First-years have now filled campus, moving into their new dorms and getting to know each other, but there’s one new kid that sticks out from the rest—President Vincent Price, who stepped into his new position in July. The Chronicle’s Claire Ballentine spoke with Price about the adjustment to life in North Carolina and his plans for his first year. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Chronicle: How has the transition been so far?
Vincent Price: It has been delightful. We had an opportunity to get out and around town. We’re getting a chance to experience Durham, and I’m impressed by the vitality and the diversity of the community. I’ve had a chance to meet with a number of administrators, faculty and staff.
TC: Are you all moved into the Hart House?
VP: We are indeed. Our dogs are doing well, we take them for regular walks on the Al Buehler Trail. They’re having a great time.
TC: Did you bring any personal touches to your new office?
VP: I’m waiting on some furniture to arrive. Nan Keohane had very large conference tables in this office when she was president. Dick Brodhead had an arrangement of very nice furniture in the center, and I think I’m going to split the difference by having a nice conference table, but I also like the informality of the arrangement that President Brodhead favored, so we’re still in an adjustment period.
TC: Have you had any interactions with student leaders or student groups yet?
VP: We’ve been in contact and meetings are being arranged, but I haven't had a chance yet. I did have a chance during the transition to meet with outgoing student leaders. I’m still working on my Fall calendar and planning some meetings throughout the Fall.
TC: One critique of presidents in the past is that they haven’t communicated enough with students. What are some of the ways you plan to communicate with students on campus? We have a president who tweets now, so that’s always an option.
VC: I don't know that a lot of tweeting is in the cards here, but I’d like to be visible and accessible. I’d like to be a partner to those across the campus who are trying to make the most of our resources here at Duke. These are exciting times in higher education. I have always found that students, because they represent an intense experience on their campus, are just so creative in how they approach what they do. So I’m looking for ways I can do this on a regular basis, maybe on a smaller scale instead of sending out messages on a routine basis. I very much want to be in regular contact with students—not just student leaders, but a variety of student groups.
TC: One way President Brodhead communicated with students was through a couple of in Page Auditorium. Would you consider this? Do you think it’s effective?
VP: I’m open-minded about different formats that might be used. Large town hall events are sometimes neither as interactive as people would like or as small-scale and authentic as other conversations. I think my impulse is to speak to a variety of groups in settings that allow for back and forth and give or take as opposed to these large-scale, more formal town hall meetings. But again my calendar is just now being populated with a variety of meetings.
TC: What have your interactions with Coach K been like so far?
VP: We’ve been in contact throughout the transition and I’ve been able to spend time with him and some of the other coaches. I was able to swing by some practices and talk to Coach Cutcliffe and I’ve spent time with Athletic Director Kevin White. I’m excited to be part of a campus that has such a vibrant program of athletics, so it's been a lot of fun for me.
TC: In the past years, Duke has experienced a series of racist and homophobic incidents. How do you see yourself addressing these issues?
VP: I think that universities offer a special opportunity for faculty, students and staff to think deeply about the issues that confront local communities and our nation as a whole. I want to be part of that conversation, I think it’s very important for us not to wait to have those kinds of difficult conversations and those moments when we find ourselves in a state of anxiety or crisis. We should be thinking proactively about what we can do to help this community be its very best. So as president, what I would like to do is engage with faculty, students and staff across campus and foster a climate that respects open expression and fosters a deep sense of mutual respect.
TC: How do you balance wanting to have free expression with the proliferation of ideas that are racist or hurtful to students?
VP: I think the best way to counter reprehensible speech is with more speech and to have our voices heard. And to weigh in on these debates. I think the best time to do this is on a routine basis as we identify issues and dig into them and build robust relationships and a sense of trust. So I think we need to invent stronger and better ways to talk as a democracy, and I’d like to see Duke as an exemplar of that kind of conversation.
TC: There’s been discussion about splits in the student body based on race, class or status in Greek organizations. What do you think is the solution to better unite the student body as a whole?
VP: You’ve put your finger on an important phenomenon, and that is our natural tendency to gravitate toward people who seem like us. One of the great virtues of a university is that we assemble such a diverse collection of faculty, students and staff that finding ways to bridge those gaps and create opportunities for exchange across groups is an opportunity not to be squandered. I wish I had the answers to all those questions, but I think if we as a community commit to finding ways and if the student body takes in earnest this challenge to getting to know students who are different from them—Greeks and non-Greeks, across the political spectrum, across the socioeconomic divide—that is an opportunity students will have while they’re at Duke that will exceed, by far, the opportunity for those kinds of exchanges they’ll have once they leave this campus environment. So I’d like to work with students in whatever ways they think are productive to foster those kinds of conversations across boundaries. That's when we learn the most, that's when we grow the most.
TC: Another issue that many students are concerned about is rising tuition costs. Every year, the price of attending Duke gets higher and higher. Where do you think we go from here?
VP: This is a central challenge for Duke and universities like Duke. We’ve long been committed to having a need-blind admissions policy so that we admit students without regard to their ability to pay and we work very hard to meet the demonstrated financial need of students who enroll here, so that’s a significant commitment. It cost the University more than $140 million last year. It is only possible with the continued support of donors, so I will continued working aggressively to raise funds for financial aid.
At the same time, I want to take a close look at our aid policy to make sure we’re addressing the needs of—for example—middle income families who are struggling because they’re not on full-assistance programs, and to monitor the loan burden on students. So we’ll be looking more at those practices. There's no question that the cost of a Duke education is significant because of all the things that a university like Duke provides, but we do have to dig into these questions of cost, we have to manage ourselves as efficiently as possible and study what we’re now doing in administering financial aid and start to address some of these burdens on families.
TC: What has surprised you about the job so far?
VP: I haven't been surprised by anything new or startling at Duke that I didn't come to know during the transition. Most of what's happened is that my extraordinarily positive views of Duke have been confirmed by everything since. I’m a little surprised by just how dog friendly the community is and how much people love dogs. And it’s getting to the point where I think maybe in the search process Crickett and Scout were the main targets.
TC: What’s on your agenda for your first year?
VP: It’s still early days, it's too early to start outlining specific goals, although they’re the focus of my thinking at this point in time. I would like to start with the right tone by getting out and getting to know students. I will be meeting with the faculty of all of our schools, I’m looking forward to opportunities to meet with different organizations. And I’d like to set the tone as president for fruitful and engaging conversation and the kinds of issues that you raised earlier with me. There’s no question that we’ll have more specific objectives. I do want to maintain the momentum coming out of the Duke Forward campaign and continue to generate the resources needed to improve the already outstanding work of the University.