Administrative transitions portend institutional change
Last Thursday, President Richard Brodhead gave his annual address to the Academic Council. One of the topics Brodhead focused on was staff transitions and plans for moving forward. His emphasis on transitions is telling—Duke is about to undergo sweeping changes.
The administration, in particular, is facing a huge overhaul. Provost Peter Lange is stepping down. Dr. Sally Kornbluth is replacing him, and, consequently, Duke will have to find a new vice dean for basic science at Duke Hospital to take Kornbluth’s place. Vice Provost for Research Jim Siedow is also leaving, and his successor will join Kornbluth this coming year. Dr. Victor Dzau will be stepping down from his positions as president and CEO of the Duke University Health System and chancellor for health affairs. Donna Lisker, associate provost for undergraduate education, will be leaving for Smith College in the fall. Lastly, Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment Bill Chameides and Dean Catherine L. Gilliss of the School of Nursing will both be leaving.
Administrative changes are likely to continue, leaving us with questions that will become more important as the transitions unfold. At stake in these changes is the character of the University—what is Duke now and what is it going to become?
We are already in the middle of transformative infrastructural shifts, including the West Union renovations and construction of Duke Kunshan University. Although Duke is swapping much of its top leadership, we expect that the new administrators will finish what the current administrators have started. Continuity of this sort will likely be both good and bad.
In his address, Brodhead suggested that “leadership changes are chances for institutional renewal.” With the breadth of experience and fresh perspectives that the new administrators bring come the possibility of major shifts in the character of the University. This could be extremely positive. New administrators will be able to focus on developing an identity for the University that extends beyond the changes that current administrators have initiated—changes that these administrators might be too invested in to critique and modify. As Siedow suggested in an article last semester, after serving at the University for ten years, feeling comfortable makes it difficult to see things critically and improve
Although there are benefits to transitions, a larger question remains—as administrators transition in and out, who will be providing consistent leadership? When people join the administration at different levels, the vision is left up in the air. If new administrators are learning the intricacies of their office from someone who is equally new to the job, some administrative consistency is bound to slip away. In all likelihood, administrators who are learning the ropes will be unable to teach the ropes at the same time. For this reason, someone should set a specific tone and vision for the transitions so that Duke can maintain coherence and continuity in its programming.
Additionally, as Duke experiences this staggered turnover and transitional period, it will be extremely difficult for administrators to undertake big changes including altering the curriculum, which is long overdue. We find this troubling, and hope that administrative changes will not delay important institutional improvements.