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Q&A: President Vincent Price on his first four years at Duke, post-pandemic life, ongoing initiatives

Vincent Price has been Duke's president since 2017.
Vincent Price has been Duke's president since 2017.

Vincent Price took office at Duke in 2017 as the University’s 10th president. He has guided Duke through a difficult year during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, as the University prepares for some semblance of normality, many are wondering: where do we go from here? 

Editor-in-Chief Leah Boyd asked Price about Duke’s ongoing efforts regarding racial injustice, climate and sustainability, treatment of workers and recovery from the pandemic. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: In thinking about these four years you’ve spent at Duke, is there a specific accomplishment that you’re most proud of?

Vincent Price: Well, two things jump out at me. First, we've made it through COVID-19, through the pandemic, relatively successfully, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of our students, faculty and staff. It's been through the cooperation and collaboration of everybody in the community that we've been able to have in-person residential learning experiences this year that came close to replicating our normal campus environment. I know it hasn't been easy for our students and staff, but I think we came through it about as well as we possibly could.

Second, I would say I'm proud of the work that we're now doing in anti-racism and equity. This work has become more concentrated as a campus-wide effort in the past few months, but really, it's been under way for the past several years. We're making good progress, but we have a long way to go. And in just a few weeks, we'll be sharing the results of the campus climate survey, which gathered responses from close to 13,000 members of our community with feedback that I think will help guide our anti-racism work in the years to come.

TC: On the subject of COVID-19, do you think that the pandemic will permanently change Duke to any capacity, and if so, what do you think will change?

VP: Well, we sort of learned a lot over the past 15 months and yes, I think some of what we've learned we will want to carry forward. Having successfully navigated through the worst pandemic we could have faced and now looking forward, our aim is to ensure that we grow back healthier and more vibrant than ever. 

To that end, I created Strategy Team 2030 last spring to help identify and recommend key strategic opportunities for us as we recover from these severe disruptions of COVID-19. That team includes the Provost [Sally Kornbluth], the Chancellor for Health Affairs [A. Eugene Washington], the deans of our 10 schools, our Executive Vice President [Daniel Ennis], the Academic Council Chair [Kerry Haynie] and [Michael Schoenfeld], the vice president for communications and government relations. They've been charged with identifying and recommending some key strategic opportunities.

We do face continuing financial challenges that have to be navigated thoughtfully and carefully. To secure the future resources, we need to carry out our core academic missions and capitalize on our historic agility and our innovative spirit to secure true leadership in defining higher education for the 21st century. As that work unfolds, I know that we'll need to be efficient and thoughtful and strategic.

Notwithstanding all of those headwinds, we're on a trajectory to recover from the pandemic and enter a post COVID-19 environment better equipped than ever to lead in global higher education. I think we will make improvements in the residential experience. We will look for ways we can leverage what we've learned about new technologies and their role in teaching where it's pedagogically appropriate. I think we will leverage a lot of the things that we've learned through the pandemic, but in the short term, the Duke experience will continue to be marked by those same critical features that have always defined it. 

TC: Onto your second point about anti-racism efforts, you updated [Volume 116 editor-in-chief Matthew Griffin] in November about how those look, and I know they were a conversation at the last Board of Trustees meeting. Can you talk about what Duke’s anti-racism efforts look like now and if there are any goals set in place for the next academic year with regards to that?

VP: This past summer, I charged the provost, the executive vice president and the chancellor for health affairs with identifying specific anti-racism actions and implementation plans in keeping with and across all the five areas of our strategic framework. We have sought to move decisively and without delay to mobilize every part of our enterprise by redoubling existing efforts. By initiating some significant new programs, we've worked hard to ensure that anti-racism and equity remain long term priorities for Duke. They have to be woven very carefully into every aspect of our institutional strategy and culture.

Over the course of the year, numerous new educational programs launched. As I mentioned, we recently completed our first ever campus-wide climate survey focused on issues of equity and inclusion. This summer, we'll be reviewing the results and beginning to plan our next steps, which will include new programmatic amendments and a continued emphasis on the work that's already underway. So we're moving forward. We're assembling now a University-wide racial equity advisory council, which will have working groups dedicated to campus climate and assessment, education programs, effective communication and infrastructure and policies. So the work is continuing.

TC: Have you seen any changes at Duke over the last four years that surprised you?

VP: That surprised me? Well, I would say the controversy surrounding the light rail was a regrettable surprise, one that reflected years of miscommunication and distrust—some of it justified, some of it not. It surfaced some of the complicated legacies we need to work through and our work with the community. We're trying very hard to strengthen our relationships with Durham, and our deep collaboration with the city and county officials during the pandemic is evidence, I believe, of how far we've come. Our Office of Durham and Community Affairs, under the leadership of Vice President Stelfanie Williams, has been hosting community conversations, several of which I've been able to attend, to learn directly from our neighbors about how we can help and develop our strategic plan for impactful engagement with Durham. There's so much opportunity for our city to thrive alongside our University, and we're committed to making that happen.

TC: Something else we've been reporting on lately is the Duke Graduate Students Union and the Duke University Press Workers Union being outspoken about wanting higher pay, more opportunities and more of a seat at the decision making table. How do you plan to address these concerns by Duke workers and bring lower paid members of the community to the table?

VP: I believe strongly that we must continue to expand our support staff and graduate students alike to these ends. Shortly after I arrived at Duke, we instituted a $15 minimum wage for all staff. Throughout the pandemic, we instituted policies that reflect our commitments, providing salary increases for all employees earning $50,000 annually or less, while instituting salary freezes and in some cases even reducing salaries and benefits for our more highly compensated faculty and staff. In line with our values, and to support our local Durham community, we worked carefully to avoid job losses and coordinated very closely with our staff to navigate our COVID-19 related challenges.

When this pandemic hit with full force more than a year ago, very few people at Duke, in Washington or in the business community could know that the full impact of this would be as extensive as it has been. And indeed, we did see an immediate hit to almost all sources of revenue at Duke from investments to patient care and an equally significant increase in costs for things like testing. The Department of Labor recently reported that colleges and universities cut more than 570,000 jobs in the last year, which is one out of every nine people working in higher education. Those cuts are devastating to individuals to their families, their institutions and their communities. But they were not the case here at Duke. Similarly, we're approving stipends for graduate students, and we're committed to ensuring that all of our graduate and professional students are well supported academically, financially and socially. We announced in 2019 that all doctorate students who are in their five year guaranteed funding period would receive 12 months stipends beginning in the fall of 2022. We did this because we know the vital contributions our graduate students make to the university community and our institutional excellence depends on the excellence of the support we provide the grad students and their families. And again, during the pandemic, we provided support for both undergraduate and graduate students by reducing certain fees and freezing tuition for a year, revising financial aid packages, creating a fund so that students with extraordinary needs could get money for housing, food, travel, technology, and providing additional benefits to graduate students. All of this work has been done in consultation with our employees, with faculty, students and unions, and we're closely engaged with the truly outstanding leaders of Dukes graduate and professional student government. Everyone shared in the sacrifice so that we could serve our students, so that we could save jobs, and retain money in our community. And this is something that we can all be proud of. I think it speaks volumes about the values and the compassion of the Duke community. 

TC: Going into the next few years, what do you see as your duty to the Duke community?

VP: I have a duty to listen carefully and to lead collaboratively. Ultimately, the issues that we face today—systemic racism, climate change, the financial and social headwinds of changing post pandemic world—these will not be addressed in one year, or 10 years, even a quarter of a century, but they will define the course of the next 100 years to come. So I see my work as not only addressing the immediate issues we face on campus but also positioning us to be able to take advantage of the opportunities we can't yet even anticipate. We know that they'll require financial resources. So a major focus of the second term of my presidency will be on a major new philanthropic campaign. 

We're also committed to strengthening the Duke student experience in the face of a changing world. That's the goal of the Next Generation Living and Learning Experience efforts that Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president of student affairs; Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education; and a committee of students and faculty are leading now. Two Duke Student Government senators are on the 2.0 Committee, which has been tasked with focusing on four specific areas. First, alumni, faculty and student connections drawn across all four years. Secondly, designing traditions and campus community going forward. Thirdly, the East-West Campus link and the design of our quad system. And finally, looking more broadly at selectivity within campus life. These are the ways that, working together with students, we can build on the excellence that Duke has always provided and be at the vanguard of the next generation of student living and learning.

TC: Is there any specific initiative or topic that you didn't think you focused very heavily on in your first four years that you want to prioritize more in your next term?

VP: Most of the major priorities for the University have grown out of the development of this strategic framework in 2017 and 2018. But that said, I think members of the community might not be aware of the work that we're doing now on climate change and sustainability and on our relationship with Durham and on the forthcoming Centennial philanthropic campaign, which will improve our ability to provide the needed financial aid for our increasingly diverse student body and the resources our faculty requires in support of excellence in teaching and research. So these will be very significant priorities for years to come. And we've been working on them for some time, but they perhaps haven't yet been as widely discussed as we'd like with the whole campus population, and that will change in the coming months. 

TC: We've mentioned climate a few times. Is there anything you can say now about Duke’s goals for climate sustainability and fossil fuel divestment going forward?

VP: We have a tremendous opportunity, I think, a responsibility at Duke to help address climate change, and we've organized the task force on climate change and sustainability. They're making recommendations for the path forward. Climate research, education and policy engagement will be major priorities for both strategy and fundraising in the coming years, and we're going to work to leverage our significant research and policy resources toward sustainable environmental solutions. 

We're also taking actions to mitigate the University's own contributions to climate change. We have made major new commitments in solar energy, which will provide half of our electricity needs, and we're on track for a 75% decrease in overall carbon emissions by 2024, relative to a 2007 baseline. We're also exploring high quality carbon offsets to bring net emissions to zero. In terms of investments, as I mentioned in my recent Earth Day message, the Board of Trustees has directed DUMAC, the nonprofit corporation that oversees University investments, to take Duke's commitment to environmental sustainability into account in any investment decisions. And DUMAC is not currently directly invested in fossil fuel generating enterprises.

TC: When you first came to Duke, what was your vision for the school? How do you think that’s changed up to now?

VP: When I first arrived at Duke, to help determine a vision, I consulted widely with students, faculty, staff, alumni and neighbors to develop a strategic framework for the future of the University. And I’ve said in a variety of places that this framework is centered around five areas of focus.

The first is empowering people so that we invest more decisively in our extraordinary faculty, students and staff, recognizing that, at the end of the day, their accomplishments comprise the true measure of our institutional excellence. The second area of focus is innovating, teaching and learning by better fusing our research and our educational missions and leveraging new technological and pedagogical approaches that meet the evolving needs of a new generation of students. 

Third is renewing our campus community so we can assert properly that all who call Duke home share a lived experience that's increasingly inclusive, increasingly equitable, engaging, healthy and vibrant. The fourth area was partnering with the purpose to strengthen relationships in Durham and to be a collaborative catalyst in our region, to advance innovative economic development while also improving community health and housing and education. And the fifth area was engaging our global network—better supporting and harnessing the talents of our alumni and friends throughout the full arc of their lives, in effect creating a Duke without walls that would invest continuously in developing ourselves and each other to reach our full potential.

That vision hasn't changed in the past four years. But I do think our work has become more refined and more focused. We've had [Board of Trustee] task forces and campus conversations around many of these issues, from investing in faculty to financial aid to the future of the residential experience.

I think we're making real progress, and I've often said that that framework begins and ends with Duke’s people. It's centered around community, and it's rooted in the understanding that our University is only going to be as strong, as healthy, as collectively capable and as accomplished as our faculty, students, staff, clinicians and alumni around the world.

It represents a people-first shift of emphasis in our investments, with less emphasis on investing in new buildings, the physical infrastructure and more emphasis on investing in the people who teach here, who study here, who live in those buildings—that is, on our human infrastructure. So as I look ahead to a second term, and as Duke looks ahead to our next 100 years beyond our centennial, it will be those kinds of investments in our people, I think, that make all the difference.

TC: How has being Duke's president changed your worldview?

VP: Well, in a variety of ways, you know, I think that we all have this deep commitment to the mission of higher education, and in my case it's only deepened my personal commitment. This is an uncertain moment for our nation and the world, and the missions of discovery, teaching, learning and healing have never been more important. Duke and institutions like ours have the responsibility to shape a healthier, more vibrant, more inclusive future, and that responsibility begins at home with our own community. So I've learned since I've become president just how exciting that can be to bear that responsibility but to have an opportunity through this extraordinary community of faculty, students, staff and alumni to make significant change in our world.


Leah Boyd | Editor-in-Chief

Leah Boyd is a Pratt junior and editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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