One of the behind-the-scenes traditions of graduation weekend is a dinner for honorary-degree recipients. This year's gathering had a certain familiarity--and a certain poignancy, with the impending retirement of the host, President Nannerl O. Keohane.
The evening, as is customary, featured a kind of call-and-response routine. The president said a few words about the honorees. They made some observations about their lives and works. The president reflected briefly on those observations.
One of the speakers mentioned having borrowed materials from the Duke library system for his research program. Keohane then described the collaborative arrangements between Duke and the libraries of neighboring universities. Another mentioned her student experiences at a women's college. Keohane, in turn, talked about the Duke Woman's College as emblematic of a commitment to the education of women. A third speaker prompted Keohane's musings on the faculty as the spark plug of intellectual activity.
The full range of Keohane's qualities were on display: her depth of knowledge about Duke and higher education, her passion for service and learning, her ease and effectiveness in communicating. This was an intellectually adroit leader in her element.
And that suggests a question: Might Keohane have been a leader in a different context? In an interview with Duke Magazine, she said that an alternative path might have been politics. She enjoys "making the case" to different audiences, after all. "I've always thought it would be great to be in the Senate," she said. "If I were ten years younger, I might still be seriously considering it."
But she wasn't about to second-guess her career choices. "People should not think administration is easy or intellectually a vacation," she said. Needless to say, she's done well at it. But what she called "the purer life of the mind" is what has long engaged her. "It's what, at least in the past, I have been best-suited for and have enjoyed the most. And I hope I can get back to it."