A "Rockstar" Professor

Susan Tifft Remembered
August 1, 2010

Indelible influence: Tifft remembered as a beloved professor, mentor, and friend. Chris Hildreth

Susan Tifft '73, who died on April 1, had a remarkable record with Duke University, where she taught for a decade, and with Duke Magazine.

In 1983, she was recruited to join the Editorial Advisory Board of the magazine, at the time a start-up publication, and she remained on the board until the time of her death. (In the magazine's twenty-fifth anniversary issue, published just over a year ago, she mused about the future of journalism—a profession she looked at not with conventional despair but rather with confidence that it was at a "thrilling juncture.") She was also a longtime board member of Duke Student Publishing, which publishes The Chronicle. Reporting on her death, the newspaper noted that "at a school without a formalized journalism major, Tifft mentored budding young journalists and served as an invaluable resource for students interested in learning about a rapidly changing media landscape."

In a tribute also appearing in The Chronicle, longtime history professor William Chafe noted that Tifft was one of the first students he taught at Duke, in 1972. He recalled her as "sharp, deeply inquisitive, and immediately engaged by the issues of civil rights and feminism that we discussed in my course." Offering the perspective of a current student, Laura Keeley '11 wrote a column—headlined "A Rockstar Professor"—reflecting on Tifft's "News as a Moral Battleground" course. "Professor Tifft had that intangible gift that only the best professors have," she wrote. "She inspired her students to push themselves and never give less than their best efforts."

In his own Chronicle commentary, another of Tifft's former students, Martin Barna '02, wrote that a skill that makes a great journalist—maintaining relationships—made her "a beloved professor, mentor, and friend." Class-specific matters sparked a decade of conversation between them that went on to encompass "all of life—and all of wine," he wrote.

Barna and Joel Fleishman, a longtime public policy professor for whom Tifft worked after graduating, were among the speakers at an April memorial service at Harvard University. Tifft's husband, Alex Jones, is director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. Fleishman said that Tifft, through her long battle with cancer, never lost "the very same joy, enthusiasm, and humor that she brought to her life's journey."

Selected as one of the university's first young trustees, Tifft was also the choice of her fellow students as graduation speaker in 1973. In that speech, she talked about the challenges of finding a meaningful path in life in a time of turmoil at home and abroad: "We are waiting to find a direction, to find out who we are, where we are going, to find purpose in the ambiguous world in which we live," she said.

After she graduated, the world didn't become less ambiguous, but Tifft showed a strong sense of direction. She went on to hold a series of public-affairs positions: press secretary for the Federal Election Commission, press secretary for the 1980 Democratic National Convention, speechwriter for the Carter-Mondale campaign. For about a decade, beginning in 1982, she was a national writer and associate editor for Time, where she wrote about politics, economics, foreign affairs, and education. She also earned a master's degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

Tifft was deeply attuned to media practices and personalities: She was coauthor, with Alex Jones, of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography. Her first biography, also coauthored with Jones, was The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty, an acclaimed biography of the family behind the Louisville, Kentucky, newspapers.

But she found her calling as a teacher; from 1998 until 2009, she was the Eugene C. Patterson Professor of the Practice of journalism and public policy at the Terry Sanford Institute (now the Sanford School). The honor that meant the most to her was the Sanford School's creation in 2009—coinciding with her retirement from her Duke teaching position—of the Susan E. Tifft Prize for Teaching and Mentorship.

After being diagnosed with cancer in August 2007, Tifft began keeping a personalized website through a service called CaringBridge; the site drew more than 40,000 visits. In her last entry, a week before she died, she wrote: "My oncologist on Monday advised me to think about what I want my legacy to be. I have been ruminating on that. My conclusion? I want my legacy to be all of you—my friends, loved ones, former students—a human chain of those who have guided and influenced me, and whom I touched and influenced."

In the same posting, she offered her version of final advice to that long human chain that knew Susan Tifft as a vital link: "Always do the right thing," she said, paraphrasing Mark Twain. "It will gratify your friends and enrage your enemies."