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New EVP Daniel Ennis discusses plans for his tenure, Duke’s recovery from COVID-19

Daniel Ennis is Duke’s new executive vice president, taking over from Tallman Trask. The Chronicle spoke to Ennis about his past experience at Johns Hopkins University, his decision to come to Duke and his goals for his new role. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: How have you enjoyed your time here so far? Do you feel you feel acclimated to Duke yet?

Daniel Ennis: I started Dec. 1 and overlapped with [former Executive Vice President Tallman Trask] for a month. So in the seat, let's say you're coming on the, I guess near the end of my third month in the seat really. I would say it's a very steep learning curve; I have a long way to go. You know, the place is wonderful, just a wonderful institution, wonderful colleagues, wonderful community. Even in the context of coming into it in COVID, where everything's remote, and you know, the degree of interpersonal interaction is so limited, [I] just really feel so warmly welcomed and feel just this great collegiality of the place, and very deep spirit and love of the institution. Very deep. It's a really attractive feature. And I sort of had a sense for that before coming, but boy, I felt it tenfold since I've been on the ground, even in this sort of artificial context.

TC: It seems like you sort of had a similar job at Johns Hopkins University, which is a peer institution. What was your rationale for coming to Duke?

DE: Yeah, you know, essentially the same job. And in truth, [in terms of] scale of a budget, Hopkins was a bigger enterprise. But, you know, first I've always just had this great admiration for Duke: My brother went to medical school here, I got to spend time when he was here, and I had spent time with Tallman and had learned about the team over time. We all sort of compare notes and understand emerging talent in across these great institutions. So I had a sense there was a great team here. I had heard great things about President [Vincent] Price from his time at [University of Pennsylvania]. I had a lot of colleagues who overlapped with him when he was at Penn. And even the team here, folks I knew here had nothing but tremendous things to say about his leadership. So that was really attractive. And in general, you know, I had it 10 years in this job at an institution, and I felt like renewal for me, personally, the professional renewal and a new challenge and opportunity was exciting. I also think for these institutions, it's a good idea to renew their leadership. So, you know, I'm thrilled to watch my colleagues take on new adventures without me there, even though they're in the process of filling my role. So it was hard to leave. I love Hopkins, I have only the best thing to say about that institution. But I'm really thrilled to be here. Really excited to be honest that I got the opportunity.

TC: Speaking of Trask, I've talked with him several times last year. And, you know, he was very explicit. He saw himself as a builder—that was how he viewed himself. And so I'm curious, especially in light of Price saying he wants to focus less on building things going forward, how do you see yourself as executive vice president?

DE: Yes. So, you know, as I've been saying in every forum, my job is to support and leverage and advise and inform decision making by academic leaders. The agenda and the priorities are set by the president, the provost and the deans. What we do is try to inform that decision making process and strategic planning, and then try to implement against that, support that. I think what you're summarizing back to me from President Price is an intense focus on investing in our people. And if so, I think that there's just been an incredible and really impressive investment in the campus and facilities; I mean, really, really significant enhancements. But I would say on the margin—it's there, and this happens at universities—you go through cycles of capital need and renewal and expansion. Then, you know, you need to focus that capital allocation elsewhere. And what [Price] is attentive to is assuring that we're raising money to be able to fund our faculty and their endeavors, our students—in terms of financial aid, affordability and accessibility—[and] the competitiveness of our programs, which tie hugely on our ability to fund financial aid. So, shifted emphasis. And I my guess is when that he and the deans and [Provost Sally Kornbluth] come out with capital, the fundraising, the campaign planning, you'll see, you know, a lot more professorships, scholarship funding than building funding, and that may have been different in the past.

TC: So you're basically saying more focused toward investing in research and financial aid, I guess are the main priorities.

DE: Yeah, it's sort of like, ideally you want to always try to build permanent capital against these long term commitments we make to faculty, to financial aid. Think of it as investing in professorships, investing in scholarships, investing in research programs.

TC: What do you see as your most urgent priorities in both the short term and maybe a little long term?

DE: In the short term? It's, you know, obviously, it's supporting the team. There's a very large and complicated operation, with outstanding leaders playing large substantial roles, facilities, [information technology], [human resources], you know, there's a lot happening. The biggest thing you want to assure in the early days are that is that that team is supported, that I can be there to influence decisions when they need them, but mainly assuring minimum stability, if not also assuring we're making progress against the priorities that the President, the Provost, the deans have set forth for us. Then, of course there's obviously this incredible learning curve that I'm on for this multifaceted and complex enterprise, so it's a lot of ground that I'm covering. I think, obviously, we're in the situation where we've been through this kind of great shock. 

We faced our ability to deliver on our missions, as an operational matter, but then obviously, real concerns about financials. It is a little bit of, okay, what is the post COVID landscape in terms of our financial position? And what have we learned from COVID, to set us up to build for the post pandemic future? The good news there—huge credit to the leadership team is—it was nowhere bad, nowhere near as bad as we had feared. And I can say “we've” because I was fearing similar things at Johns Hopkins as this team was fearing for Duke. So, that's really encouraging. It's nice that we're in a place where we certainly have work to do on strengthening financial performance and ensuring we get scarce resources into mission priorities, but that's always the name of the job. 

TC: I did want to talk a little bit about financials and COVID. I was looking at what you were saying at Academic Council about how you feel pretty positive actually for everything, but a lot of it is the result of these one-time cost savings, and then maybe looking forward, when those costs return, things might not look as bright. Is there any chance you could elaborate on that a little bit more? What is the short term financial timeline for Duke?

DE: Yep. The positives that we have in terms of wind in the sails given what you could have been fearing a year ago. The equity markets are at an all time high, which is portending very well for the endowment. After a really tough endowment year last fiscal year, it's nice to see some recovery there—hopefully, significant recovery, in terms of how this year progresses. Going into next year, net assets will hopefully have grown or substantially recovered. So that's really promising. The clinical mission was really threatened—a lot of clinical activity stopped, and that was quite concerning for the enterprise. That in large part is recovering, and we're slowly but surely beginning to get back to pre-pandemic level of activity. So that's really encouraging. It's incredible how well the research mission sustained itself through COVID, and how it projects for it is positive. What I worry about in the big picture is federal fiscal policy and the amount of debt or leverage the government is taking on and the degree to which it will have to retrench at some point as we come out of the stimulant stimulation period. So that's a threat and a concern that we have. Tuition and revenue, that is the enrollment side, fared far better than we feared. But still really big questions out there, especially when you think about international student enrollment. So there's, I would say, some meaningful uncertainty. Also, we took on a lot of extra expenses to support our students—the testing programs, the quarantine, isolation—and what of that will we need to sustain? So that's on the more challenging side of the equation. And then in large part, what I would say is, we have been challenged in this period, and as we look forward to the fact that we have built, done a lot of capital investment and expansion, and that creates real operating pressure over time. One of the major steps we will try to take is slow down the pace of capital expansion, and where we are doing it. I hope this shift will be more towards renewal of existing assets. A great example is buildings on the quad that have not been touched or invested in for both renewal needs and program needs for some time. We're quite focused on trying to find ways to do that.

TC: What do you think are the long term effects of COVID on our financials? Will some of these cuts that have been made, or some of these expenses that have been added, remain into the future?

DE: You know, I would say, we've all found a way to—I won't talk about the education experience, I'll just talk about the administrative professional experience of the enterprise—we found a way to work very differently. A great example is, Duke had very limited telehealth levels of activity and reimbursement. I mean, in a span of days, the level of clinical activity delivered through telehealth was astonishing. And we will, if we do this, right, in terms of as a public health matter, and as taking care of our patients matters in the best way, my guess is telehealth will be a very important part of our future. So that's a way in which the place will change dramatically. I think that we will, in terms of attracting, retaining administrative talent, we'll have a lot more folks who will be interested in working from home or working more flexibly after having done this remote work. And we are very supportive of that. And so my guess is that we'll see the need for less space than we had. If you look at the amount of leases we've done over time, my guess is that rate of growth will change, that we won't have the same demands for space. So that will lower costs. The other you know, the other kind of big cost issue that you're always navigating in a university context is travel. You know, research has to happen, conferences happen, interaction with colleagues. My guess is that the level of that activity changes dramatically in the post pandemic world. I would say, you know, elements of the student experience, and they kind of aggregate, you know, this aggregate living residential, I think we'll all just have a different experience ... moving forward. So I can imagine the student experience has some different dimensions to it, but I can't quite predict what they'll be.

TC: I know that there's a task force or committee, Team 2030, that's looking at how Duke can separate itself in the next decade. I was curious what your thoughts are on the kind of investments or the things that you can do that can make Duke stand out by 2030?

DE: Yeah, you know, that's really an academic effort. What I would say is that the emphasis is, how can we be smarter? How can we better deliver on the educational experience, on the research mission? So I would say within it there's big themes. Climate is a very big theme for President Price and Provost Kornbluth and the deans, so I feel like a lot of substantive stakes were put into the ground early in President Price's tenure, and those aren't shifting. We believe in those. Now this effort has a little bit more of the character. How do we best support getting there? I think it's influenced by the pandemic, like life has changed. Our resources are tighter. Given that construct coming out of the pandemic, we still have huge ambition, but we've now lived through a pretty threatening moment to the institution, administratively, operationally, financially. So relative to meeting our missions, how do we go about this in a smarter, more efficient, more collaborative way? But those questions are best directed to the provost.

TC: So another question I find very fascinating is Central Campus, which I'm sure is not a high priority right now. But it's something that Duke is proud of, this 60 acres of land, and they're excited to do something with it. I'm not going to ask what you're going to do with it. But I'm curious, how do you plan to approach taking advantage of Central? What is your thinking toward it?

DE: Well, it's obviously an incredible asset of the institution as you suggest, and we are just so fortunate to have that kind of opportunity to expand and develop with others. I am not far enough into the role to give you an answer. But I can tell you, you can dream of a lot of things. We have graduate student housing as a real need that we're trying to work hard to address. President Price has a very big effort on research and translation. And so you can imagine hat a place where we could dream of and develop with maybe private sector, partners, industry collaborations—really expand our R&D-oriented activities. So it's exciting, and it's really a fortunate place for an institution like ours to be in to have that kind of development capacity, so close to the heart of so much in the heart of the place, and the heart of the campus.

TC: Alright, great. And my final question is, reflecting back on your Hopkins tenure, what are you most proud of? And what is a regret from the tenure?

DE: So the easy answer, because this is what I love about these jobs are the extraordinary professionals that I got to know and mentor and develop. Everywhere that I've gone, what I always feel the most pride in is how I've touched people's careers and hopefully set them up for future success. I have nothing but just such huge pride in the team that I worked with there and helped lead but also helped develop. 

You know, the thing that the project, the initiative that I really loved, and feel so much pride in, is an effort called Hopkins Local. We just had very ambitious goals for how we could influence the creation of wealth and economic stability for the residents of Baltimore. And so we directed a very significant amount of our construction spend, our procurement spend, and our hiring towards, to the greatest extent possible, Baltimore-based citizens, Baltimore-based companies, as well as disadvantaged businesses—Black-women-owned, veteran, other disadvantaged business groups. And boy, what we were able to accomplish through Hopkins Local was so fun and meaningful. What was really cool is that 25 other Baltimore-based companies joined us in a thing called Be Local that we started. So, all these companies made similar commitments that we had made towards local economic development, local economic empowerment. It was just an incredible experience. I feel like we had the tangible impact on a city that is a beautiful, wonderful state but has chronic challenges. I think we did something quite significant through those two programs. 

You know, the biggest regret, the hardest part of the job was the fact that I had responsibility for security. And, you know, our students and affiliates of the institution, employees, patients, were not infrequently the victims of violent crime. We thought and worked hard, but ultimately pulled back the potential for a Johns Hopkins police department. And, you know, that was just a really hard moment for our community, and for us as a leadership group and for our community. And it created a lot of pain and anguish for our community. That, you know, that we felt that that was  the necessary solution to a really hard crime problem. And that was not the views of our community, understandably. That was just a hard experience for everyone who was involved with it. The people who didn't want it, it was hard on them, the people who were trying to do it the right way, like the people who ran security, it's hard on them. It's just really tough. And ultimately, you know, we pulled it back. So it was in suspension when I had left.


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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