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Q&A: Brodhead discusses state of athletics

In his three years at Duke, President Richard Brodhead has seen the highs and lows of Duke athletics. The same athletics program that achieved the University's highest-ever finish in the 2005 Director's Cup has come under increased scrutiny following last spring's men's lacrosse scandal. Before winter break, Brodhead sat down with The Chronicle's Greg Beaton to discuss the state of athletics at Duke.

You spoke last spring of improving communication between athletics and the rest of the University. Have the changes made been effective so far?

Of the lessons in last spring, the most practical was our need to have clearer lines of communication from the world of student conduct to that of coaches. People sat right down to that last spring and in the early summer and created a much clearer expectation of who would be informed of what and what kinds of steps would be taken in response.

I have to say this has been a significant success. It was an issue last spring; there were things coaches did not know about that everybody assumed they did know about. So we've just been trying to make sure the flow of information is consistent. I think that's been both successful and important.

The truth of the matter is that finding out about bad behavior so that you can punish it is an important part of the problem but the least interesting part of it. Much more important is trying to clarify the norms that student-athletes-and students in general-are expected to live by.

What has your interaction been like with the men's lacrosse team?

I met with the lacrosse team on a number of occasions last year. I met with its captains once, I met with the whole team for an extended meeting at the beginning of May, and of course I had interactions at the time the program was restarted. This fall, I visited one of their practices. It's funny, because they practice very early in the morning. So I met with them at about a quarter of eight in the morning one time-that was fun.

But I like to drop in at lots of sports events. I like to watch the life of the University in all its forms. This year, I've been to field hockey games, soccer games, I've been at the football games. Of course I've been at the basketball games. I dropped in at a football practice, I dropped in at a men's lacrosse practice. I intend to do so in the future with other teams.

How would you evaluate Joe Alleva's leadership of the Department of Athletics?

I'm in my third year as president. I met Joe as I met many others before I became president, because I spent six months here in my transition. I really have almost three full years of working with Joe as with everyone else here.

I think it would be fair to say athletics has thrived at Duke in the time that I've been here. Look how many teams have gone so far in postseason championship play. I'm also going to take note of Duke leading the pack in graduation rates of schools with strong sports programs. That's great too because the whole point is we really try to take the student-athlete concept seriously here and not just have students who are great athletes who do not participate in the academic life of the school.

Our one Rhodes scholar this year was a varsity athlete and a captain of a team. That's great. One of the things that's very much to Joe's credit is the evenness of attention that's been given to lots of sports. There are some schools where only a couple sports are taken seriously. I think Joe takes them all seriously, which is a very good thing. To be sure, last spring was a challenging time for him and his department as it was for the rest of the university.

Joe Alleva is the athletic director of this place, and he's our athletic director going forward.

Coming from Yale, has the transition been hard coming to a place where a greater emphasis is placed on athletics?

I was at an Ivy league institution before, and now I'm at a different kind of institution with many, many things in common between them. At both of them, athletics was part of the health and vitality and community of the university.

Duke competes at a different level athletically, and I knew that perfectly well when I came here and I embraced that. At the same time, I came here party because I knew that the equation here involved both academics and athletics.

What do you believe the role of athletics should be at a great university?

Here's a fact: There aren't university systems in the world that don't have anything to do with athletics. If you go to European universities, you'll find that to be so for the most part. America has the leading university system in the world, and the compounding of athletics and academics, it's hard to explain to foreigners, but it no doubt has something to do with the vitality and vibrancy of American universities. It doesn't mean that athletics are a value by themselves. They shouldn't be. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't have an important role as part of the equation. And when I ask myself, what is that role, here is my answer:

Athletics have something to do with the pursuit of excellence that has important symbolic meaning in a university setting. They have something to do with teamwork at a time when teamwork has more to do than ever with the skills needed for success in the future. They have something to do with community formation. When I go to Duke sports events, I don't just see sports junkies. I see everybody brought into a community by those events. That's a profound experience.

This is a time when it's important to understand what are the positive values of athletics in a university setting and to make sure we're always reinforcing those values.

There are a thousand ways to abuse the role of athletics at a university. The best way to abuse it is to act as if athletics is a supreme value by itself and to detach it from the other things a university cares about.

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