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'A curious, unforeseen part of my career': Brodhead looks back on tenure's speeches with new book

President Richard Brodhead's colleagues reflected on his new book "Speaking of Duke" during the annual Faculty Bookwatch Wednesday.

"Speaking of Duke" contains a series of transcripts for several of Brodhead’s major speeches during his role as the University’s president since 2004. He will be stepping down at the end of June when his successor Vincent Price will take the reins. The event’s speakers described the collection as well-organized and engaging.

Ian Baucom, dean at the University of Virginia and former director of the Franklin Humanities Institute, said he felt the book faithfully expressed Brodhead’s overarching vision and major achievements during his tenure.

"If there's anything this book [makes you ask], it's who doesn't want to be in the company of Dick Brodhead?” he said. “Who doesn't want to be in the company of a president who, with such joyful delight, can stand with teasing splendor before an assembled class of arriving freshman in Duke Chapel?”

When introducing the event’s panelists, Deborah Jenson—a professor of romance studies and director of the Franklin Humanities Institute—emphasized Brodhead’s major role in promoting the humanities both as Duke's president and as the co-chair of the Commission of the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2013.

"One of a shrinking cohort of humanities faculty in the presidencies of research universities, Dick Brodhead has made his Duke presidency an invaluable pulpit for the role of the humanities in a resilient, dialogic, healthy, changing society," Jenson said.

Richard Powell, John Spencer Bassett professor of art and art history, noted that despite the unusual format of "Speaking of Duke," he enjoyed reliving Brodhead’s speeches. In particular, he complimented their humorous tone. He said that Brodhead's humility differentiated the book from other anthologies.

Jenson noted that Brodhead’s sense of humor was perhaps most evident during his appearance on the Colbert Report to discuss his report "The Heart of the Matter," which emphasized the importance of the humanities in education.

“[It] is really one of the most witty and surprising guest features of a university president in any forum,” she said.

Baucom also discussed the variety of the speeches in "Speaking of Duke," including several that were given during less than favorable circumstances. He especially complimented Brodhead’s words after a student hung a noose on the Bryan Center Plaza in 2015. The president spoke to about 1,000 members of the Duke community on the Chapel steps about the incident and its ramifications.

Reflecting on the speechwriting process, Brodhead explained that he usually prefers to “talk, then write.”

"It has been a funny thing for me. You think that I first write all my speeches and then later learn to deliver them in an impressionistic fashion. But this is not true,” he said. “It has been for me, a curious, unforeseen [part of my] career that you get to stand in public and try to explain to others things about the meaning of universities, of learning, of the humanities."

Brodhead said he enjoyed listening to the comments of his colleagues during the event, adding they excelled at depicting him through their words.

"We all hope that we're understood, and at least for one fleeting hour, this seems to be my privilege,” he said.


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