Vincent Price, currently the provost of the University of Pennsylvania, was just announced as Duke’s president-elect. The Chronicle sat down with Price to discuss race and bias issues, free speech and other challenges he will face on campus as president when he takes over on July 1, 2017. The following conversation has been condensed and a full video of the discussion is available below.
The Chronicle: How are you feeling right now?
Vincent Price: Exhilarated, just so excited to be here right now at Duke. This is a fantastic community—outstanding faculty, fabulous students, incredible staff and such passionate alumni. So as a community willing to have us join, I just have enormous respect for Duke University.
TC: During your time at Penn, you’ve been a proponent of free expression and free speech. What do you think is the role of free expression at a university and how do you hope to foster that at Duke?
VP: It’s critical to a great research university. To have the sorts of breakthroughs that we expect to generate in our research and scholarship, it requires open mindedness. It requires multiple perspectives, and multiple perspectives only come with diversity in experience. So the more diverse our community, the wider the range of perspectives, the greater our ability is to think deeply and honestly about the full dimensions of every problem we face and to be fair and equitable in how we approach them. So I think from a philosophical point of view, it’s an absolute necessity for universities to build the most diverse community they can possibly develop. Socially, it's important because higher education is such a powerful good in our society today. There are few things that unlock the opportunities that education unlocks. And to the extent that we can distribute that fairly and broadly across the population, the entire society benefits.
And finally, I think there’s a moral obligation for us to be honest and thoughtful, and the best way to do that is to have respectful conversations with people who are just not like us. So the diversity of Duke is a huge attraction to me. I think we can do more on that front, but it requires being open and honoring free expression—even when we confront ideas that we find very different, very challenging, even offensive, because that’s when we’re tested and our commitment to open expression is tested. And basically through our confidence and our faith, on the other side of that difficult conversation is a meeting point.
TC: Duke has had to handle a number of racist incidents and incidents of bias and hate, as I’m sure every university has, but how do you plan to handle those incidents at Duke in particular?
VP: I think the best response to problematic speech and behavior is more speech. The community has to identify it as a problem and then work collaboratively to address it. Duke doesn’t have speech codes and nor does the institution I serve. That produces real community challenges, because that means that when we identify something we find problematic we have to attack it. Some of these are matters of conduct and can be addressed through that system, but some of them are matters of speech and that’s a very fine line. What one community would define as a matter of conduct another would define as a matter of a speech. If the community is robust, if students, faculty, staff, administrators, confront those issues together, we’ll learn.
Let’s not forget that these kinds of incidents are not [unique]. They come from the outside environment to Duke and brought from all parts of the globe. The prospect for educational institutions, because we build this microcosm of society and we live to the highest ideals, the possibility we have to make real progress exceeds the possibilities at any other venue that I can imagine.
And although we’re headed for challenging times, I can’t think of a better place to confront those challenges than a place that’s so committed to open expression and committed to diversity and inclusion. People have to understand that everyone belongs here. People who are part of the community are here because they share our goals, our ideals. That sense of belongingness, has to be worked at and cultivated.
TC: What do you think is the value of a task force at the University in identifying problems and bringing about change? Do you think they actually work?
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VP: I do. One can have committees and task forces, and task forces on committees. In our university and in our faculty senate, there is a committee on committees, which is charged to identify people who will serve on committees.
Let me put it this way—I believe in collaboration, I believe in conversation. If task forces are serious ventures, they’re not done for the purposes of publicity. They’re done because an issue has been identified and a deep dive into those challenges is required, and a venue is created that canvasses the viewpoints across the campus and percolates those into a set of recommendations that can then be considered by the administration. I think that’s a powerful thing to do. So I like them.
You can do too many of them—you have to be focused. I think the main challenges with these kinds of task forces is that the nature of the problems that are confronting us are repetitive and profound, so if you have too many of these task forces people start to feel a bit jaundiced about them. But I’m not jaundiced about them. I think they’re incredibly powerful, and most powerful when they engage students. Because students are a constituency who live and work here every day—they know the institution. You have to know where the shoe pinches. I think the task forces give—there are a lot of other opportunities, meeting with student leaders, these kinds of conversations—but these create structured opportunities in a focused way to learn about student concerns. It doesn’t mean we’ll solve all those issues, but I think they can be a powerful vehicle.
TC: A big problem facing college campuses everywhere is sexual assault. Just a few days ago, a woman reported being sexually assaulted on campus in broad daylight. What do you think are the ways to go about fighting back against that issue?
VP: Well, problems surrounding sexual assault, and sexual harassment more generally, are profound problems of our society. These are not problems that are generated locally, but they come with the attitudes of students arriving on campus. But this is a place where college campuses can deliver an enormous service. I think that women speaking out and our LGBTQ community speaking out to elevate the visibility of the kinds of challenges they face is the first important step.
So the first thing we have to do is listen—listen very carefully to the concerns of the community and work constructively to try and address them. That means having good avenues for reporting incidents and having a support structure that mobilizes immediately to support anybody who’s been a victim of sexual assault. And also to support the accused party, because they are often times wondering what resources they have access to. So wraparound student support, to make sure that by experience students never feel that if they raise a concern to the University, things will go from bad to worse. The point is to have things go from bad to better, so you have to have those services in place.
And having good, sound adjudication procedures in place to make sure that there’s fair opportunity for consideration of the nature of the case. Many of these cases do not rise to the point of being subject to criminal complaint and the University is going to be dealing with a lot of activities in that area. Like many campuses, I know Duke has invested in this tremendously.
TC: How do you feel about the University, or yourself, taking positions on social issues? An example would be with House Bill 2, which the University publicly condemned. What do you think about that decision and how you would approach that as a public figure here?
VP: Universities as institutions have an obligation and responsibility to take stands on issues that affect the institution's activities or values. And there’s a lot of advocacy—both collective advocacy in the higher education sector and individual advocacy by campuses—that’s really directed at ensuring that our work, such as our educational programs and our research programs, is able to move forward in the best possible way.
So there’s a wide range of issues that fall into this definition of being relevant to the core values of an institution like Duke. And HB2 is a good example given the nature of the community of students that we have here. And what I just said about this importance of making sure that every student belongs and feels like they have access to the opportunities that Duke provides.
That being said, there is constant pressure on institutions to take stands on all manners of things. Largely because, and I don’t blame people for thinking of this, institutions have visibility and very respectable standing. So a constituency that can convince a university to take a public stand on something achieves a win. The University should only do this when it’s absolutely in the interest of Duke University. We just have to be careful about that. Otherwise we will find ourselves under pressure to take stands on everything that comes down the pipe, but we have to be focused—focused on those things that matter to Duke, that are critical to Duke, and not allow ourselves to become a political megaphone. Even if we’re inclined to support those causes, because we’re talking about an institutional stand.
TC: One complaint that students have had in the past about the administration has been a lack of communication or clarity about what’s going on on campus. What’s your plan to communicate with students about what you’re doing, or just to get to know them in general?
VP: There’s no substitute for spending time with people. I hope to be out-and-about. I hope students get to the point where they’re tired of seeing the president—that would tell me that I’m doing a good job. The president is busy, has a lot of things to do. But I think that’s the first thing. I can’t afford as president to lose contact with the lived experience of students, and that means having dinner occasionally in the dorms, just hanging out. The athletics are great. So you’ll see me around. And I think that’s the one best thing I could possibly do.
The second thing I would say is use the channels available to us through student government and through student media and through different student-organized groups to have periodic conversations—understand student interests, and what’s on their agenda. Not because we want to meet those needs—we can’t meet all of those needs. But just so that we can have a frank conversation, and if we can’t meet a particular demand or need of a student group, I’d like them to understand why that’s the case. I think open communication is a highly valued part of a smooth-running situation. And students should feel that they’re connected to the administration and feel that they have a role.
Students are here typically for four—let’s hope they love Duke so much, they could be here for eight, or 12 years. But there’s a sense, which I fully understand, among students to get things done and get them done now. The window of opportunity sometimes feels short. In institutional history, one observes, it takes time to get things done. Students should understand that some of the things they’re advocating for might not be realized while they’re a student at Duke. But if they’re expressed, if they have conversations with administrators and faculty members, they’ll percolate into programs down the road.
TC: You have several months now before the end of your time at Penn and before you come to Duke. What will you be doing to prepare?
VP: I’ll be talking with President Brodhead regularly and getting to know the staff, which is outstanding I will tell you. One of the things I’ve learned as I’ve started to tell my colleagues at Penn that I’ve been invited to take this opportunity at Duke, they’ve said ‘my counterpart at Duke is the best.’ Getting to know the president’s agenda, ensuring that there’s continuity and I’m confident nothing will be dropped during the process of the transition.
And then thinking about how those available systems and programs and people might make adapt going forward. It’s great to have these eight months for the transition. The staff on my end is going to be extremely cooperative, and I expect to be down in Durham quite a bit. I do have a day job, I will have things to do in Philadelphia as well, but after everything I’ve seen in the process of the interview and the search—which was led masterfully and impressively I will say—I think this is going to feel like like hand in glove. I think for students and faculty and staff it’ll feel seamless.