Kornbluth a strong choiceThe search is over. Sally Kornbluth, vice dean for basic science at Duke Hospital, will take over Provost Peter Lange’s position in July. During his 15-year term, Lange had a hand in almost every critical initiative at Duke, from spearheading a campus in China to signing contracts with Coursera. Kornbluth will soon have the power to influence the University’s trajectory with equal force.
The importance of the provost cannot be overstated. The provost is the school’s strategy architect and implementer. While often invisible in public, the provost puts his/her fingerprint on most University policies. According to the Office of the President’s description of the provost’s duties will require Kornbluth to “develop the next strategic plan that maintains Duke’s trajectory, distinction and values,” “maintain focus on improving the student experience,” “guide and implement global initiatives” and “encourage scholarly innovation in the midst of the ongoing digital revolution.” We can hardly imagine a decision at Duke that does not fall under this umbrella.
The provost must also stake out Duke’s position in major debates in higher education: Preserve brick-and-mortar classes or shift online? Improve domestically or spread internationally? The provost is, in many ways, instrumental in determining what type of school Duke wants to be.
Kornbluth’s appointment is promising, if unexpected. By appointing a science-minded Duke insider, President Richard Brodhead has gestured his desire to stay the course begun by Lange, rather than take a radically new tack. A longtime Duke faculty member and committed researcher, Kornbluth embodies the University’s strengths. We are encouraged by her professional and administrative accomplishments, especially her history of working with department chairs on faculty recruitment.
Other lines in Kornbluth’s resume also excite us. Her academic career has been one of true interdisciplinary study. She earned a B.A. in political science before launching into a distinguished career in scientific research. As a woman—a rare sight in the higher echelons of university administration—she will bring a unique perspective to strategic discussions and serve as a role model to other women, as former Duke President Nan Keohane did. Kornbluth is the embodiment of many dreams in higher education, and we hope her leadership will infuse the school with those virtues.
It remains to be seen how Kornbluth will fare as provost and what flavor her strategic decisions will acquire. But we hope that she approaches the big questions with the appropriate thoughtfulness and directs a keen eye toward urgent priorities.
Given that online education, in some form, is now a reality, Kornbluth will have to bring online courses to the University in a way that improves the Duke education. Duke should not, however, simply yield to online education or concede a lost battle to digital forces. Heated debates over opening Duke Kunshan University are over, but questions of academic freedom in DKU have not dissolved. Moreover, even though Kornbluth hails from a professional school, she should make undergraduate education a top priority. Indeed, Kornbluth should already be thinking about revising the curriculum, which has not been touched since Curriculum 2000 was instituted 14 years ago.
Above all, we hope Kornbluth will impress us as both an imaginative and cautious leader who can leverage Duke’s strengths and minimize its weaknesses. The University’s welfare depends on it.