Campaigning for Young Trustee begins Thursday and will continue for 10 days until the election on Feb. 7. During this time, the three candidates will make the case to the student body that they are best suited to take up the three-year position on the Board of Trustees. If elected, they will be charged with managing the affairs of the entire University.
Given the circumstances, The Chronicle sat down with John Harpham, Trinity ’10, the most senior of the current Young Trustees on the Board. Harpham is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in political philosophy at Harvard’s department of government and serving the last few months of his three-year term as Young Trustee. As the first-ever Trustee to be elected by the student body, Harpham weighed in on the meaning of the role, the usefulness of holding elections for the position and what the job demands.
The Chronicle: Did your understanding of the role of Young Trustee change from when you were campaigning for it to now, three years later?
John Harpham: It did, and not in the way you would expect. When I was a student, I was always very harsh on candidates for Young Trustee when they said that they would be representatives of the student body to the Board because that’s not the role of the Young Trustee whatsoever. You have to be a Trustee, like anybody else, who represents the University and all of its constituencies.
But, in my three years on the Board, although that basic position hasn’t changed, I’ve had a renewed appreciation of how important it is that the Young Trustee was recently a student. This is the unique expertise that you bring, that you have the perspective of a recent undergraduate who understands what is interesting, what is problematic, what is important to students. Not that you have to say that that’s right, but it’s important that you comprehend that.
TC: What was the moment when you decided you wanted to be on the Board of Trustees?
JH: It was my freshman year. I was a member of The Chronicle’s editorial board, and we brought in the three finalists for Young Trustee that year to interview them and write an endorsement. We read all their applications and talked to them each for 10 minutes or so and it was just fascinating, these three truly impressive people with a wide range of talents, and they were just completely devoted to thinking about what was best for Duke and giving back to the University. That seemed like a good model for me to follow. That wasn’t the moment when I knew that I would run, but I knew I was interested in the position.
TC: How did that inspiration develop during your time as a student?
JH: I had the idea that maybe I would be interested in applying for the job, and then I put it in my back pocket and went about my business. At least part of the preparation to be a Young Trustee is to experience Duke in all of its different facets.
So I played a club sport, I was a member of a selective living group, I played pickup basketball, I went out with friends, I threw myself into classes, I studied abroad and just tried to live the life of an ordinary Duke student. At the same time I gained a very wide and deep knowledge of the University and also of its history through working on the Editorial Board of The Chronicle.
TC: Do you think the process for selecting finalists and electing the Young Trustee is the best method for choosing the position?
JH: The year I was elected was the first year that Young Trustees were elected by the student body. And at the time, like all the members of my campaign team, I though it was almost absurd that this position was elected rather than chosen by smaller groups, especially because I explained what the position was to most of the people I talked to. There are many elections where people don’t know the candidates, but they at least know what the position is that they are voting for.
However, I think the question of whether or not an election is the best way to choose a Young Trustee, which is probably the central question here, is about what you think the role of a selection procedure is.
If you think the role of a selection procedure is to be the most just and well-fitted way to choose a person for a particular position, then I think the Young Trustee should not be elected, because it gives both candidates and voters the impression that the Young Trustee is a representative of the student body, which again, it is not.
But if the role of a selection procedure is to confer other kinds of benefits, then an election is not so bad because it involves many more students in the process of selecting a trustee and thus in the business of the University than ever before. It also teaches candidates as it taught me the basic principle of this position, which is that you get out of it what you put in. Effort is the biggest thing. Students can decide between those two sets of values.
TC: What do you think are the keys to success in running a Young Trustee campaign?
JH: Talk to as many students as possible, and mostly don’t talk—listen. Also, have really thought through the kinds of big issues about the present and future of Duke that the Board deals with and have—students really do care about this—some sort of vision or set of thoughts that can resonate with your peers.
TC: So it’s not enough to love Duke and want to give back?
JH: No. No I mean, this is the highest governing body of a top-10 American university. You have to be prepared. And then, no matter what you’ve done as a student, you will not be prepared to be a trustee. You have to put in a great deal of work after you’re elected to be effective.
TC: The actual proceedings of the Board are closed to the press, although they haven’t always been. As someone who previously worked for The Chronicle, now that you’re on the inside, do you think there is sufficient reasoning behind keeping the proceedings closed? Does that help Duke as an institution?
JH: As a student and a member of the editorial board of The Chronicle, I was a member of boards that consistently advocated for greater transparency from the Board of Trustees. As an applicant for the position of Young Trustee, as a candidate for the position, I also advocated in strong terms for greater transparency from the Board. That is a matter of public record.
Since I have been a member of the Board, my perspective on these issues has shifted. You would expect it to shift, and it has. Seen from the inside, the Board does a great deal to be—the word wouldn’t be transparent—but to be open to the Duke community, to receive input from and to work with the community at large, and in fact, since I have been on the Board, I would argue that we have gotten better rather than worse in this respect.
What we’re often talking about here really is specifics. What are the specific ways and means by which the Board should communicate with the community? In that respect, I want and welcome a world in which students advocate for greater openness and where members of the Board and administration agree to some extent and disagree to some extent and try to work through a compromise that is amenable to all parties. That allows us to do the work that we need to do and yet also recognizes the very important truth that members of the Board are nothing if not members of the Duke community.
TC: So the principle that Duke stakeholders should be involved in the process holds, but the issue of transparency doesn’t feel as pressing once you’ve seen what it takes to do the work of the Board?
JH: No, no it feels pressing in different ways, and pressing as a part of a set of much larger concerns about how we are to do what we are charged with doing as a Board.
TC: As opposed to being an end in itself it’s—
JH: One of many factors, concerns and values at play.
TC: What’s the process of becoming a Trustee? Is there a Trustee 101 book to read?
JH: There is. It’s very long actually. There’s a great deal of basic information to learn. And on top of that, there’s a great number of people to meet and get to know—administrators, faculty, Trustees and students. It’s as much about developing a web of personal relationships as it is about mastering a great deal of information.
TC: How does knowing the history of the school inform your work as Trustee?
JH: You need to know the history of Duke in order to work within its present. But very importantly, what you learn from the history of Duke is how flexible and forward-thinking this institution has been to an extent that may be unique among great American research universities.
Even in terms of chronology, this is the youngest great university in the world. We became a university in 1924. And the rapidity with which Duke threw itself into faculty hiring in the humanities in the 1980s, and then turned in the 1990s and 2000s its focus toward just revolutionizing what we had in the hard sciences and engineering, and then more recently went into global education and internationalization, all the while embracing interdisciplinarity in a way that very few universities did and still do. All of these things are remarkable. By learning the history of Duke, you don’t just learn the timeless practices that are repeated each year, what you learn really is the habit of consistent innovation that Duke embodies.
When I was thinking about where to go to college and it was a tough choice between Harvard, Princeton and Duke, one thing that attracted me to Duke, which was unique, was that at Duke I felt like I would have the opportunity to help make the university what it would become. Things here were not set in place, but there would actually be some level of openness so that what I thought would actually be important. That probably set the stage for me wanting to be a member of the Board. There was always the attitude here that this is an institution that can change, that can adapt. That you as students, faculty, administrators, trustees, can help make.
TC: This year is the first time freshmen are eligible to apply for Young Trustee. Do you think as a freshman you would have had the experience to be the sort of trustee you became after graduating?
JH: This is an easy question, and the answer is no. There is no question in my mind that I could not have been an effective Trustee when I was a student.
On the one hand, I wouldn’t have known enough about Duke and about the world to fulfill this role. And also, it would have put me in a position, of being a constituent of some part of Duke, which no other Trustee is in. So, from an experience standpoint and from a perspective standpoint, I would have found it strange, and I imagine older trustees would have found it strange as well to serve alongside someone who was riding the C-1 to meetings from Pegram.