For former President Richard Brodhead, Duke represents a home and community that he will forever be a part of.
The Chronicle’s Mona Tong caught up with Brodhead and discussed his visits to Duke, what he’s up to now and how he feels about the Brodhead Center.
Since stepping down in 2017, he has remained strongly connected to Duke and its campus. His wife, Cynthia Degnan Brodhead, is still on the Board of Advisors for the Nasher Museum of Art, and Brodhead said they come back to visit Duke a couple times per term, whether it be to visit the Nasher, to meet with friends, to give lectures, to teach in classes or to simply enjoy Duke and Durham.
In a brief visit from April 25 to April 26, he even did a poetry reading at Perkins Library for the celebration of Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday.
“It is very fun for me to be back here in this beautiful time of the year,” he said. “We just love it here—it was our home for 13 years.”
Brodhead served as Duke University president for 13 years, from 2004 to 2017. During his time at Duke, he focused on deepening Duke's engagement with both the broader Durham community and world. Investing in downtown buildings and increasing resources for Durham youth development and K-12 education, Brodhead worked to improve Duke’s relationship and collaboration with Durham.
Although Brodhead worked to strengthen relations with Durham, he was also president during the infamous lacrosse incident, when those relations strained. In Spring 2006, several members of the Duke men’s lacrosse team were accused of sexually assaulting a dancer at a party, but they were later found innocent. The case unquestionably shaped Brodhead’s legacy as president.
Nonetheless, some of Duke’s signature programs and institutions such as DukeEngage, the Global Health Institute and Duke Kunshan University were established under his presidency.
For Brodhead, coming back to Duke is, more than anything, about the people. He commented that he loves how whenever he walks through campus, he is constantly bumping into familiar faces. A strong believer in enhancing education and learning through building community, he spends his time back at Duke catching up with old friends and appreciating the parts of the campus community rebuilt under his presidency, such as the Brodhead Center for Campus Life.
"[The Brodhead Center] is meant to be a place that you'd be attracted to so that everyone runs into everybody and gets the education through a dynamic fabric of community," he said. "When I come here now, I'll always see people I know walking through or people who know me—or I'll see somebody I know who's with somebody I don't know, and then I'll meet them. So, the building is part of the education in that sense."
Brodhead also said that he doesn't mind students calling the building West Union rather than the Brodhead Center. Although he appreciated that the Board of Trustees renamed the building after him, he said that it was unexpected and ultimately concluded that "the point of buildings isn't in their names, but in what you can do inside of it."
He would not reveal his favorite spot to eat in the Brodhead Center to avoid appearances of endorsement. However, he suggested students "try everything," adding that “eventually everybody makes their university, but you don’t want to make it prematurely.” So far, he himself has tried all but two spots at the Brodhead Center.
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Brodhead shared that the Sarah P. Duke Gardens and the Nasher exhibits are among other "musts" on his to-do list whenever he returns to campus, noting that the current exhibits are "totally fantastic."
Despite no longer being president, Brodhead still stays updated with Duke, hearing about news stories and happenings through Duke faculty, trustees and students.
In response to some of Duke's more recent news and controversies, such as the University’s refusal to sign a cooperation agreement for the Durham-Orange Light Rail project, Brodhead commented that he believed Duke made a justifiable decision.
"I think Duke raised a series of very reasonable objections about putting it so near the hospital that were never really dealt with," he said. "Given the facts and given the concerns that Duke had registered that were not addressed, I don't think Duke really had a lot of choice about it."
He shared sentiments similar to those of President Vincent Price, and he underscored the strength and cooperation behind relations between Duke and Durham, believing it to be "a mistake to treat the light rail as if that's the index to telling our relations."
Brodhead also enjoys occasionally giving lectures and visiting classes, having taught in a few FOCUS cluster classes during the fall semester.
During the spring semester, he also gave a series of three lectures to Duke Kunshan University’s first-ever freshman class. The lectures were on topics in American history and culture, including the life of the Declaration of Independence in the world, the issue of slavery in the Constitution and the history of U.S.-China educational exchanges.
As honorary chancellor of DKU, Brodhead said that he visits the campus, located in the southeastern Jiangsu province of China, about once or twice a year and plans to keep giving lectures and teaching lessons there. What draws him to DKU is the strong pioneering spirit of the student body, as he remarked that these are students who could have gone anywhere but decided instead to go to “a brand-new university.”
However, he said that although he loves to teach, he has enjoyed “being free” and the process of finding that perfect in-between balance. He said that for a quarter of a century as both the president of Duke and dean of Yale, he led a “super structured life.”
Brodhead commented that it had been rewarding and fascinating, introducing him to a whole new world of education, learning and friendships, and it had come with exceptionally fond memories. He said that walking by the Chapel at this time of the year reminded him of the joy of speaking directly to students during the Commencement and Convocation ceremonies.
Despite this, Brodhead reflected that living with so much structure “is only one way to organize your life.”
“I'm now liking being able to do things on the spur of the moment and I'm liking to be able to spend more time outside,” he said. “I'm liking to be able to start a book and finish it, and it's just anything that interests me, I'm now free to do.”