The independent news organization of Duke University

Profs react to Chafe's decision

The happiest man to learn about William Chafe's announcement Sunday that he would be stepping down as dean of the faculty of arts and sciences may have been John Thompson, chair of the history department.

At a time when Chafe himself has had to limit departmental searches in Arts and Sciences, Chafe's own return to teaching and research will come when the department is seeking to rebuild its American history core after the loss of faculty in the past few years.

"It's great," Thompson said. "Even historians who weren't his pals say how good it is that he's coming back."

Thompson praised Chafe as a great dean who has balanced many institutional priorities in one of the hardest jobs at the University, but he delighted even more in the prospect that Chafe will return to scholarship. Chafe has said he hopes to work on a book about segregation and another about character and politics in America.

"He's one of the most important historians of 20th century American history breathing," Thompson said of Chafe, who served as chair of the department himself in the early 1990s and once considered an offer to go to Yale University, home of one of the nation's top-ranked history departments.

Other members of the Arts and Sciences community commended Chafe as a top dean and historian.

Robert Thompson, dean of Trinity College, has served in part as Chafe's right-hand man as the head of undergraduate academics in Arts and Sciences.

"I hold Bill in the highest regard," he said. "It's been a real privilege to be able to work with him these six years now.... He's also put together a really strong team and he gives those individuals, myself included, considerable latitude in how we define what we're doing and how we go about doing it."

Berndt Mueller, dean of natural sciences, said that he credited Chafe with much in his eight years as dean-from Curriculum 2000's planning and implementation to improving the quality of undergraduates and enhancing the undergraduate experience.

"The student body, the undergraduates, compared to when I came to Duke 30 years ago, are so much more diverse and better. He has made a tremendous difference," Mueller said.

Mueller also gave Chafe high marks for making the dean's office more efficient and effective, thereby attracting top faculty, keeping their trust and allowing the faculty to grow.

Mueller's colleague, Karla Holloway, dean of humanities and social sciences, had an even closer link with Chafe - both are deeply interested in issues of diversity and the experience of black people in American life.

"My first relationship with Duke University was on a Rockefeller Fellowship at the Duke-UNC Center for Research for Women, which was a center he had started," Holloway said. "My scholarly relationship with him intersects from my beginnings with this campus. I know we both share a passion and respect for the work in African and African-American studies and the way in which the history of this country is intimately shaped by Africans and African-Americans."

No one thought the issue of finding a successor was pressing Monday, although neither Mueller, Holloway nor Robert Thompson ruled out becoming a candidate. Thompson's term as dean will end in June 2006 - two years after Chafe is scheduled to step down. He said he has no plans to step down early and noted the work ahead for both he and Chafe - including a planned review of the new curriculum.

He also anticipated some sort of restructuring within his office and the dean of the faculty's office when a new dean is chosen. "That's certainly a question now, 'Am I going to be a candidate?' My thought about that is I haven't made that decision yet," Thompson said.

Mueller was equally tight-lipped, but said that it was not necessary that the next dean-who will continue to place a heavy emphasis on growth in the sciences and engineering - actually come from the sciences.

"Everybody at Duke has to consider that option at this point," Mueller said of his possible interest in succeeding Chafe. "I see no reason to tell you I'm taking myself out of that pot."

Holloway likewise said it was important to find a new dean who would be able to balance the interests of each of the three Arts and Sciences divisions. Both her five-year term and Mueller's are scheduled to conclude in summer 2004 as well.

"Quite frankly, it's a question of, 'Will I remain at Duke?'" she said. "And if I do remain at Duke, I imagine there are many ways to think about my future here."

Discussion

Share and discuss “Profs react to Chafe's decision” on social media.