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Brodhead, Rubenstein discuss University’s future following Board of Trustees meeting

<p>President Richard Brodhead noted that Duke is always trying to strike a balance between the University experience and affordability.</p>

President Richard Brodhead noted that Duke is always trying to strike a balance between the University experience and affordability.

Following Saturday's Board of Trustees meeting, in which a 3.8 percent increase in undergraduate tuition was approved, The Chronicle's Rachel Chason and Amrith Ramkumar spoke with President Richard Brodhead and David Rubenstein, Trinity '70 and chair of the Board of Trustees, after the meeting about the tuition increase, other meeting notes and the University's long-term goals.

The Chronicle: The February meeting is normally one for strategic planning. How would you say that process went today?

Richard Brodhead: It was a really good meeting, but the funny thing is that if you say, 'Prove it and give me a headline,’ the nature of how good it was means we don’t have a lot of headlines. 'Great trustee meeting yields few headlines' would actually be the truest headline you could publish.

David Rubenstein: When we have a retreat like today, we spend time on the more strategic issues and not so much on the day-to-day. It gives people a sense of where the University is going. I’m on too many boards—I’m on 30 nonprofit boards—and this is by the far most collegial board I have worked on. It’s amazing how many people actually show up. We have 37 people, and only two were missing. On the Board people take it very seriously—they fly in from California or wherever they need to come from. It’s a very cohesive board that gets along very well and is a very diverse board. 

We want to make sure we’re the best University that we can be given our resources. We want to make sure that we’re prepared for the next 10 or 15 years, and that the experience is good for the faculty, for the administrators, for the students and also that the alums stay engaged. We’re trying to balance making sure that the day-to-day life for students is good and that we are preparing for the next generations.

TC: The co-chairs of the task force on bias and hate issues presented to the Trustees, how did that conversation go?

DR: The two co-chairs reported to the Board, and they’re going to complete their report in April. They had an interim assessment, but no definitive recommendations yet.

RB: All the members of the committee have made themselves available to meet with lots of people in different schools, and I think that has been much appreciated. We want to take the proper time to understand these things and figure out what the best actions are—that’s not the same as saying, 'Let’s take a lot of time to do nothing.' Everyone is committed to finding possible ways to improve.

TC: Nobel laureate Paul Modrich also spoke to the Board today, what were the Trustees' impressions of the Nobel Prize winner?

DR: Paul Modrich came in, and I would say he was one of the more modest Nobel Prize winners I’ve ever met. He came in and introduced himself and said thank you.

RB: He said ‘Other people deserve all the credit.’

TC: The new undergraduate and graduate Young Trustees were recently elected. What have the Young Trustees currently on the Board been contributing in meetings? 

DR: The Young Trustees have a lot to say, and they’re actually really listened to. People are really paying attention to them and considering what they have to say. The Young Trustee process worked quite well. I think we may have more young trustees than any other major university.

TC: One of the most important long-term goals of the University is to sustain Duke Kunshan University. Did DKU come up at all during the meeting?

RB: I spent eight days in China in January, so I did a long update. I talked about going to the National Science Foundation and the Chinese Academy and the way that DKU is beginning to be embraced by Chinese entities that will be sources of intellectual partnerships and even research funding. We’re deep in it. The Trustees are very attentive to this—people follow this very carefully, as of course they should.

DR: I think it’s going to be an important part of Duke. Going forward, if you’re not connected to China in some way, you’re not really a global force because China will be the biggest country in the world in terms of its economy and population and so forth in our lifetimes. We made an early effort to connect with China, and we did it in a way that was different from a lot of other universities. Our willingness to build a university from scratch is getting a lot of attention in China. It seems to be working so far, but there’s a lot of work to be done.

TC: The tuition increased by 3.8 percent for the second straight year and is approaching $50,000. Is there a point at which you expect those increases to stop?

RB: We’re always trying to strike a balance between affordability and the rich experience people want when they come to a school like this, and that takes investment. Our policy has always been to mitigate the cost increases through financial aid increases, and our increase in the financial aid budget is always significantly higher than our increase of the tuition, and that’ll be true this year.

Of all the subjects we discuss, the single one about which the Trustees are most passionate is the topic of need-based financial aid. There was a very long discussion of that today, and how exactly it works and who it reaches and questions that could be asked about long-term scenarios or even long-term threats to such a system. If I were a student I would be quite surprised to see how very uniformly high the degree of passion, of commitment to need-blind admission and need-based financial aid is. 

TC: Another major long-term initiative for the Board is obviously construction. What have the Trustees thought about the projects that have been completed so far, and what are they looking forward to?

DR: It wasn’t an intentional thing to rebuild the campus. We didn’t say five or 10 years ago that we need to refresh the campus and let’s start a giant campaign, but every single area seemed to need something. We began to work on things building to building, area to area, and at some point it came together that we were reconstructing a large part of the campus. I think what will happen is that you and your successors will have a very modern campus—with traditional architecture but very new facilities.

RB: Duke used to have some very beautiful buildings that were very crumby inside. Five or six years ago we were just coming out of the biggest financial downturn since 1929, so none of us saw this coming, but it turned out to be possible. We had a coalescence of great architecture, the means to do it and the need to do it, and now these things will never need to be done again. West Union will be good for 80 or 90 years—these are real long-term investments. I know that it is irritating to experience construction day-by-day—I know this because I have a construction project outside my house—but when they’re done, I never heard anyone walk into the Rubenstein Library and say, ‘Aw, why didn’t they leave it the way it was.’ It’s not an upgrade, it’s the creation of a new university inside the shell of an old one.

TC: In addition to the ongoing curriculum review process, a major topic among faculty right now is unionization. What have you thought about the recent efforts by faculty to gain the ability to negotiate with the University by forming a union?

RB: It’s a choice people are free to make. The choice is: do you want to try to strike terms for yourself, or would you rather have a group of people represented by the union strike terms for you? Historically, everyone in the world would have to say that there were periods where unions were incredibly productive and necessary forces, but there are other circumstances where people might make the other choice. The University is free to have it’s own point of view, but we certainly would not coerce anyone to have that, so we have respected people’s rights.

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