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Looking back: How Duke selects its presidents

The last two presidents have both been announced December 12

Not much information has been revealed about the search to replace President Richard Brodhead—who announced he would retire in June 2017—but history lends some insight. 

Duke has conducted two prior searches over the past thirty years, culminating in the selections of Nannerl Keohane in 1992 and Brodhead in 2003. The present search, however, marks the first time Duke has hired a firm—Isaacson, Miller—to assist in the process. Jack Bovender, Trinity ’67,  Graduate School ’69 and vice-chair of the Board of Trustees, will lead the search committee, which also consists of students, faculty, alumni and other Trustees. 

Other peer institutions, such as Cornell University and George Washington University, are also looking for presidents. However, John Burness—former senior vice president for public affairs and government relations—said that the presidential opening at Duke is one of the the most attractive positions on the market.

"I don't think you're going to have to try very hard to get top notch people to be interested in the Duke presidency," Burness said. 

Handling the competition

Presidential searches typically do not exist in a vacuum and are accompanied by competitive pressure from other institutions conducting their own searches.  

The University faced particular competition during its 1992 search, which landed Keohane. At the time, Columbia University, Yale University and the University of Chicago were all looking for new presidents as well.

"We needed to be very quick in making our offer to whomever we were going to pick because it was highly likely that person could be a candidate at the other institutions," Burness said. 

Yale—Keohane's alma mater—was also considering her during its presidential search, he added. 

Allison Haltom, former university secretary, said the time frame of the 1992 search was slightly altered by the high competition but not tremendously. 

"Certainly, that has an impact on a search, but we had a timetable, and we worked within our timetable," she said.

Although Duke's search process has begun, past trends suggest that the announcement for Brodhead’s successor is still months away. Both the 1992 and 2003 presidential searches lasted about nine months, with both announcements—of Keohane and of Brodhead, respectively—incidentally coming Dec. 12. 

But presidential searches can end abruptly. In 2012, Yale's search committee selected Peter Salovey—formerly Yale's provost—as president only 65 days after the process began. The Yale Daily News suggested that competitive searches at Princeton and Dartmouth may have led to the quick hiring.

Cornell's search process could impact how soon Duke selects its president, Burness said. 

"Duke does better against Cornell than Cornell does against Duke when undergraduates are thinking for where they want to go to school, but it isn't a totally dominant thing," Burness said. "It's entirely reasonable that someone would find Cornell an incredibly attractive presidency."

Overlapping candidates

Burness, who served as vice president for university relations at Cornell prior to taking the position at Duke, said he does not expect much overlap in potential presidents with Cornell. He said most of Cornell's presidents have come from major public research universities. 

Duke presidents, however, have almost all been from private universities. Several of Duke's presidents—including Brodhead and Keohane—have such a background, but not all. Terry Sanford, president from 1969 to 1985, did not have prior private university experience before coming to Duke. 

"Part of that is that you want to attract someone who would understand the culture of the institution and the nature of the issues affecting private higher education," Burness said.

Lisa Yager, executive assistant for the presidential search committee at Cornell, declined to comment, noting that the search process is confidential. 

Cornell and Duke are joined in their presidential searches by George Washington University and Vassar College, among other private schools. Public university systems looking for presidents include the State University of New York, the University of Missouri and Utah State University.

Public university systems differ from private institutions in their fundamental structure, Burness said. The chancellor or president of a public university system reports to the state government, but private universities are less susceptible to political control, he noted. 

As a private university, Duke also has the advantage of dictating confidentiality under the search committee’s discretion.

"I know people who pulled out of presidential searches at several public institutions because their names were becoming public," Burness said. "I think they would have stayed in those searches if it could have been done, but the damage that was being done to their institutions was such that they couldn't take the risk."

Outside help

The Board of Trustees announced in May that they would enlist search firm Issacson, Miller to assist with the search process. Duke did not hire a search firm in any of its previous presidential searches, Haltom said, but the University has used Isaacson, Miller in hiring other administrators.

Peer institutions' use of search firms for presidential searches has been varied. Princeton's 2013 search did not use one, but Cornell hired firm Spencer Stuart in 2014, as did Brown in 2011. Dartmouth hired Isaacson, Miller in 2012.

"The job of the search firm is not to go out and reel in candidates," Burness said. "It was to identify and to do the background investigations on these people."

Although Isaacson, Miller will help with narrowing down the list of candidates, the search committee will still conduct most aspects of the process.

"It's a strong committee," Haltom said. "Duke has always had strong committees for searching for president. It's the most important role of the Board of Trustees—the selection of the leader of a university."

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