The independent news organization of Duke University

Alums recall Keohane legacy

How will you remember President Nan Keohane?

For nearly a generation of students, the question calls back many fond--and a few not-so-fond--memories of life under the University's eighth president.

Members from the Class of 1999 descended on campus last weekend for their five-year reunion, and although most of their reminiscing was about favorite professors and late-night escapades with friends, at least a portion of their collective memories was devoted to that question and the mark Keohane has left on Duke during her presidency.

A sampling of those memories reveals that the Class of 1999, like those classes before it and since, appreciated Keohane's determination to bring Duke into the highest echelon of national research universities from both an academic and infrastructure perspective, albeit at the expense of what was once Duke's unique brand of undergraduate social life.

"Nan did an excellent job focusing on what she wanted Duke's identity to be while keeping Duke distinct from our peers," said Justin Klein, who served as president of the Class of 1999 when he was at the University.

Many of Klein's peers took note of the shift in balance at Duke to place greater emphasis on academics, at the expense of social life.

"She definitely took the school to another level in academic status, but in doing that, she also took the fun out of the school because she seems to recruit a different kind of student," said Robert Haile, Trinity '99. "On the other hand, she's definitely made Duke's diploma more valuable."

Jeremy Blitzer, another member of the Trinity Class of 1999, echoed those sentiments, noting that in the past students had been more interested in sports and alcohol but now are more concerned with academics.

Indeed, the University's apparent crackdown on social life in the past decade--from the elimination of many fraternities to the removal of kegs from quads to the closing of the Hideaway, an on-campus bar, in 2001--has been a hot topic during Keohane's presidency that continues today.

Keohane has long downplayed such concerns, noting that the campus was talking about the "death of the social scene" when she arrived at Duke in 1993 and consistently pointing to increased regulations by national greek organizations as the cause of most of Duke's alcohol policy changes. Still, alumni place much of the blame on her shoulders.

"Nan didn't realize the importance that the students placed on having fun as well as having a good academic experience," said Margaret Stewart, Trinity '99. "And not just the social scene--she [also] didn't put enough emphasis on the importance of extracurricular activities."

Added Trinity graduate Elizabeth Alsbrooks: "Duke's a more serious school now because of her tenure here. [Greek life] its a bit more restrictive, but it really depends on whose viewpoint you looking at."

Classmate Bjorn Johnson said he thought the changes are overstated.

"The big thing [for alums] to criticize is losing the social and party scene. It's something that all alums gripe about, but I just don't think that much was lost."

Andy Wong, another Trinity graduate, agreed and even noted added benefits to Keohane's tenure.

"Nan brought in the school spirit and pride that we now see within the student body," he said. "She definitely made it stronger academically then it was, but I don't think that anything was lost per se."

Social life changes went hand-in-hand with changes to residential life, for which Keohane draws much praise for.

Klein, like most others, pointed to the University's decision--largely spearheaded by Keohane--to make East Campus exclusively freshmen as one of the great moments in Duke's recent history. Controversial at the time, the move now seems like a no-brainer.

"[It] was one of the best things she did.... It was a huge success among the students," he said.

Others commended Keohane's work in opening doors for women at Duke and her trademark leadership style.

"She was great for the female students at Duke--being a woman and such a success and so influential," Trink Lisko added. "As a female she was someone to look up to."

Added fellow '99er Ashlyn Jordan: "Her personality has come through as she has been the leader of the University. She has led a mature and poised university because that's her style, and it has shown through."

And, of course, many members of the Class of 1999 looked to the $2.36 billion Campaign for Duke and its immediate impact on campus as Keohane's greatest legacy.

"I think her biggest contribution was that she raised a lot of money for Duke," classmate Catherine Stanwick said. "In the five years that I have been gone, there have been tremendous changes to Duke... a new gym, new dorms. It seems to have changed completely."