full time in New Haven and instead to maintain his home in Manhattan. “Where’s Benno?” they occasionally taunted him.

In 1992, Mr. Schmidt stunned the campus by announcing that he would resign to become chief executive of the Edison Project, an effort to establish a national chain of for-profit elementary and secondary schools.

The project was an initiative of Christopher Whittle, the entrepreneur behind Channel One, a program that outfitted schools with televisions and other technology in exchange for the airing of news programs that, controversially, included commercials.

Critics of the Edison Project expressed grave concerns about the injection of profit concerns into education and the danger of diverting resources and energy away from public schools.

Mr. Schmidt argued that the university system “rests on top of an increasingly beleaguered elementary and secondary school system” and that a new model of education was urgently needed.

“If this venture succeeds, there’s nothing, there’s nothing, that could be done, aside from changing human nature, that would be more constructive for our society,” Mr. Schmidt told the New York Times when he stepped down from Yale.

The Edison Project faced financial obstacles and did not materialize, but it was cited as an impetus for the charter school movement. Mr. Schmidt later worked with Whittle to form Avenues: The World School, an international network of for-profit schools that was founded in 2012.

Mr. Schmidt’s involvement in CUNY began in 1998, when New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed him to a task force to revamp the struggling city university system. Mr. Schmidt became vice chairman of CUNY’s board of trustees the following year and was ultimately named chairman.

He was credited with having reversed what the task force described as a “spiral of decline” at CUNY. Under his leadership, the university increased the standardized test scores of incoming students and hired hundreds of new faculty members.

By 2003, a reporter for the Times dryly noted that “one sign of CUNY’s changed status is the absence of vocal outside critics.” Mr. Schmidt stepped down as chairman in 2016.

Benno Charles Schmidt Jr. was born in Washington on March 20, 1942. His father was a prominent investor with the firm J.H. Whitney & Co. and was credited with coining the term “venture capital.” His mother was a civic volunteer and competitive bridge player.

Mr. Schmidt graduated in 1959 from the private Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire before enrolling at Yale, where he received a bachelor’s degree in history in 1963 and a law degree three years later.

He clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren and worked briefly for the Justice Department before he joined Columbia’s law faculty in 1969.

Mr. Schmidt’s marriages to Kate Russell, Betsy Siggins and Helen Whitney ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 21 years, Anne McMillen of Manhattan; two children from his first marriage, Elizabeth Hun Schmidt of Brooklyn and Benno C. Schmidt III of Tuxedo Park, N.Y.; a daughter from his third marriage, Christina Whitney Helburn of Manhattan; two stepdaughters, Leah Ridpath of Cotuit, Mass., and Alexandra Toles of Columbus, Ohio; two brothers; a stepsister; and eight grandchildren.

Mr. Schmidt developed an expertise in the First Amendment and became known beyond the ivory tower through his appearances on PBS and other television programs exploring issues of the law.

Those were not his only on-screen performances, however. Amid his busy academic career, Mr. Schmidt found time to pursue other interests, which included country-western music — he played the guitar — and acting. He had bit parts in two Woody Allen films, “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) and “Husbands and Wives” (1992).