The independent news organization of Duke University

Brodhead in his element at Duke

Richard H Brodhead
File 1086/03  frame 4
Richard H Brodhead File 1086/03 frame 4

When Richard Brodhead, Dean of Yale College, sits in his office--a place that oozes Ivy League tradition--it is difficult to imagine him as president of Duke.

And then he begins to talk.

"Duke is in an enchanted forest in the middle of a city," he says, his face lighting up as he talks about his future home. "Duke is an urban, silvan campus.... You can walk around and feel that it's a great school."

Suddenly it becomes the most natural thing in the world to think of Brodhead, who loves hiking, as the future president of Duke.

He already owns a Cameron Crazy shirt, which a student gave him the weekend his appointment at Duke was announced. He is attending many of the NCAA Tournament games, flying to Atlanta and San Antonio with either his son, Daniel--who graduated from Yale in 2001--or his wife, Cynthia.

Although he confesses that he has not yet mastered the Duke fight song--"just the timing of certain key aspects" are giving him difficulty, he says--the man who has spent all his life at Yale is slowly becoming a Blue Devil.

As closely as Brodhead is associated with Yale, colleagues say it will not be long before his name conjures images of Duke.

"I'm very sad for us and very happy for Duke," says Thomas McDow, dean of Branford College, one of Yale's residential colleges. "This might be the thing it takes for me to pull for Duke basketball."

Everyone at Yale seems to love Richard Brodhead, and every person you encounter there is quick to tell you that. Students say, "He's a great guy." "Oh, we're so sad to lose him." "Duke is really lucky."

Faculty look mournful at the thought of his departure. "Many of us have never known a Yale without Dick," says Deputy Provost Charles Long, who has known Brodhead since he first came to Yale as an undergraduate.

Brodhead has been a fixture at the university for more than 40 years, first as an undergraduate student, then as one of the brightest English graduate students to walk the halls that have produced scholars among the likes of Harold Bloom.

As a young professor, Brodhead's classes drew praise and crowds. After only five years on the faculty, he won the University's most prestigious teaching award.

He is one of the world's leading English scholars, specializing in American literature. His most noteworthy works concern Moby Dick and the works of Charles Chestnutt, a leading black author of the post-Civil War era. He also has done substantial work on the history of post-emancipation North Carolina.

He has won numerous scholarship awards, and in 2002 received a presidential appointment to the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

Clearly, the man is talented. But he's also loved in an almost mystical way; no one will admit to having a negative experience with him.

"I don't know how Brodhead has captured that image--the love of everyone," junior Joe Light says. He paused for a moment, thinking about exactly why Brodhead is so admired. "Freshman year you learn that Dean Brodhead is a really cool guy. You're not sure why he's a cool guy, but he is."

Perhaps this aura originates from his freshman convocation speeches, which are legendary for their wit and ability to inspire. Four years later, many seniors report still vivid memories of hearing Brodhead bellow, "Welcome to Yale," in his deep, distinctive voice.  

Even more students recall his passionate plea encouraging them to take full advantage of their education both in and outside of the classroom.

He takes on an unusually large number of advisees--often juggling more than 20 at a time--and most student leaders have worked with him to some degree. Brodhead frequently ducks into the back of student performances, and when he walks across campus, he stops and chats with students he knew well at one time but no longer frequently sees.

In one famous story, Brodhead was chatting with a group of students at a dinner and the topic turned to Dance Dance Revolution, a fully interactive dance video game.

Two weeks after the conversation, Brodhead showed up at a freshman dormitory to see the game in action. "Whether I actually played, we won't go there," he says, smiling.

Students say he played.

Across campus he is known for this willingness to try new things and sense of humor. Students affectionately know him as "Dick" and jokes about his name are already commonplace at Duke. In typical manner, Brodhead stutters just a little as he declines to comment on his nicknames. "What I'm called behind my back is none of my business," he says.

He hesitates to talk about himself at all and is openly puzzled that anyone would want to read about him or his life. Only after much prodding does he admit to being a fan of Charlie Kaufman movies and a "card addict."

Even as Brodhead reveals how he spends some of his free time, he attests that the primary activity he does for fun is his job.

He and his wife frequently entertain everyone from students to visiting dignitaries. So many of their guests are affiliated with Yale that they have reached "the point where you stop thinking about what's fun and what's work," she says.

Cynthia Brodhead, who will move to Duke with her husband this summer, is a lawyer in New Haven, but she plans to settle into life in Durham before committing to a job in the area.

"I'm really very interested to see what life in the South is like," she says.

Neither she nor Richard have much experience living outside of New England.

Richard Brodhead was born in Ohio and moved to Fairfield, Conn. when he was six years old. He went to the Mass. boarding school Phillips Andover Academy before he attended Yale.

He never joined a fraternity at Yale but his father, mother and brother were all Greek in college. He considers himself a product of the '60s and says that the events of that era reaffirmed his commitment to equality.

Perhaps because of this value, Brodhead is very careful about his decisions. By all accounts, he thinks about the root of a problem before taking any action. For example, the Report on Yale College--which Brodhead largely authored as the chair of the committee--includes not just a laundry list of desires for the university but also a detailed series of steps to implement them. He rarely takes action upon immediate demand.

"He doesn't like confrontation and he doesn't like conflict," Long says. "That doesn't mean that he takes the easy way out."

Several colleagues and students surmised that it is Brodhead's dislike of conflict that has kept him from commenting on unionization and other contentious issues at Yale. He has recently been criticized by Naomi Wolf, a former student of Harold Bloom who claims that she was sexually assaulted while a graduate student, for not acting on her complaints of sexual harassment when he was chair of the English department. At various points, women's groups have faulted Brodhead for not doing enough to promote women.

Several minority groups have said that he has not done enough to address racial and diversity issues on campus. He has listened to groups' concerns and seems to be supportive, but leaders claim there is little action taken as a result.

"You get so caught up in Brodhead's charisma and eloquence of what he's saying," says sophomore Emerson Davis, a member of Concerned Black Students at Yale. "Then he walks away and you realize what is lacking is the actual substance behind it in terms of initiating change."

Colleagues, on the other hand, say that Brodhead has been "very supportive" and an "inspirational leader." Lawrence Manley, an English professor who has been at Yale since 1976, says Brodhead had "a strong sense of the mission of undergraduate teaching."

Cynthia, who is reluctant to comment at all on her husband's motives or way of life, says the main draw of Duke was the people Richard met there. The presidency of Duke was a natural fit.

Richard Brodhead agreed, saying he "never intended to become a bureaucrat," but the opportunity to become part of Duke was too appealing to turn down.

"Duke doesn't take itself too seriously--in the bad sense of the word," he says, laughing at himself a little.

Well, neither does its new leader.


Share and discuss “Brodhead in his element at Duke” on social media.