Longtime professor Karla Holloway reflects on Duke career

<p>Holloway was&nbsp;the first African-American dean of the humanities and dean of social sciences.</p>

Holloway was the first African-American dean of the humanities and dean of social sciences.

Karla Holloway, James B. Duke professor of English, will retire in June 2017 after more than two decades at Duke. She was the first African-American dean of the humanities and social sciences and the first African American female chair of Duke’s appointment, promotion and tenure committee. She is also the founding co-director of the John Hope Franklin Center and the Franklin Humanities Institute. The Chronicle corresponded with Holloway via email about her accomplishments at Duke and her future plans—and her Twitter handle. 

The Chronicle: You've broken many barriers at Duke during your time here. What advice do you have for others who may be the "firsts" in their positions?

Karla Holloway: I hope that these “firsts” are one day no longer marks of achievement. Instead, I’d like to see them become common-place leadership positions for women and minorities. Chairing APT gave me a great deal of insight into the infrastructure and goals of the institution’s faculty. That early vision and the confidence placed in me were critical in my developing a perspective of this place—not necessarily from the seat of chair (although it’s a seat that demands a consummate professionalism)—but from the sight-lines of departments, from medicine, engineering, business, the humanities, social sciences and arts—all of whom brought their finest candidates forward for positions at Duke. Seeing the big picture gives you a better perspective of the infrastructures of Duke, and directs you to always make deliberate, informed and thoughtful decisions. So, I hope the opportunity for wider visions of the University is not on a list of barriers to be overcome, but on the list of faculty governance that we see as ordinary for Duke faculty who can bring a certain judgment, clarity, creativity and demeanor to considering the visions possible in this place. 

TC: Regarding your career at Duke, what are you most proud of?

KH: I’m leaving with a deep sense of satisfaction and gratitude. The John Hope Franklin Center and Humanities Institute stand out, as well as the Arts Warehouse space. The hiring of stellar faculty in the humanities and social sciences who are coming into their own as administrators and campus leaders and the deep diversity and excellence many have brought to the campus have made Duke better. Leading African and African American studies toward its institutionalization as a tenured department was especially important. I’m very, very proud to have earned a Duke Law degree during my tenure here and to have joined that wonderful faculty and to have had the chance to teach at Duke Law. It still feels like a minor miracle, gives me pause and has prompted some of my best scholarly work and teaching (in bioethics and law and literature).

But perhaps the most unexpected pride comes from what remains. When I began teaching at Duke, my daughter was a senior in high school in Raleigh. Today, after an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a Ph.D. from Harvard, she’s now a tenured faculty member in the physics department here at Duke. Her extraordinary and unexpected journey back here—she was a Duke TIPster in junior high—gives me considerable pride and absolute joy.

TC: What do you see as the most pressing issue the University faces?

KH: Claiming that still available national space to set the standard for academic rigor, intellectual fearlessness and creativity, and for someone to ask the question “What is Duke doing?” with the expectation that we are the ones who will set a standard others will want to emulate. 

TC: What do you think of the current state of racial relations on campus and how could they be improved? 

KH: I worry that Duke is embedded in a pattern of situational reactions to particularized events and that our expressed values are not the first space of thinking about difficult and challenging matters of race and identity matters on campus. I believe they could be improved if our values led instead of our institutionalized fears, histories of conduct, expectations that come more from presumption rather than a deep and committed allegiance to discovering what’s right, and acting from that discovery, no matter the difficulty. I’m not much a fan of what I call the "diversity industrial complex” that we seem to have administratively embraced. It seems to me a way to exile diversity to a particular office or administrator. It’s thicker than this and instead it’s got to seep thoroughly into our Duke blueprints. We’ve often examined what a particular event or moment will do to the “brand” of Duke rather than seeing a values-based leadership as the opportunity to shape and articulate codes of conduct that others might see as exemplary. Every transition at Duke gives us the opportunity to do better. I trust this is within our grasp.

TC: Why did you decide now to retire?

KH: I try very hard to be self-aware. It felt right. My attentions were shifting, and frankly, I thought the contributions I’ve made to Duke had a stability and the goodwill of my colleagues, and I always think you should go before people start wondering why are you still around! When you feel you can be productive and happy and helpful in other spaces, I think it’s an appropriate challenge to gather up some courage and embrace the uncertainty.

TC: What advice do you give to your students on their future careers or life in general?

KH: It comes from Robert Frost. “So when at times the mob is swayed / To carry praise or blame too far / We may choose something like a star / To stay our minds on and be staid.”

TC: What do you plan to do next? 

KH: I will always be a writer, I’ve made a turn toward fiction though. But for those less scripted moments—you can find me on Twitter @ProfHolloway!

Correction: Holloway will retire in June 2017. She is on leave this semester and is not currently retired as a previous version of this article stated. The Chronicle regrets the error. 


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