Behind the scenes: Meet the most important administrator you've never heard of

Richard Riddell has won a Tony Award and serves in one of the University’s most powerful administrative positions. But if you survey Duke’s student body or a gathering of theater aficionados, few would be able to recognize him.

That’s because Riddell’s work—formerly as a lighting designer and currently as liaison to Duke’s Board of Trustees—takes place out of the limelight, behind the scenes. He’s never the one delivering a soliloquy in the final act or issuing the final verdicts on University policy. However, Riddell’s quiet coordination of Duke’s most influential decision makers is essential for the institution to function smoothly.

Serving in the capacity since 2007, Riddell is set to step down as senior vice president and secretary to the Board of Trustees at the end of the academic year—but his career hasn’t always focused on administrative tasks.

Riddell won the Tony Award for Best Lighting Design in 1985 for his work on “Big River,” and shortly thereafter came to Duke as a theater professor in 1992, before working his way up to an administrative role in the early 2000s.

“The theater is very much a collaborative art; it’s very rare that one person does theater,” Riddell told The Chronicle. “There are one-person shows, but for the most part, it’s an awful lot of people working together to create a production … so you really learn to work well together as a team. I think administration is the same thing.”

Riddell’s colleagues have high praise for his work. Former President Richard Brodhead—under whom Riddell worked as a special assistant to the provost and university secretary—cited his excellent judgment and efficiency.  

“When you go to a great event in the theater, you don’t walk out and say ‘Boy, there was a really good lighting director for that,’” Brodhead said. “It creates the element in which everything works, but you don’t see the signature of the skilled craftsman behind it. And that’s really what Richard’s work has been like for the University.”

From Missouri to Manhattan

Growing up in St. Joseph, Mo., Riddell never imagined he’d one day stroll across a stage in Midtown Manhattan to accept theater’s most prestigious prize.

His upbringing in the town, roughly 30 miles north of Kansas City, Mo., was a sort of “Norman Rockwell experience.” In high school, Riddell found himself interested in the arts, performing in plays and musicals while serving as a disc jockey for a top-40 hits radio station.

“By the time I got to the end of high school, I didn’t see any reason I should go to college,” he said. “I was the drive-time disc jockey on the most popular station in this place.”

But to college he went. Riddell’s father recommended Knox College in Illinois, right on the train line from St. Joseph. The Knox campus had a new theater complex—but going in, Riddell did not have his mind set on the performing arts.  

Rather, Riddell entered as a math major and switched to psychology before settling on theater. He began to dabble with backstage work and found the behind-the-scenes aspect of theater more fit to his skillset than acting, which would require a commitment that Riddell wasn’t sure he was ready to make.

“Being an actor just felt a little too out there in terms of a lifestyle, so I pulled back from that a little bit,” he said.

After graduating from Knox in 1972, Riddell’s newfound career goals led him westward to Stanford University. He enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program but ended up getting a Ph.D. in theater history and design in 1978. Riddell completed his dissertation in Germany, where he worked alongside playwright Samuel Beckett, who had won the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Riddell stayed in California following his doctoral work and accepted a job as a theater professor at the University of California, San Diego. Founded in 1960, the college was younger than Riddell when he arrived amid a boom cycle for UCSD’s theater program.

A professional theater company affiliated with the university was gearing up right as Riddell was getting settled on UCSD’s campus, and he hopped aboard. It was there that he worked as the lighting designer on the musical “Big River”—based on Mark Twain’s classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”—that would land Riddell his Tony Award.

He explained that teaching students while working in the theater business was time-consuming, especially with the red-eye flights between New York and California.

But the work paid off when “Big River” claimed seven Tonys in 1985, including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Lighting Design.

“It was unexpected—this was the first Broadway show for most of us,” he recalled. “It was thrilling.”

Richard Riddell's Tony Award for Best Lighting Design

Despite the musical’s dominance, Riddell remained characteristically humble when discussing its success.

“Some years on Broadway are filled with just a whole bunch of great musicals, and there’s a lot of competition,” he said. “I kind of feel like that year, it was a little light on competition. We were very fortunate—we swept the awards.”

Riddell had started dabbling in theater in his hometown near the banks of the Missouri River, but now he’d moved on to a bigger river and stage, chronicling Huck Finn’s journey along the Mississippi on Broadway. This change in scenery brought Riddell face-to-face with a pivotal decision.

“For me personally, it was like a door opened. Do you want to walk through it? Do you want to do more shows on Broadway?” he said. “And I did do another show a few years later, but I was really more interested in work in the university as well as the professional side.”

‘Everyone totally trusts him’

Riddell made a pit stop at Harvard University for several years to spend time on its theater faculty, but he would eventually settle down at Duke in 1992.

The culture at Duke was different, he explained, as Riddell went from days working for university-affiliated professional theater companies to hours in the classroom teaching undergraduate students, many of whom were not going into showbiz.

Riddell also entered the University with the mindset of becoming increasingly involved with administration. He served as the department chair for theater studies, formerly the Program in Drama, from 1992 to 2003.

He co-taught a class with Emanuel “Manny” Azenberg, a longtime Broadway theater producer and Duke professor, for several years. The course aimed to cultivate students’ opinions about theater so that they weren’t judging a play by its author or prestige, but rather its contents.

Azenberg recalled that even though he and Riddell would disagree on the merits of some plays, disputes were few and far between.

“Richard is much calmer than I am,” he said. “He was more reliable than I was, I thought. Much more inquisitive and much more intelligent. We made a very interesting combination. I’m more outgoing, and he’s very introspective.”

As the 2000s rolled around, Riddell became more intent on trading in his role as theater studies professor for a post in University administration. He began working in former Provost Peter Lange’s office as a special assistant, where he was an adviser for the arts.

The wheels began turning for his next advancement when newly elected President Richard Brodhead paid a visit to an Arts and Sciences Council meeting. Brodhead recalled watching a “very articulate” professor give a presentation on the arts—that faculty member was, of course, Riddell.

Brodhead assumed the University’s top post in the summer of 2004, and he was soon looking for a special assistant to assume the presidential chief of staff role. He settled on giving Riddell a trial run at the post, which he would later make permanent.

“You need someone who’s the intermediary, who hears things and brings them back to you, who gets a sense of direction from you and carries it out to others,” Brodhead said. “Richard is just extraordinarily skillful at that.”

The duo would talk up to six times a day about a broad range of subjects, he added.

Brodhead explained that the special assistant job “ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime,” as Riddell worked on Duke’s first ethical investment policy and the finances behind the president’s discretionary fund.

“Everyone totally trusts him because Richard never brings any distortion to anything,” Brodhead explained. “If he speaks to me, and I tell him something, he doesn’t tell you a version of it at a different angle.”

Riddell was also involved with addressing fallout during the infamous lacrosse case, in which he developed the University’s first emergency response plan. Soon after, he would move into one of the top jobs on campus.

2007 marked another step in Riddell’s ascent when he succeeded longtime University Secretary Alison Haltom. The new job—one of the five posts in Duke’s executive leadership group—provided Riddell with more challenges, he said, as the position involves integrating the president’s and Board of Trustees’ priorities.

Riddell acts as an informational hub, working with the president and Board to identify initiatives and providing resources to guide the Board’s decision-making.

“What that means is that you have to gather materials to understand issues, but not to tell them what the answer is,” Brodhead said. “You have to frame the important questions and give people the ability to walk in and go to work on them.”

The secretary’s role ranges from “high-level tasks” to “blocking and tackling,” Riddell added, which links up with his past in the theater business.

“There are nine productions that have to be conceived of, developed, scripts written, leading actors identified and executed,” he joked, referring to the four annual Board meetings and five executive committee meetings.

His duties aren’t limited to coordinating Board meetings and helping to set the agenda, however. Riddell has also assisted with major administrative searches during Brodhead’s tenure, including the committee that selected President Vincent Price as Duke’s 10th president.

Jack Bovender, chair of the Board of Trustees, said that Riddell’s work on the presidential search committee and improvements to the Board governance structure were “invaluable.”

“He has the absolute total respect of every member of the Board of Trustees, and I can’t say enough about how important he’s been to the University,” Bovender said.

Riddell also recalled meeting with students from People’s State of the University, who gained attention after interrupting an alumni event featuring Price in 2018. Talking with them alongside other students, Riddell said he found it “rewarding” to learn about the tactics they chose and their motivations.

“I was very pleased that the students found ways to achieve some of the goals they had through dialogue with administrators and different parts of the University,” he said. “I think that the students helped me see that students come to Duke with all sorts of different experiences with someone in my position.”

Riddell is proudest of the Board’s evolution during his tenure, as he explained that it has transformed into a group of trustees more focused on strategic thinking.

However, Brodhead said that Riddell’s impact extends beyond the Board and president.

“If you want to know what Richard’s legacy is, his legacy is the success of others,” he said. “And that’s not just the president, it’s actually many people at the University.”

‘That was a lot of fun’

Over the past 10 years, Duke has made strides in the right direction, but that doesn’t mean that everything is perfect, Riddell said. The University faces similar challenges to other top colleges around the nation, namely attracting students from different backgrounds given Duke’s finite financial aid resources.

He hopes that Duke can become a place where students who are concerned or want to learn more about an issue feel comfortable meeting with administrators—and where both sides will listen.

As for his post-Duke plans, Riddell doesn’t have anything set in stone. He retains his post as professor of the practice in theater studies, so perhaps a return to teaching lies somewhere in the future. Hiking and reading might also be on the table, as they’re activities he enjoys in his spare time.

After his retirement, he will leave behind a community of admiring colleagues.

“Richard is the most modest person in the world,” Brodhead said. “You’ll never find his fingerprints on anything.”

Sally Churchill, vice president and secretary of the University of Michigan, explained that she has been working with Riddell for more than 10 years.

“Richard has a great sense of humor, a deep love and respect for higher education and the education provided at Duke, and an abiding commitment to students,” she wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “He has unquestionable integrity and always takes the long view, which we need to do in these positions supporting governance. I will miss him greatly at our professional meetings; they simply won’t be the same without him.” 

However, not all of Riddell’s fondest memories from his time at the University are work-related—he fondly recalled watching the Rolling Stones when they came to perform in Wallace Wade Stadium in 2005. He watched the concert with a small group, atop a sports medicine building next to the field.

“I remember the people I was watching with were about my age—so 50s, 60s—and they were just rocking out to these songs. It was a warm, beautiful night, and there was Mick Jagger running around the stage in Wallace Wade Stadium,” he said. “That was a lot of fun.”


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