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‘Still feeling good’: Price on future of Central Campus, light rail, Greek life

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President Vincent Price is th

President Vincent Price has survived two years as Duke’s 10th president. Last year, Price told The Chronicle that “to quote the great James Brown, ‘I feel good.’” How does he feel after another, carnival-less year on the job? The Chronicle’s Jake Satisky sat down with Price to discuss his second year, Central Campus, Greek life, his legacy and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: Last year when former Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Bre Bradham interviewed you, you said, ‘to quote the great James Brown “I feel good.”’ This year has maybe been a little bit harder—how are you feeling now?

Vincent Price: Still feeling good. Every year is different. The academic year always brings a couple of unplanned activities that have to be navigated, but I always measure a year by the progress we make against our strategic priorities, and it’s been a great year. 

We have leadership changes that I think have already shown their value to this institution. Two new vice presidents coming on this year, two more coming in next year. We have new deans on board. So the leadership team is very energized. It's hard not to feel great about where Duke is headed.

TC: What lessons have you learned from this last year that you will be able to use next year and beyond?

VP: Time spent with students, faculty, staff and those outside the campus is an ongoing investment. These are not instances where you spend some time and go on. You spend some time, and get to work, and then go back and spend more time. So, my visibility on campus, my attitude of open access I like to create is something that requires continual re-investment. 

In the lives of students, for example, they’re only on campus for a few years. And so each new class that comes in requires a new series of outreach activities on my part. So I knew that coming in, but it has impressed me just how important that is. 

TC: Do you have an idea of what you would like Central Campus to be, or how you would like it to be partitioned?

VP: So, the view of Central Campus is that it’s a relatively large piece of land located in a critical area vis-a-vis the West Campus, but also the community at large. So what the Board of Trustees task force on Central Campus did is look at a variety of different potential uses. 

None of them seemed all that compelling in the sense that there perhaps were other parts of the campus where those same functions could be better served. But they also felt that as an asset to the University, especially in the medium to long-term, given its value, we shouldn’t do things with that property that don’t serve our long-term interests. So after the demolition of the buildings which were no longer essentially usable, the question is what to do with the land. 

In the short term, yes, we’re going to use it for parking. We have a need for parking. But in the long-term we anticipate other kinds of purposes. It could be a place, for example, where you locate enterprises that are engaged with researchers at Duke. The downtown, which is now the innovation zone downtown, now more or less completely occupied. So as we think about sites for expanding research commercialization and different kinds of corporate partnerships, that space may be a usable space. 

We continue to think about residential needs. The most pressing residential need is for graduate student housing. The thinking is that that would likely be better located on the west side of campus where most of the graduate schools are. So we continue to think about each potential use, but in the short term we are not going to make large investments until we have what we believe is a significant powerful way to leverage that land as an asset to the community and to Duke.

TC: So, wait for the lightbulb moment?

VP: Either the lightbulb moment or a development in our strategic work as a campus that presents a compelling need that's best satisfied by construction on that property. Parts of it, long-term, will go to the Duke Gardens, for example, just as a sensible thing to do. The other thing that people don't appreciate is that, given the terrain, it's not all land that's easily developed or should be developed. So the right sizing of what goes on that property is also a consideration. 

TC: There’s no definitive, like, “by next year we’re going to have ‘this’”?

VP: No. 

TC: So, I do have a couple questions about the light rail. When you took office, how much did you know about the situation? How much was it on your radar when you took this position?

VP: It was not something that came up during my transition into this role. And it did come out relatively late, largely because of the time pressures that the project was under. So that accelerated the demands upon Duke. We were presented with deadlines to reach decisions with respect to grants of land and so on. That’s really when things accelerated. Because this was a project that had a life of several decades. It just happened that it accelerated rapidly upon my arrival.

TC: How do you think the light rail and Duke deciding not to sign on affected relationships with Durham, and how do you think Duke can fix those—if they need fixing?

VP: Well, it has not changed at all my strong desire to work closely with Durham and to find ways to support the community. And that has been a cornerstone of my own thinking about the strategic priorities for Duke going forward. Strengthening our regional partnerships is one of the major planks in the strategic framework that I developed with the trustees last year. So it hasn’t changed my thinking at all. 

It has made me aware though of how, in a sense, thin the community’s understanding of and support for Duke is. Because people were willing to attack Duke, in this specific instance, without a deep understanding of the myriad of issues that affected that project. 

And so it reminds me again, speaking of the need to communicate and spend time getting to know the community, that I need to do more and Duke needs to do more to spend time with our neighbors in Durham and help people understand all the different ways that we’re engaged in Durham. And I’m excited with the arrival of Stelfanie Williams as the vice president for Durham affairs that we’ll be able to do that very effectively going forward. So I’m not worried about the long run. 

In the short term, it was a challenge to have Duke attacked for having “killed the project”—with my own understanding of it was not that. We were asked to make a decision specifically about grants of land, etc. That, and subsequent news, has made this clear was not the demise of the project. There were many factors that affected the product. But the way that it played out, could be read and was presented to others as a withdrawal of Duke’s support. That was never the case and certainly not the case from my perspective.

TC: Do you have any specific initiatives going forward [in regards to Durham relations]?

VP: We’re supporting affordable housing in a variety of ways. This has been going on for several years, actually. We’ve led convenings of partners, city officials, nonprofits in the area. We’ve committed financial resources to make that happen. 

We interact with the Durham public schools on an ongoing basis and think about what more we can do to support education. The development of a vibrant economy depends upon a workforce. And we are especially focused on early child development. 

Duke Health has begun launching a Healthy Durham initiative similar to the healthy campus initiative here with the focus on factors that can improve community health In a substantial way—availability of food, leveraging resources we have in our own policy center. 

TC: You came from the University of Pennsylvania as an academic officer. But as president, you have to make a lot of decisions that go beyond the academic realm. Were you prepared to make those kinds of decisions coming in, and how have you adjusted since becoming president?

VP: I felt quite well prepared to make those kinds of decision in my role at Penn. Most of the functional offices reported to me, so I had a lot of experience with that at Penn. Not as much experience externally facing, with respect to development, alumni affairs, community affairs. But the experience that I did have made me feel comfortable with doing a lot more of that work. So I knew what I was in for, in that sense. 

On the other hand, it's a new community. It's a different set of people that I’m interacting with, and experience, at the end of the day, is always grounded in a specific organizational culture. And it's taken me two years to feel comfortable with my understanding of Duke’s culture, and it’s been a lot of fun to build on that basic experience and not to rely on any sense that I know it. 

I tell my leadership team that I’m depending on them to say something if I say or do something that seems not quite correct in their minds because while I may have seen something before and think I understand it, I don't understand it in the Duke context or the Durham context or the Triangle context. And that's worked out pretty well. 

I tell people I don't want to be that person who goes to dinner, has a lovely conversation and a terrific time, goes home in the evening, and–as I’m preparing for bed in the evening—look in the mirror and see a piece of lettuce in my teeth and think ‘why did no one say anything?’ So I’m depending upon others to help me learn and grow. 

TC: I also have a question about the now-Classroom Building. I know the history department, when they requested the renaming, requested it be the Gavins Building, but the Trustees decided it would stay the Classroom Building until another renaming process. Why did the University decide to stick with that name? Are you waiting for a donor? Is it going to be the Price Building one day?

VP: No, no [laughs]. So the proposal was, as you mentioned, a two-part proposal. One, to remove the Carr name. Two, to name it for Professor Gavins. These are two different kinds of decisions. The Trustees, in my conversations with them, they feel (and I agree with this) that decisions about naming buildings or commemorating things on campus should be made in the context of a fulsome consideration of what deserves to be named and for whom. We don't really have a process for doing that effectively. 

I can understand why my colleagues in history would want to honor Ray Gavins as a member of their faculty. The history department is in that building. They aren’t necessarily always going to be in that particular building. So we take a very long-term view of these things. 

Also, in light of the debates about removing names from buildings, we want to be very careful in selecting names for buildings going forward… So rather than take that proposal as an isolated proposal and make an ad-hoc decision on it, it makes sense to step back and think of it more holistically. 

TC: This year, several fraternities were suspended for hazing, and Delta Sigma Phi was recommended for closure. Beyond these actions, what has administration done with Greek life, what are they planning to do going forward and are there any big changes on the horizon?

VP: I don’t know about big changes, but one of the task forces of the trustees—which incorporates students and faculty and staff as well—has been looking at the next generation of residential living and learning on campus. So, thinking about Greek life factors into our larger thinking about what our aspirations are for residential life on Duke’s campus. 

Consideration of Greek life will be taken up in that broader context with the arrival of Mary Pat McMahon as our vice provost for campus life and vice president for residential life, and she will be taking a look at this as well. 

The issues that have been raised this past year, Mary Pat can follow up on those. But it’s also an opportunity for us to think about the totality of residence configurations on campus, the migration from East Campus to West Campus, the timing of when students land in these residential communities. So Greek life is one piece of a larger puzzle that we’re still trying to fit together.

TC: I know it’s early in your tenure, but I’m wondering if you’re already starting to think about your legacy. What mark do you want to leave on this campus? What do you want to be remembered for?

VP: It is still early in my tenure, but I think, in historical terms, we’re only five years away from celebrating our 100-year anniversary as Duke University. And 100 years ago, the president of Trinity College was preoccupied trying to solidify the endowment of the college, thinking about how, in the wake of World War I and increases in inflation, he could afford faculty salaries. 

The college was in an interesting place because it had done very well and had built a strong faculty with a solid research profile, but needed to do more by way of resources. That is what informed the work of the president... that ultimately transformed Trinity College into the Duke University we know today. I don’t know exactly what the next 100 years will bring to Duke, but this is a time now for us as a community to think about Duke’s future and to think in similarly bold terms. 

So just as Trinity College became a very different Duke University… my question is: how will the Duke University of today become that Duke University 50 or 100 years from now? And how can we think deeply as we head into the centennial celebration about our aspirations for the next generation in Duke’s history?

I’d like to be understood as a president that helped our community work through that significant moment. This is a moment of change for higher education in the U.S., a moment of a significant change for higher education globally. It’s a moment that calls for leadership in higher education. And just in the same way that Trinity College committed itself to leadership in higher education… I’d like us to become global leaders in higher education. And I would like to be known as a president that challenged the community to do that. I have every confidence that this is a challenge, and the community will rise to the occasion.

Jake Satisky | Editor-in-Chief

Jake Satisky is a Trinity senior and the digital strategy director for Volume 116. He was the Editor-in-Chief for Volume 115 of The Chronicle. 


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