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'Leaders lead': Looking back at presidency of Nan Keohane, Duke’s only woman president

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This summer marks a decade and a half since Nannerl Overholser Keohane finished her tenure as the eighth president of Duke, making history as the first and only woman to hold the University’s highest office and second to lead a major American research university.

Students today may be more familiar with Keohane Quad than the president it was named for. However, under Keohane’s leadership, Duke founded a host of programs and institutes, including the Bass Society professorship, the Robertson Scholars program, the University Scholars program, the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. 

She also oversaw the construction or renovation of more than 45 campus buildings and the reorganization of the campus road system.

Keohane recalled a comment that Executive Vice President Tallman Trask—with whom she worked closely on the reconstruction of campus—made at her last Board of Trustees meeting.  

“Tallman joked when I retired that the Trask and Keohane Construction Company was finally closing up shop,” Keohane said.

These major advancements were largely enabled by the fundraising campaign Keohane spearheaded, the fifth most successful ever in American higher education. Through Campaign for Duke, Keohane helped bring $2.36 billion to the University.

Beyond tall buildings and record-breaking fundraisers, Keohane brought to Duke a strong set of principles, said John Burness, former senior vice president for government relations.

During Keohane’s presidency, Burness encouraged the “values-driven president” to be more selective in choosing the controversial situations that she publicly engaged in. Keohane disagreed, Burness said.

“I thought she was not being more strategic with which arrows she would take the heat on. There are a limited number of arrows a president can take,” Burness said. “But she believed that leaders lead.”

The first arrow waiting for Keohane was the question of whether to make East Campus an all first-year residence.

First-years take East Campus

Soon after Keohane arrived at Duke, administration expected her to make a decision regarding East Campus, Keohane said.

“I said, 'Wait a minute, I don’t know nearly enough about Duke to make this crucial decision,'" Keohane said.

She then spoke with different members of the Duke community, listening to their concerns and visions for campus housing. She soon realized that opinion was “divided” and regardless of what she chose, it would be “a very controversial decision,” Keohane said.

Devin Gordon, Trinity ‘98 and a former editor of The Chronicle, recalled living in the Bassett Dorm as a first-year and walking across the quad to watch The Simpsons with his upperclassmen friends in the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. 

Many of the students who enjoyed mingling with peers in different class years whom they had met living on East vocally disagreed with the creation of a first-year campus, Gordon said.

Alumni threatened to stop donating to the University or discourage their children from attending Duke, said Sue Wasiolek, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students.

Faculty members whose offices were on East also felt that making the campus for first-years only would “minimize the significance of their work,” Wasiolek added.

Keohane ultimately decided to make East a first-year campus, which is something that many people now consider to be one of Duke’s strengths and is a popular selling point for the University.

Even though Wasiolek was “not completely supportive” of Keohane and the Board of Trustees’ decision in 1995, she later recognized that it was profoundly beneficial to the development of first-year students, crediting the former president’s “foresight” and “courage to make an unpopular decision.”

Although a 1999 undergraduate focus group told Wasiolek that moving all first-years to East Campus was the “first really good decision that the administration has made,” Gordon said that students who protested the change maintained their distaste for “Nan.”

Keohane is not a leader concerned with others’ opinion of her, Burness said.

“Like anyone, she liked to be liked. But she didn’t particularly worry if she was loved,” said Burness. “You need that kind of long-term view if you’re willing to make changes.”

‘The ultimate symbol’

During Keohane’s tenure, LGBTQ+ rights were particularly controversial in the South and at Duke, which held deep ties with the local Methodist community. Several members on the Duke Board of Trustees were appointed by the Methodist church in North Carolina, Burness said.

Keohane made clear her position on marriage equality when she decided that Duke would provide domestic partner health benefits to homosexual couples—a question left by her predecessor, Keith Brodie.

“She was willing to deal with controversial issues in a very straightforward and upfront manner...more than certainly any president that I've worked for,” Burness said. “If she believed strongly in an issue, she would take all the hits that would come with it.”

But the decision to make Duke Chapel available for gay and lesbian union ceremonies was different, Burness said, because “[Duke] Chapel had a certain symbolic resonance and a lot of people strongly believed that it would be the ultimate symbol of Duke's commitment to the gay and lesbian community.”

Keohane said that she faced opposition from Methodist leaders, senior staffers and members of the Board. But amidst the noise and controversy, she said that it came down to an “institutional question.”

“Is this chapel a chapel of the Methodist church or the chapel of a pluralistic institution with people of lots of faiths? I thought it was clear that it was the second,” Keohane said. “It was a decision I made on principle of what I thought this university really was.”

Keohane knew that her verdict would upset many members of the community. So prior to announcing, she called different Methodist church leaders and alumni who had expressed concern, explaining why she thought it was “the right thing to do.”

She said that some were more supportive on the phone than others, but they all appreciated that she spoke with them beforehand.

“Taking the time to pave the way for a tough decision that you know is right is very important for leading an institution,” Keohane said.

The Women’s Initiative

In her second-to-last year as president, Keohane founded the Women’s Initiative. She chaired a 16-member steering committee that gathered information on the lives of women students, employees and faculty members at Duke.

After a year of interviews and research, the committee released a report of findings and recommendations to improve gender equity on campus.

One of the most common concerns expressed by female employees was the need for more daycare facilities. The University then worked to increase the number of daycare slots available to graduate students, faculty members and staff. 

This included expanding on-campus facilities as well as partnering with local daycares, Keohane explained.

Another recommendation that the outgoing president personally implemented was the founding of the Alice M. Baldwin Scholars program.

“I cared a great deal about the lives of undergraduate women,” Keohane said. “And what I had heard about effortless perfection and the ways in which they were socialized in terms of their comfort at Duke made me feel that there was a lot of work to be done.”

Through academic seminars, internships and a collective living space, the Baldwin Scholars program encourages undergraduate women to learn from each other and “committed faculty and staff who are women.” This offered the benefits of a women’s college at a co-educational university, said Keohane, an alumna and former president of Wellesley College, a women’s institution.

Keohane said that she was a feminist long before arriving at Duke.

While teaching at Stanford University, Keohane researched the women’s movement and edited Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, a feminist journal. As Wellesley’s president for 12 years, she led what she described as a “very much a feminist institution.”

Waiting to launch the Women’s Initiative towards the end of her presidency was a strategic decision, Keohane said.

“To give gender issues, or specifically women’s issues, the highest priority as soon as I got there would be unlikely to succeed in accomplishing much,” Keohane said. “It would just stereotype me or play into stereotypes.”

‘What it means to have power’

Although Keohane said that being the first woman president of Duke was not “the first thing on [her] mind,” she recognized that her leadership made a positive impact on young women.

She recalled receiving messages from Duke women—including undergraduates, alumna and faculty members—who said that her presidency “really mattered to them” and empowered them “to think of opportunities that they might not have before.”    

Keohane said that prior to her two presidential tenures, she had never wanted to become an administrator, let alone a university president. But as a professor of political theory, she was interested in understanding leadership and “what it means to have power,” she said.

Before beginning her presidency at Wellesley, Keohane decided that afterward she would use the insight to write a book about leadership. The book would not be a personal memoir, but rather a scholarly work based on political theorists and prominent leaders in history, Keohane said during a talk she gave at the Sanford School of Public Policy in 2011.

In her book “Thinking about Leadership,” Keohane cited Max Weber’s concluding passage of “Politics as a Vocation.” She said that the quote guided her through her presidencies.

“Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards,” the essay reads. “It takes both passion and perspective.”

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