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Q&A: Trask reflects on his past 24 years at Duke

Trask standing in front of the renovation of the BC Plaza. Courtesy of Les Todd.
Trask standing in front of the renovation of the BC Plaza. Courtesy of Les Todd.

Executive Vice President Tallman Trask has been at Duke since 1995. Acting as the leading administrative and financial officer, Trask’s responsibilities have been wide-ranging, from managing the university budget to overseeing architecture and construction. 

As the University now announces Trask’s decision to retire, The Chronicle sat down with him to discuss his journey to a place he didn’t envision working at and the highs and lows of his nearly 25 years at the University. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: I'm curious how you ended up here. I imagine when you were growing up, you weren't saying, ‘I want to be a university vice president,’ so how did you end up in university administration right out of school?

Tallman Trask: Well, I was an undergraduate history major, and I had decided to get a Ph.D. in American history. And then I thought about the consequences of that, which was like, six or seven years, and there's no end strategy necessarily. Even in those days there weren’t lots of jobs. And so I decided I didn't want to do that. 

All my friends were going to law school. And I thought about that, and I decided, I don't want to go to law school. I don't want to be a lawyer. And so at the time I had this bizarre idea: I'll go to business school, which not many people did. Well, a lot of people did, but not my left wing friends.

So, I just applied to business school, and I ended up going to Northwestern. And then coming out of business school, since I didn't know why I had gone, I didn't know what I wanted to do when I got out. There were a couple of jobs that looked sort of intriguing, but I wasn't really enamored of any of them. I thought, ‘Well, you know, one of the things that's always struck me is how weirdly run universities are. So how do I try to figure that out?’ 

There were two great programs where you could study how universities worked, at Michigan and at UCLA. And I had spent two winters in the Midwest, so I didn't need multiple winters in Ann Arbor. I was still a California resident, so I could go to UCLA for free and Michigan cost a lot of money. So, you make your choice: cold, lots of money; beach, free.

TC: What prompted you to want to come to Duke?

TT: I had no interest in coming to Duke. If you'd asked me six weeks before I came here, ‘What are the odds you would move to North Carolina?’ I would have asked you if they could possibly be below zero. It just wasn't on my radar. It was out of the blue. I mean, I had no interest, no knowledge and then events in Seattle convinced me that maybe I ought to think about it. 

It was fairly quick. I went from, ‘I don't even know where North Carolina is’ to ‘I'm going to go there in probably less than six weeks.’ I agreed to come in maybe late April, early May.

TC: And August, you're here?

TT: And August I was here, but in between that I had to sell a house, buy a house, get kids into schools, do all that stuff.

TC: Did you ever think you're going to be here for 25 years when you got here?

TT: I have never wanted to be a university president in large part because I don't think I'd be very good at it. I think I'm actually pretty good at what I do. I am not a jumper—I don't jump from place to place. I had no idea. 

People used to come after me all the time, and it was like, ‘No, I made a choice to go to Duke.’ I made that choice. I'm not stupid, I didn't decide to go to Duke just so I could go to Duke—I thought about what it meant and where it was and where I thought it was headed. And so there are not a whole lot of places that I would leave here for. I really do think this is the best job doing what I do in a company, because it's got enough money where you can actually do stuff, and it's not so historically entrenched that all the choices were made in 1938, and you can't undo them. So it's an interesting set of circumstances.

TC: What is it about being a university president that doesn’t appeal to you or that doesn't suit your personality?

TT: I'm not solicitous enough. I'm not politically correct enough. I tend to tell people what I think, which is not necessarily a good attribute to be president when you sometimes have to tell them what's facing. 

Presidents don't build things; presidents don't figure out the payroll works; presidents don't figure out the HR policy, presidents don't deal with the daily operations of IT—all that stuff that I do. Most presidents don't know how to do it, and most presidents shouldn't worry about it. That's not what they're supposed to do. 

TC: Presidents are basically like figureheads?

TT: No, they're more than that, but they set a tone—they're increasingly external, but it's also increasingly important they are seen as the leader of the faculty. In my early career, I was on the academic side. I switched to the administrative side because somebody asked me to, and I thought it was sort of intriguing. 

But it came to me one day—this was in my 30s—that even though I had a Ph.D. from UCLA, it was in education, which meant I would never become the provost at any university that I would want to be the provost at. Provosts have to be scholars. And I had no interest in being the provost at some second-rate state university—that's just not what I do. 

TC: It seems that it's been a priority of yours to try to balance the administrative and the academic side. How do you do that? 

TT: Vince [Price] has remarked on this. Usually the person with my job and the Provost are at each other constantly. We don't have that problem here. In general, it's just been a friendly conversation for 25 years and, you know, we disagree on the margins. But I think a lot of places become very fractured. 

TC: Do you think Duke has gotten too administrative or too bloated in the bureaucracy of it?

TT: Maybe, but a lot less than most other places are. But that's a constant problem—my view has always been, every dollar spent in the bureaucracy rather than on the academic programs, is a bad idea. And I'm not sure that is the prevailing thought around here anymore.

TC: Is that a mindset you would want your successor to also have?

TT: Yeah, I hope so. I mean, you know, if you look at the last decade, you know, we took a big hit in '08, '09—I took out 125 people. They're all gone. None of them ever came back. On the academic side, they came right back.

TC: What has your relationship with the medical school been since you've gotten here? 

TT: It's been up and down. When I got here, I was told how incredibly interdisciplinary Duke was and I couldn’t see it, couldn’t figure it out. I didn't know why they thought that until I realized that was code for, ‘The medical school's actually on campus. And occasionally we bump into them and we talked to them, so therefore we're interdisciplinary, right?’ 

And what had never dawned on me is just by luck, I happened to have come from the two places that are structurally more interdisciplinary than Duke. UCLA and Washington both have medical schools on the campus. There is not the historic divide there had been here, and there is a lot more cooperation across the channel. But it never occurred to me that I was used to that. If you looked at us compared to Harvard or Yale, we were a whole lot more interdisciplinary—I was just used to a different standard.

TC: What are the parts of the job that you'd say you like most and least?

TT: I like to build stuff. I've probably built couple billion bucks worth of stuff. And I like getting the IT stuff straightened out. It was a disaster when I got here, and I think it's actually in reasonably good shape now. Obviously, managing the money has been interesting and complicated, and I've set a bunch of policies that ended up more or less where I wanted it to. If you look at the number that's in many ways most surprising from while I've been here is the endowment at $8.5 billion. It's also 10 times what it was when I got here.

TC: You told me about what you did for the endowment. For capital campaigns and stuff, what is your involvement with that?

TT: Well, I tend not to be detail-involved because I want campaigns to be pushed toward academic programs and financial aid. I don't want money to be raised for me. There’s really a trade-off is when you have a campaign: I would like to raise all the money for endowment. Others would like to raise all the money so they can spend it next week, right? And there's a tension between those two that I don't think we got quite right. We ended up with less endowment than I would've hoped.

TC: Do you think there will be more endowment push in the future?

TT: Absolutely, I mean I hope a lot more endowment.

TC: Why so much endowment focus? 

TT: It's especially endowment for financial aid because it's a long-term commitment and need. We don't have it, and so it just clobbers the operating budget.

TC: Do you think Duke's financial model is sustainable? Is it going to keep going in the future?

TT: I think there are a lot of dark winds out there, but I think for most places like us I think we'll be okay in the short run and the intermediate run. 

TC: Just that eventually you can't keep raising tuition?

TT: You can't keep raising tuition and then discount it for financial aid to the point there's no money left. And some people are over 50% discount right now.

TC: What is more sustainable? What should we change to?

TT: If we had another $2 to $3 billion in endowment, our model is sustainable for a very long time, as long as we pay attention to expenditures. I mean, what makes our model work is, as Tim Walsh calls them, ‘the 3 Ds.’ We have development and if we bring in $500 million a year, that helps. If we don't, that'll be a problem. We have DUMAC, whose returns historically have been very good. And then we have DUHS, which is probably the best performing health system in the country. If any of those three go away, then our current model is not sustainable at our current size and expenditure.

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