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Portrait of a presidency: a decade under Brodhead

The view from President Richard Brodhead’s office in the Allen Building is not what it was when he came to Duke in the Summer of 2004. A glimpse out the window now shows the West Campus main quadrangle fenced off and full of construction materials, as crews work on a complete overhaul of the historic heart of the school—a snapshot of a campus undergoing dramatic, inspired, expensive change. But with 10 years as president now behind him, Brodhead has overseen change at Duke that goes far beyond the physical. The University has pushed boundaries academically, expanded its global reach and raised billions of dollars. Duke has also weathered no small number of crises and missteps—including a crippling economic downturn and the lacrosse scandal that thrust the University into the national spotlight in 2006.

And Brodhead has been at the helm of it all.

An "Endless Education"

When asked to describe Brodhead, fellow administrators across the board list one quality first—his intelligence.

“I’m trying to think of a word that does justice to the word ‘smart,’” said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president of public affairs and government relations. “Dick is brilliant.”

His warmth, wit and vision for Duke are also mentioned repeatedly. But Brodhead himself isn’t given to discussing his own virtues. When asked his strengths and weaknesses, he initially demurs.

“I’m not the kind of person who sits around thinking about things like that,” he said. “I actually don’t find myself a very interesting subject to reflect on.”

The list of subjects he does find interesting, however, is long. The “endless education” of meeting students and faculty and discussing their work is his favorite part of his job, he says. A professor for several decades at Yale before assuming the Duke presidency, Brodhead still considers himself a teacher at heart, and sees his current position as an extension of that role.

His time in the presidency has provided him ample opportunity to teach and be taught. As he begins his 11th year as president, Brodhead builds on an era that has seen Duke at the best it’s ever been. To be sure, there's been plenty of the bad and the ugly—but there is much to discuss regarding the good.

Interdisciplinarity and knowledge in the service of society have been key buzzwords to the Brodhead era, with the creation of several new academic institutes and the establishment of signature programs such as DukeEngage to this end. The rise in global initiatives has also been pronounced.

“[Brodhead] saw Duke as a place that was very innovative and very flexible and could be inspired to do some new things,” said Peter Lange, who served as provost from 1999 to 2014. “He also had a very good conception of how universities needed to change somewhat for the 21st century, and Duke was a place he could really do that.”

Fundraising is another a major point. The first major project Brodhead launched as president, the Financial Aid Initiative raised $300 million in new endowment to make Duke more affordable. Currently, the University is in the middle of its largest-ever capital campaign, Duke Forward, which aims to raise $3.25 billion by 2017. The campaign is tracking slightly ahead of schedule, with more than $2.5 billion raised so far. Several administrators noted Brodhead’s ability to connect with alumni and donors as a particular strength of his.

“Raising money is not just like going to the ATM and putting your card in and saying thank you,” Schoenfeld said. “You’ve got to be able to compel people to voluntarily give what may be their most precious resource. You’ve got to get them excited and make them believe that what they can do is really changing the world. At the level that we’re at, that’s what fundraising is.”

Under Brodhead, Duke has made major steps toward globalization. In 2005, the University partnered with the National University of Singapore to establish Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, the first medical school in Singapore to follow an American model of medical education. The Duke Global Health Institute, founded in 2006, has also met with success and been credited with trailblazing new sorts of cross-disciplinary work in its field.

But not all global work has been met as positively. Duke Kunshan University, the institution's first full branch campus abroad, opened its doors in China's Jiangsu province in Fall 2014—after years of planning and re-planning, construction delays and heated debate. A number of faculty members took issue with the administration's approach to DKU, saying too much had been done behind closed doors and not enough had been done to ensure that Duke's values, such as academic freedom, would be maintained in China. Others questioned why the University was diverting resources to such a large undertaking overseas.

"It’s both a risk and a challenge we’ve taken on, the results of which are not going to necessarily be seen as paying off in a big way for some time to come," Schoenfeld said of DKU.

The Brodhead legacy is physical as well, with significant construction underway in Durham. By 2017, renovations to West Union, Page Auditorium, Perkins and Bostock Libraries, the Duke Chapel, the Bryan Center, Wallace Wade Stadium and Cameron Indoor Stadium will have been completed—essentially, the entire heart of the campus.

“The whole common space of this University will basically have been recreated,” Brodhead said. He sees the construction as more than physical, however: “It’s never about the buildings. This is all about connectivity, relationships, interaction… You’re building the kinds of places where people can connect and be connected.”

By any number of measures, Duke has advanced under Brodhead—it is more selective, research has increased, the endowment has grown, the medical center has expanded.

“While he has been here, Duke’s reputation has improved,” said Sue Wasiolek, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “There have been some speed bumps along the way, there have been some blips, but if you look at the beginning of his tenure and you look at where Duke is right now, the trajectory has been upward.”

All The President's Men

Of course, a president doesn’t run a university alone. Brodhead was surrounded by the same core team for the first nine years of his tenure—with Lange as provost, Tullman Trask as executive vice president and Victor Dzau as chancellor and CEO of Duke University Health System. But while Brodhead is far from being solely responsible for Duke’s progress, he is an instrumental part.

“These things don’t happen without the president,” Lange said. “There’s no natural evolution.”

Brodhead’s vision for the University is detailed and deliberate, but his leadership style doesn’t involve intensive work at the ground level, fellow administrators say. He is known for giving his colleagues space—space to operate on their own, space to disagree with him, space to pursue their own ideas.

“He very much is somebody who is visionary and conveys that vision, and people then are asked to just do it,” said Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education. “Dick certainly stays at that 30,000 foot level, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Asked to describe his own leadership style, Brodhead settles on the term “collegial.” His management training comes from teaching seminars, he noted—finding an interesting question and encouraging others to think about it in creative ways.

“Universities rarely work well when somebody declares martial law,” Schoenfeld said. “You really have to be able to bring together a lot of people who may have very different, sometimes conflicting, agendas and perspectives and get them to work together towards a common goal. And that’s what he does.”

Crisis Averted

But the good of Brodhead’s tenure has been accompanied by the bad and the ugly. From his first day in office—literally—he has been no stranger to crisis.

As Brodhead unpacked his belongings in 207 Allen Building on June 28, 2004, he received the news that men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski had received an offer from the Los Angeles Lakers—and the coaching legend was seriously considering taking it.

“Coach Krzyzewski and I are exactly the same age. We were born within six weeks of each other,” Brodhead noted. “He’d been here [almost] as long as I’d been at Yale, so I felt I had some sense of what it’s like to be tempted by the prospect of a new opportunity.”

Brodhead joined students in an impromptu Krzyzewskiville rally, chanting through a megaphone for Coach K to stay. A week later, he announced that he would. The crisis was short-lived, but it was high-profile—and it was but first in a long list.

Hardly more than a month later, discussion began mounting around the Palestinian Solidarity Movement’s annual national conference, scheduled to be held at Duke that Fall. A pro-Palestinian organization with the goal of ending Israeli occupation of the land it considers Palestine, PSM’s previous conferences had attracted controversy and protest, and the one at Duke was no different. The University’s decision to allow students to host the conference was widely criticized—particularly by Jewish and pro-Israel groups—but Duke held firmly to its position, with Brodhead averring that to cancel the conference would be to violate principles of academic freedom and open discourse.

“Early on, we had this Palestinian thing, and I learned that he had very much the same approach that I did—which was to keep things low-key, to be very true to basic principles like free speech,” Lange said.

The controversy took center stage as Brodhead began his first school year as president, with the conference attracting national media attention. It paled in comparison, however, to what came a year and a half later—the Duke lacrosse case.

'A big mess'

“It was a set of events that unraveled in a way you never could have figured out and never could have predicted,” Trask said.

An imperfect storm of sex, race, class, a media firestorm and a corrupt district attorney, the case thrust Duke into the national spotlight for months. An exotic dancer hired for a party thrown by members of the men’s lacrosse team alleged that she had been raped, leading Brodhead to cancel the lacrosse season and force the resignation the team’s head coach, Mike Pressler. Three team members were then arrested and charged shortly thereafter.

The case quickly made national headlines—woven into narratives of race, privilege, sex, athletic culture and more. But as the investigation proceeded, the allegations proved false and the district attorney responsible for the case, Mike Nifong, was exposed as corrupt and disbarred.

“You had a charge that was itself highly sensational. You then had, within a small number of days—the district attorney began making a series of extremely inflammatory statements to the effect that the accusation was true,” Brodhead said. “You had the press from the whole world descending on Durham and of course, on the backyards of the students who eventually were accused. The lurid prurience that our press is so addicted to—can you find a single press article from that time that suggests the importance of the presumption of innocence? You can’t, that’s not the sort of thing the press writes about.”

Brodhead and other members of the administration were widely criticized for Duke’s handling of the case, with many saying that the University had failed to prioritize and support its students. The blogosphere filled with calls for Brodhead to resign. Members of the team—both the accused and non-accused—filed several lawsuits against the University and the city of Durham, among other parties.

Now, the case is held up as a prototypical example of presuming guilty until proven innocent. Brodhead noted that as it was unfolding, it looked quite different.

“The district attorney speaking on the authority of the criminal justice system as if the accuser was right—that’s what made our situation so difficult,” Brodhead said. “There was really no proper way that the president of the University could take on the DA. And it took a long time for that situation to unwind, a long time.”

The evolution of the case makes it difficult to pinpoint any specific instances where he might have acted differently with the information he had at the time, he says. But when asked the biggest regret of his time in office, he did not hesitate to cite lacrosse.

“Anyone here would understand the the whole lacrosse episode is deeply associated with regret,” Brodhead said. “Whether in real time, things could have been handled dramatically differently, I’ll never know.”

The impact of the lacrosse case on the University was profound, perhaps as high-profile a scandal as any school has ever faced. The final lawsuit closed only last year, and the case continues to make its way into many a conversation about sex, race or sports at Duke. Some note that the impact on Brodhead was personal as well.

“That would have been searing for any leader,” said Schoenfeld, who came to Duke in 2008, as the case was drifting into the background. “I think that the sort of relentless barrage and attacks on President Brodhead’s personal integrity and personal decisions, it would have been difficult for anybody to withstand. I’ve seen him over the last seven years—as that has receded further and further in history—I’ve seen him become increasingly both eager and comfortable in engaging with different publics.”

The case had ramifications for leadership at Duke as a whole, Wasiolek said.

“I don’t think I’m in a great position to say whether he was gun-shy or not [after lacrosse], but I believe the institution is,” Wasiolek said. “I know that I am. I know that I have a higher level of fear associated with just making decisions, and I have a much greater tendency to collaborate, to check in, to consult.… That’s how I would describe just the institution as a whole as a result of the lacrosse case.”

The next crisis Duke faced was of a completely different nature—the financial meltdown of 2008. In just two months, the University lost a quarter of its endowment.

“It was a big mess,” said Trask, who manages the University’s finances. “I’d never lost $1.5 billion in 60 days.”

Essentially every aspect of the University’s operations was at risk in one way or another. The University decided not to cut back on what it deemed “core commitments,” such as financial aid or pursuing interdisciplinary work, Brodhead said. Instead, the administration opted to postpone construction and cut costs in numerous smaller ways, including freezing pay raises.

“It was a perilous time for higher education, for the economy, for healthcare,” Schoenfeld said.

The University’s endowment returned to pre-recession levels last year.

“At same time, we were still moving forward even during the recession,” Brodhead noted. “That’s the Duke story. Duke was built during the middle of the Great Depression. A university that can only do well during conditions of rare prosperity is not a very well-run university.”

Lacrosse and the financial meltdown together represent the two “institutional threats” of the Brodhead era, Lange noted. Although other moments of crisis—including the Palestinian Solidarity Movement conference and the recent call-to-prayer controversy—seemed crucial in the moment, they were not of great consequence in the long term.

“It’s pretty remarkable how early in Dick’s career, he had a number of serious crises and kept moving through,” Nowicki said. “You can look at details about whether he should have done this or done that, but at the end of the day, despite all these crises—including the recent ones, the call-to-prayer, the noose incident—you know, it actually hasn’t had a huge negative impact on Duke.”

Building on the foundation

It remains to be seen exactly what Brodhead’s legacy will be. In many ways, Brodhead has built on the work of his predecessor, Nan Keohane, who was credited with elevating Duke as a research institution and improving the status of the graduate and professional schools.

“When I first got to Duke, there was this insidious statement—’Duke, the Harvard of the South,’” said Nowicki, who arrived at Duke as an associate professor in 1989. “We started getting over that under Nan, and I think that under Dick, we went from getting over to that to ‘Let Duke be Duke’ to ‘We are Duke.’”

Still, only time will tell the strength of some of Brodhead’s projects—the impact of the young-but-beleaguered Duke Kunshan University, the long-term benefits of DukeForward. And time will likely shorten the shadows cast by lacrosse and other controversies.

“Duke takes a lot of risks, and I think we’re institutionally fairly tolerant of things that may not work out the way that you wanted…. We don’t have a stock price. We don’t have a ticker every day,” Schoenfeld said. “That’s a tremendous opportunity for us as an institution, because we can afford to take the long view. And that’s how we’ll be measured, and we’ll be evaluated on our contribution to making Duke and society a better place.”

'Betwixt two things'

Brodhead’s decision to come to Duke was not a simple one. For nearly four decades, he had called a different institution home—Yale. Brodhead arrived as a 17-year-old freshman in 1964 and never left, going on to receive his Ph.D in English at the university and serve as a professor before becoming Dean of Yale College. Yale was where he had met his wife, Cindy, where he had grown from student to teacher to administrator. He had been offered positions at other universities in the past, but he had declined them all—until Duke came calling.

“It was a complicated choice,” Brodhead said. “I was very happy at Yale…. I knew everybody, everybody knew me. I had a job I was perfectly suited for.”

Duke was similar to Yale in its commitment to excellence, but it was different enough to present an intriguing challenge, Brodhead said. Accepting the position was “a leap of faith”—he had visited the campus only once—but he decided to take it.


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