President Richard Brodhead doesn't remember the last time he ate dinner at home.
In the past few days before I spoke with him, he'd flown to California for lunch with Apple CEO Tim Cook and given keynote addresses honoring the Nasher Museum of Art and Nicholas School of the Environment, as well as persuaded faculty members to vote in favor of an undergraduate program at Duke Kunshan University.
But he said his favorite part of the week was meeting with a group of first-year students in his office, a spacious and well-decorated room in the Allen Building overlooking the main quad.
“It’s like channel surfing,” he said about being president. “You switch from one subject to another to another, each of which requires your total attention.”
The fixed elements of his day—and his life, for that matter—are few, he explained, and being the top official of a prestigious research university comes with its fair share of stressful moments.
The job of president requires the ability to identify what’s most important to the group of people you’re addressing, Brodhead said, and then convey to them that you understand their needs and their place in the University.
It sounds calculating and manipulative, and maybe it is. But when Brodhead speaks, with his soft voice and the light in his eyes, it’s hard not to believe him. Even if he’s just telling people what they want to hear, it’s clear that he does care about what others think.
Duke may be a business fueled by rich alumni and its basketball program, but to Brodhead Duke’s value lies in its people—an increasingly rare focus in a higher education-world filled with talk of endowments and donors.
A teacher in charge of ivory towers
Brodhead has a wicked memory, able to recall names of all the students, professors and businessmen who visit his office, which he has arranged living room-style for better conversation.
For instance, he met my father only once for five minutes at the beginning of the summer, but can still remember his first name and that he is also a teacher.
Brodhead attributes his mental dexterity to his decades as a professor—he would memorize the names of all his students the first time the class met. Despite 13 years in a role closer to CEO than academic, he still remains true to his scholarly roots and makes sure Duke does the same.
The president of a university has to know a little about a lot. He says it’s his job to make sure everything the University does is “of Duke standard.” He must know what’s happening and what’s going to happen at all times.
And he does this through talking with everyone he possibly can.
“If you didn't like meeting thousands and thousands of people, the job would really not suit you,” Brodhead explained.
And although Brodhead uses words like “aforementioned” and “predecessor” in casual conversation, he also refers to longtime colleagues as “his pals.” His chosen expletives are “woah, Nelly” and “awh shucks.”
He doesn't take himself too seriously either, despite his past position as dean of the College at Yale and despite his nationally-recognized achievements—launching DukeEngage, spearheading Duke Kunshan University and leading the DukeForward campaign to its fundraising goal almost a year early.
Catherine Ward, a junior English major who works in Brodhead’s office, said he often emerges from his office to talk with her about what she’s reading and make comments like, “Parsons is the most uninteresting writer. If I was his editor, I wouldn't give him any more stories.”
Understanding Brodhead’s English background is key to understanding his approach to leading Duke. During a meeting with the Kenan Institute of Ethics centered on free speech—of which he is a strong proponent—he explained that he didn’t even know what a trigger warning was for a long time.
“I’m a literature professor,” he said. “The number of works that are a series of pleasant events are very few.”
Brodhead’s focus on academia and open personality were the reasons Michael Schoenfeld, vice president of public affairs and government relations, came to Duke. Schoenfeld said that Brodhead had wanted to meet him and arranged a phone call.
“I thought it was going to be a nice and pleasant and interesting but mostly courtesy call that would last for 30 minutes, and we ended up spending two hours together talking. And after that, I realized that I really wanted to come work at Duke,” Schoenfeld said.
Is it lonely at the top?
Despite Brodhead’s cheerful outlook and almost goofy persona, his job is not a simple one.
Although presidents at other universities call Brodhead when faced with a difficult problem, he said he doesn't really have a mentor, instead relying on other members of the administration—”his team”—to manage Duke.
“I can’t exaggerate how little my life is like the life of anyone I know,” he said.
His job involves “a lot of nights,” which often include his home life and his work life intermixing. Luckily, his wife Cindy enjoys being part of the University in an active way, he said.
Brodhead does sometimes get private moments, but “they’re not evenly spaced.” In the last week, he can’t recall having time to himself. But that’s part of the job, he explained. There are times when he goes for several weeks in a row from one fairly demanding event to another.
He acknowledges the high stress level of his job but doesn't have a good answer for how he handles it. He doesn't meditate, he doesn't do yoga. He doesn't have a strict exercise schedule. For him, stress is part of the job, and he loves the job.
“The thing about stress is that you get better at dealing with it,” Brodhead said.
Part of that may include the self-described “bad habits” he’s picked up since becoming president. One of the worst, he said, is “insisting on looking at my email just one more time.”
He’s also become a skilled multitasker—able to eat an entire container of tomato soup from the Divinity School cafe with one hand while typing with the other.
It’s just easier for him not to slow down.
“Anything you do under highly pressured conditions, it’s just easier to continue doing it,” he said. “A body in motion tends to stay in motion.”
Handing over the reins
Soon, Brodhead will have a lot more free time. He announced last May that he plans to step down July this coming year. A search committee has already found his successor—Vincent Price, current provost of the University of Pennsylvania.
His life will be much simpler after that—but he doesn't anticipate having any problems adjusting.
“There’s a whole other me, just waiting in reserve,” he said.
Maybe he’ll spend the time catching up on his Netflix shows. He said he is “strangely addicted to things that come in parts”—Games of Thrones, Veep, Silicon Valley, Breaking Bad.
“A job like mine slurps over the boundaries of time,” he said. “Nevertheless you can still watch things if you are highly committed to doing so.”
Or perhaps he’ll fill the time with his new granddaughter. In the middle of dealing with a University issue with Duke’s top administrators, Schoenfeld said he once got a text from Brodhead. He expected it to be about the current affair—but it was a photo of his granddaughter that “he just wanted to share."
It will probably take him some time to slow down and give up the job he loves so much. Even when he doesn't want to attend some required event, he said he always ends up enjoying it.
“I can look at my schedule and say, ‘I wish I didn’t have to do that,’ but then you find yourself sitting down with an incredibly interesting person,'" he said.
But he said he is also suited for silence. After living his whole life as a scholar, he is used to going five or six hours without speaking.
When he steps down from the presidency this summer, he said he plans to return to his roots in English through teaching, rekindling his passion for academics and the joy he finds working with students.
“I expect I’ll be just fine,” he said.