The independent news organization of Duke University

A longtime Yalie heads south

When Richard Brodhead leaves Yale University for Duke at the end of the academic year, it will be the first time in almost 40 years that the Yale College dean and English professor will be permanently affiliated with a university other than the New Haven, Conn., Ivy.

Brodhead's legacy at Yale, however, will likely be just as notable for his style and recent accomplishments as for his lifelong dedication to his alma mater.

Known for always having a finger on the pulse of the undergraduate student body and recently highly praised for his review of Yale College's academic system, Brodhead entered his current position amid much less friendly times. Chair of the English department at the time, Brodhead took over as Yale College dean in 1993 amid faculty unrest that led to the resignations of his predecessor Donald Kagan and former Yale President Benno Schmidt.

But his attention to student concerns and public speaking abilities--including his famous annual Freshman Assembly speech--quickly won over the Yale community.

"Not only does he know the way we work, he wants to make sure he's constantly in touch with us," senior Lindsey Parker, secretary of the Yale College Council, told the Yale Daily News at the time of Brodhead's most recent five-year review.

Yale President Richard Levin was equally praiseworthy at the time of his approval of another five-year term.

"He's the embodiment, he's the perfect type of Yale College dean," Levin told the student daily. "[He is] the most eloquent speaker, the friendliest, the warmest, most respected you could imagine."

As dean, Brodhead has enjoyed wide-ranging responsibilities, including oversight of the faculty appointments and tenure review processes, and leadership responsibility for undergraduate education, housing and social life, student services, undergraduate admissions and financial aid.

Brodhead strutted his academic mettle over the past year, when he was charged to chair the first review of the College's academic system in over 30 years.

Forming a review committee that was 41-members strong, Brodhead bucked common thinking from day one, tossing out the idea that small review committees were most effective.

After months of study and debate among students and faculty, the committee agreed on a number of sweeping changes which are similar to those Duke itself took on in the creation of Curriculum 2000--including requiring all undergraduates to take two courses each in the humanities and arts, social sciences and natural sciences; two courses focusing on writing skills; two courses in quantitative reasoning; and most controversially, alteration of the foreign-language study requirement.

At his introductory press conference at Duke in December, Brodhead called the process a "great education" for him, and said Duke's own Curriculum 2000 made a strong impression on the committee.

"It was not just a shallow review; it was an attempt to rethink the foundations of undergraduate education," Brodhead explained. "In most universities, the curriculum is constructed department by department. Each department offers what people in that discipline think is appropriate to offer. And you get a lot of what makes a good education out of that. But there are many important things in an education that are not at the top of the priority list for any particular department. So a big task for us was not just to assess the adequacy, but to think, 'How can we supply in the future the means to fill in with equal strength the interstitial parts of the curriculum?'"

The entire process has led some in recent months to speculate that the curriculum review may be Brodhead's greatest legacy to Yale.

"[The review has] given a great leader an opportunity to make a permanent mark on the institution," Levin told the student paper in November. "I hope we'll look in retrospect as though it were a progressive and important series of changes."

What remains to be seen, of course, is how Brodhead's experiences at Yale will translate into his leadership at Duke.

Similar to outgoing President Nan Keohane when she arrived from Wellesley College more than a decade ago, he has little experience with the running of a major medical center and health system, and will need to make up much ground in this realm.

"You know, I've got a lot to learn about this place," Brodhead said at the press conference. "I don't really know how to run medical schools, for instance, but I promise you I'll learn it. But I do know an awful lot about undergraduate education and about its pleasures and about its aspirations and about its occasional deficiencies, and I will bring that sense here."

With Brodhead's seemingly unfailing commitment to undergraduates, it will also be especially important to watch how he shapes undergraduate life at Duke, which under Keohane went through its own state of metamorphoses with the implementation of Curriculum 2000, a recent residential life overhaul and construction of the new student center on the horizon.

Without dining facilities in dormitories, Duke will likely not move as close to a "college" system as exists--and remains the hallmark of undergraduate life--at Yale, but more changes in that direction could be in the works.


Share and discuss “A longtime Yalie heads south” on social media.