Neo Nan: pre-inaugural photo session, 1993. Photo: Jim Wallace
Neo Nan: pre-inaugural photo session, 1993. Photo: Jim Wallace

Duke's Master Builder

What stands out in any consideration of Nan Keohane is not just what she has done but also the basis on which she's acted. Keohane has shaped her presidency from a firm set of values.
August 1, 2004

When Duke's eighth president, Nannerl O. Keohane, delivered her Founders' Day address last October, something annoying happened. The Duke Chapel carried not just Keohane's voice but also the persistent beeping of a construction vehicle as it shifted into reverse gear. Annoying, yet appropriate.

In her eleven-year presidency, Keohane conspicuously has been a builder. The Founders' Day audience was reminded of one building in progress--a Divinity School wing, just next to the Chapel. But building activity is affecting everything from art (a new museum) to zoology (a planned science center). The physical transformation of Duke under her presidency is comparable to the building of the university's two campuses between 1925 and 1932.

Keohane has also been a builder in a metaphorical sense. Under her guidance, Duke has elevated its ambitions and developed the resources to realize those ambitions. "Duke and Nan have grown together in stature and respect," says John Chandler '52, who led the search committee that identified Keohane and who later led the board of trustees.

Duke now has more global ties than ever, with more international students at every level--a trend helped along by the awarding of aid to international students--and more international collaborations, notably among the professional schools. Since 1998, Keohane has traveled more than 60,000 miles on Duke-related trips to China, Taiwan, Korea, Mexico, Panama, Argentina, Chile, Canada, England, and France, among other places. While those visits have focused on building alumni networks abroad, she has also made high-profile speeches in venues ranging from the Foreign Correspondents Club in Japan to the American Chamber of Commerce in Brazil.

At the same time, Duke is more closely tied with its region. One exemplary educational partnership is the Robertson Scholars program, through which scholarship students study at both Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This spring, UNC named a new visiting professorship in Keohane's honor--a striking gesture from the traditional rival down the road.

For a decade before coming to Duke, Keohane was president of Wellesley College, known for undergraduate excellence. With the goal of building a stronger student community, she focused early on undergraduate life at Duke--particularly on East Campus, which was in search of a sharper identity. In 1994, Keohane renewed and reinvented it as an all-freshman campus. She weathered a lot of student criticism at the time; students, after all, are a change-resistant constituency. That comes with the territory, she says. "I was used to it. I had been targeted before for decisions that people didn't like. It's not as though it's pleasant when you wake up in the morning thinking, Gee, I wonder who's going to have signs today telling me to get lost. You just take it in stride and move on."

She moved on, and the freshmen moved in. After a year, she was able to report with satisfaction, "East Campus today is vibrant, colorful, and energetic. It works very well in providing new students with an opportunity to learn about Duke, develop a sense of class cohesiveness, and experience the full range of possibilities that a great university offers undergraduates." Those were all features, she noted, that students in the Woman's College enjoyed when it was on East. Today it's hard to imagine, or rationalize, the early vehemence of the reactions; the all-freshman East Campus is basic to the fabric of Duke.

"You could look at the issue of East Campus from an administrative and budgeting point of view," says Richard Burton, a Fuqua professor who, as chair of the Academic Council, served on the presidential-search committee. "And Nan did that. But what really drove her was the idea that we could have a better educational experience for students." More than a builder, then, Keohane is a builder of communities--even classroom communities. A just-graduated Duke senior, Tyler Rosen, who was in a seminar she co-taught this past semester, says he's never seen a professor who is more respectful of the opinions of students and more interested in seeing the whole class wrestle with those opinions.

Over the years, students have wrestled, not always enthusiastically, with changes in the broader campus community. Richard Rubin '00, a former Chronicle staff member who now covers city government for the Charlotte Observer, says that students have been quick to credit--or blame--Keohane for Duke's shifting social dynamics. Students, says Rubin, have seen Keohane as responsible for a perceived diminishing of a kind of campus exuberance, as the force behind an "intellectualization" of the campus that translates into "lack of fun." Of course, Rubin adds, "You would have read in the 1990s, the 1980s, even thirty years ago, in the 1970s, that Duke is not as fun as it used to be."

Jessica Moulton '99, a Chronicle editor who went on to earn an M.B.A. at Harvard and to work for McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, is one recent graduate who admires the trend of transformation: "Students increasingly tend to value intellectual growth and learning over partying and socializing. That's not to say that Duke isn't a very social place, which it is. But to the extent that the Old Duke meant kegs on the quad from Wednesday night onward, it is only an improvement."

"It is certainly true," says Keohane, "that ten or fifteen years ago, people thought that Duke was a place where there would be a wonderful lubrication of a lot of events with alcohol and a lot of parties beginning on Wednesday night, and somehow they would also be able to get a great education and a wonderful Duke credential and cheer for the sports teams and sit out in the sun." That might be an appealing scenario for some undergraduate students, she says, but it's not a good model for taking education seriously.

As Keohane sees it, Duke is now endeavoring "to walk a very fine line, between saying, All right, we are going to focus on intellectual life at the expense of everything else, and saying, It's okay if people pay more attention to parties or sports or drinking and intellectual life takes a back seat." Adhering to either extreme would be a mistake, she says. "What we've been trying to say instead is, This is an institution which is distinctively for people who both care deeply about the life of the mind and also care deeply about other things. They have passions for community service or social life or Greek life or sports. The two can fit together in ways that are not the old, tired canard of 'work hard, play hard,' but rather reflect a rich and full undergraduate experience which pays deliberate attention to what happens outside the classroom, as well as what happens within it."

"When Nan came on board, there was a lot of talk about Old Duke and New Duke," recalls Harold "Spike" Yoh B.S.M.E. '58, a former trustee chair. "Nan was the best spokesperson for the idea of one Duke. That meant building on tradition, building on the past, and using that as a foundation to enhance the university in every way. The all-freshman East Campus is an example of that. She stuck her neck out on that decision. But she analyzed it very, very completely, and she listened and made corrections as she absorbed new information."

Student leaders were among those who pushed to rename the area forming Duke's newest residence, known as the West-Edens Link, Keohane Quad. In remarks at the April ceremony, senior Katie Mitchell observed that future generations of Duke students who reside in Keohane Quad probably won't have personal acquaintance with its namesake. "But my hope is that through this dedication and this naming, they will know that there was once a president at Duke who passionately and humbly believed in the academy in its most holistic form--believed in a place where learning was not about the something you did. It was about the somebody you became."

Something Duke became during the Keohane era was more complicated organizationally. That was a consequence of a reinvented medical center. Duke Medical Center a decade ago meant Duke Hospital and the schools of medicine and nursing. But growth was seen as key to financial survival, and the medical center developed its own health-care system, including oversight of other hospitals. Keohane recalls, "When I came, I was told that I would have plenty of time to learn about the medical center. And then [Chancellor] Ralph Snyderman came into my office six months later and said, 'The lines are crossing in the wrong direction, and unless we do something, we're going to face some serious red ink before too long.' And so I had to come up to speed much more quickly than expected, and to work with Ralph to help face that."

Chandler, the chair of the presidential-search committee, calls it "a very brilliant stroke by Nan" that, soon after she was appointed president, she expressed an interest in visiting the medical center to see open-heart surgery. "So they outfitted her with the requisite gown and mask and all that, and she witnessed the surgery. Well, it took a matter of seconds for the word to spread throughout the medical center. I thought that symbolism got her off to a very fine start and helped give her credibility as a leader who knew the priority that needed to be assigned to the medical center."

"Over time, I think we clarified its relationship to the rest of the university, which was a little bit inchoate at the outset," says Keohane, who, along with trustee leaders, sees work to be done in that regard. "There was a sense that the medical center was over there, and although it was very much a part of Duke University, and something that was a jewel in the crown for Duke University, it was pretty separate in many ways." Today, she says, "in some ways, it's more separate, because it's become a quasi-corporate identity for the health system, but less separate in terms of the academic side, where it is now more fully integrated with the other schools."

If Duke is more unified than it once was, that's, in part, because of Keohane's skills as a communicator. "She is one of the world's great public speakers," says John Koskinen '61, a past president of the Duke Alumni Association and a former chair of the board of trustees. Keohane speaks not just as a lively presenter but also as a deep thinker, he says. "She always represents the university as an intellectual enterprise at its heart."

This spring, the Academic Council decided to honor her with an academic symposium rather than an elaborate reception or string of collegial tributes. The symposium looked at the intellectual legacy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth-century French political philosopher in whom she has had an enduring scholarly interest. It brought together Duke faculty members in Romance studies, classical studies, art history, political science, public policy, history, engineering, and divinity to consider the question (taken from Rousseau's First Discourse), "Does Progress in the Arts and Sciences Serve to Improve or Corrupt Morals?" It was an intellectual sendoff for an intellectual leader.

"I've marveled at her ability to speak to audiences, to move them beyond a focus on the immediate and into a longer perspective," says Koskinen. "Whether she speaks for three minutes or thirty minutes, I have never heard her give remarks that were not only appropriate, but that left her audience with ideas worth thinking about and talking about."

Saluting supporters: Keohane at Campaign for Duke finale, 2004

Saluting supporters: Keohane at Campaign for Duke finale, 2004. Photo: Les Todd

Or, as classical-studies professor and former Academic Council chair Peter Burian put it in remarks this spring to his colleagues, "Like the king in The King and I, she will not always say what you would have her say, but most of the time she does indeed say something wonderful. What is especially impressive in my experience is how she manages in every setting and circumstance to say exactly what she wants to say, unambiguously and unequivocally, but in a way that wins respect, admiration, and affection, even from those who see things differently."

Just as she's been a consummate communicator, in groups ranging from students at baccalaureate services to alumni at reunion weekends, she's been a fervent fund-raiser. Any measure of the Keohane legacy is going to begin with a number--2.36. That's the $2.36-billion Campaign for Duke, the fifth-largest fund-raising total in American higher-education history. For the presidential-search committee, "Duke's under-capitalization relative to its peers and competitors was very much on our mind," recalls Chandler. "It was music to our ears to hear Nan say, 'I enjoy raising money,' and her record at Wellesley in raising money was a very considerable factor in our turning to her as our first choice."

Keohane insists that she never worried that other priorities were being sacrificed to fund-raising imperatives. "I think the only thing that fell by the wayside was my ability to remain actively engaged in my discipline. And that was a conscious choice: I knew that I couldn't continue to teach and to research and be engaged as a full-time administrator, particularly in the middle of a major campaign. I discovered that also at Wellesley."

The list of donors and potential donors who might merit a presidential visit has gotten longer and longer, Keohane says. "But I love traveling. And I shouldn't act as though personal priorities completely took a back seat, because I would also arrange to see my grandchildren, and I'd go to a museum, or I'd go to a play. I love being in New York or Boston, doing those things."

By her own assessment, Keohane has been a university president--perhaps that rare university president--who has a genuine enthusiasm for raising funds. "Some people think that's weird. But I do like it."

She says she finds it intellectually stimulating to be "making the case" for the university. "The people who you go to talk to, to ask to support Duke, tend to be very interesting people. And I'm a very curious person. I'm really interested in how people live; I'm interested in how they do their work. And whether that's learning how someone on a farm in Eastern North Carolina does their work, or how somebody running a major corporation in Houston does their work, I learn a lot. I very often departed from the script that I was supposed to be following by spending a lot more time just getting to know the person--asking about their work, asking about their kids. I learned a lot from those conversations. And I always got the fund raising done in the end."

What stands out in any consideration of Keohane is perhaps not just what she has done but also the basis on which she's acted. Keohane is a leader with a firm set of values. She is quick and comfortable listing them: "curiosity, in terms of loving the truth and being very much motivated by that. A sense of justice, the attempt to create structures in which people are treated with greater fairness and even-handedness. I'm sensitive to people in many ways, although I'm not a kind of touchy-feely person. I do care a lot about people's lives and people that I work with, but also the people that I'm responsible for. It is an important motivation for what I do."

Still, in her public pronouncements, Keohane has chosen her causes carefully. "I don't think it would have been appropriate for me to say some of the things that I may be saying in two years about feminist issues, or inequality, or justice, or whatever, as a political theorist. But I certainly am not going to feel constrained after I leave just by having been president."

The values that Keohane cherishes are "perhaps the biggest driving component in her makeup," says Chandler. He sees a concrete expression of those values in the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, which, through strategic investments of funds and expertise, has greatly strengthened the ties between the university and its home city. Such a strong outreach, he says, signals that "a university is a public trust and is here to serve large social needs--that the resources that a university has must be used for those larger purposes. Nan is, I think, the model of the servant-leader."

Keohane is "fundamentally, deeply animated by concerns with equity," says Elizabeth Kiss, director of the Kenan Ethics Institute. The institute is another outgrowth of the Keohane years; its directorship was named in Keohane's honor. "The particular areas in which she has significantly moved the university to a new level, the things that have grabbed her personal attention, all have a very strong moral dimension. They have to do with seeing character and integrity at the heart of being an educated person."

Kiss mentions one feature of Keohane's inaugural address--her appreciative reference to "those who cook the meals and tend the grounds and make arrangements for our upkeep." That reference reflects Keohane's concerns about "the moral dimensions of institutional life," Kiss says. "Whether that's the way we treat staff, or the way we treat women, or the way we interact with our local community--all of those are deeply ethical issues, and they have been among her front-burner issues."

When Keohane agreed to become president, Chandler reviewed with her the benefits that the trustees were prepared to extend to her. Instead of bargaining for higher compensation, she turned aside a number of proffered benefits, Chandler says. "One mark of her greatness is that Nan is not among the highest-paid presidents in the country. At various times the trustees have tried to persuade her to let them pay her more. But she's not in it for the money; she doesn't aspire to be number-one in compensation."

Classical-studies professor Peter Burian talks about a protest that took shape in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001--and illustrates how Keohane's values-driven agenda is intertwined with her sensibilities as an educator. A group of students who believed fervently that the United States should not go to war had wanted Keohane to oppose publicly any U.S. military action. Burian suggested that they speak to Keohane directly, rather than sending her what amounted to a demand. Keohane agreed to see the group on short notice. "The students heard Nan say very clearly and concretely why she disagreed with their view and why she could not, in any case, take the public stand they desired. And then they heard her endorse their engagement and initiative, and suggest, equally clearly and concretely, a series of things that they could do to engage others in the debate and to increase awareness of the issues on campus and in the wider community."

That's just one example of Keohane's values in action; her big decisions, she says, "have often had some edge of social justice." Fuqua professor Richard Burton notes that Keohane "sometimes makes a distinction between the life of the mind and a life of action. And as president she has chosen a life of action. But she thinks deeply about issues, and she thinks about them within the context of values." Burton watched her move on several fronts early in her presidency: completing a strategic-planning exercise, which brought together the campus community in figuring out Duke's direction; the Black Faculty Initiative, which delineated a process for recruiting and retaining black faculty members; and a sexual-harassment policy, which, in Burton's words, "emphasized how we should want to treat each other in a civilized community rather than trying to draft a detailed code of behavior."

Later in Keohane's administration, spousal benefits and privileges were extended to the same-sex partners of employees and graduate students. "Many presidents, I'm sure, flinched for her when she had that facing her," says Chandler. "They admired greatly the very open way in which she handled the issue and how courageously she resolved it, so that she set an example followed by many other institutions." There were other tough decisions. The Duke Chapel was made available for same-sex unions. Child-care and parental-leave arrangements for employees were expanded. A Women's Initiative was launched to nurture the accomplishments of women on campus. And licensing procedures were revamped to demand public disclosure of the factories that manufactured products carrying Duke's name.

An event honoring Keohane this spring featured one of the original organizers of Students Against Sweatshops, Tico Almeida '99, now a law student at Yale. "There are some people who argue that the issue of international labor rights is so far removed from the day-to-day operations of a university, and the range of political disagreement so broad, that America's colleges should simply stay out of the debate," he said. "And there are some university presidents who are so averse to controversy that they strive always to find the safe middle ground on every issue." Keohane "has demonstrated that there are times when a university can and should take a stand in favor of social justice," he said. "But this does not mean that Nan Keohane is a person who jumps at a cause without first giving it careful and scholarly attention. In fact, the opposite is true."

Late in 1998, student activists were demanding public disclosure of the factories that supplied Duke-labeled goods. Some of those activists gathered for a rally in front of the Allen Building and chanted, "Principles, not politics." Kiss, of the Kenan Ethics Institute, recalls that the students "had gone from a chummy relationship with the administration to an antagonistic one. And it got pretty heated. But Nan did a magnificent job of honoring the moral passion that those students felt. She said, 'I honor you for caring so passionately about these issues, and I want you to see that our disagreement is over means and not ends.' That was an absolutely crucial piece of why this dispute was resolved in such a productive way."

Keohane says that the administration, at the time of the rally, had already decided "that we would pay significant attention to these issues and work out the right position for Duke, along with the students, if they would collaborate with us." The students needed to recognize, she adds, "that they would not get everything they wanted, according to their abstract principles, but that they would have something more effective than just principles standing alone, in the end."

Nan and Bob Keohane on campus

 Photo: Jim Wallace


"Her principled politics were also effective politics," Almeida says. "When Duke became the first university in the nation to mandate public disclosure, we took a step forward, and we took that step alone." Today, he adds, more than 100 universities have followed Duke's lead.

Duke, of course, took a remarkable step forward when it appointed Keohane: She is Duke's first female president, and among the first female presidents of a major research university. Chandler, reflecting on the deliberations of the search committee, says, "The great majority of the committee members were excited by the prospect of having a woman as president of Duke, though no gender criteria limited or directed the search. I would surmise from some of the things I heard and saw that there was probably some nervousness with some members, who thought perhaps this added an element of risk to the choice. But certainly there was nothing like resistance. And Duke did make history with Nan's appointment. It was a powerful statement about the research-university setting being one in which a woman could provide leadership of the first order."

"I think she's an inspiration for women and a great role model for men," says Kiss. "It's been great for male Duke students, for example, to see a very powerful and forceful and also a very ethical woman leader as the head of a major institution."

Keohane acknowledges having to confront questions about why the Women's Initiative came so late in her presidency. Did she operate gingerly as Duke's first female president? "'Gingerly' is not a word in my vocabulary," she says. "So the answer is no. Did I try deliberately not to put too much visible focus on women's issues at the outset? That's probably true. Because I knew that coming in as a self-declared feminist, a president of a women's college, there would be a lot of people who would be assuming that's all I cared about. I thought that would not be healthy either for Duke or for my leadership, or for women in the long run."

In the long run, the Keohane legacy will be perpetuated by the strong administrative team she leaves behind. Keohane says she believes in "being loyal to the people who are loyal to you--but not regarding loyalty as a virtue that overrides criticism or independence of judgment." It's a team forged by a management style that values openness to different ideas but that doesn't shy away from decisiveness. According to Kiss, Keohane's working style--her manner of handling the process of administration--and not just her choice of issues, reflects her values. The current trustee chair, Peter M. Nicholas '64, says Keohane is at once directed and inclusive in her decision making. The ultimate decisions on matters ranging from residential life to the health system "are very much the product of give-and-take among all those affected," he says.

"Nan's remarkable talent is to encourage people to weigh in with their points of view and to persuade people that she is truly willing to listen and to accommodate those points of view," says Nicholas. "What emerges is a series of understandings and policies that reflect not the strident opinions of a person who rules from the top down, but rather the outcome of a thoughtful, considered discussion. Nan is not focused on pride of authorship or pride of ownership of an idea. She's focused on the outcome. That's the mark of a successful leader."

For her part, Keohane says, "The things that I've drawn on to be president of Duke, and that have helped to account for the successes when I've had them, have included good judgment, which I value highly in an administrator. And truthfulness. Although I certainly don't tell the whole truth to everybody all the time, I don't lie to them, and I try to be as candid as I can. Integrity, in the sense of people being able to trust me. When I say that something is going to be true, they can count on that. And courage, because I think that's an important virtue also, for a job like this."

"I've been accused, perhaps appropriately, of not enjoying direct confrontation," Keohane says. "That doesn't mean I'm not up for confrontations with people one-on-one, which I do a lot. And I think I'm pretty tough at that. But I don't like pitting people against each other to see which ideas survive the combat, and I probably do less of that than many CEOs. I do, however, believe that the fact that the folks in the administration have different kinds of backgrounds, somewhat different personalities, parallel but not entirely overlapping values, is a source of strength." She compares her administrative team to a work of architecture--different angles that intersect and that together give shape to, and support, the final product.

An elaborate work of architecture, of course, doesn't proceed from a communal free-for-all. Someone has to shape the jumble of ideas into a master concept. And Keohane is wary of consensus-building as an end in itself. "I remember when we were at Swarthmore, the faculty meetings were run as Quaker meetings. And so everybody would have to come together, and no votes were taken. Well, that may have been a rewarding way to work together in a very small, rather homogeneous community. But I don't think you can run the administration of a complicated research university by the methods of a Quaker meeting. You really need to be clear at some point about how the decision is going to be made and who is going to make it."

Keohane's decisions about her own future aren't fully formed; her personal program is clear, but the preferred place, Duke or elsewhere, isn't. She and her husband, Robert Keohane, James B. Duke Professor of political science, will spend the next academic year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, a scholarly retreat overlooking Stanford University, where she once taught. Beyond that, she speaks with enthusiasm about resuming a life of scholarship and teaching. This spring she co-taught a seminar--her first teaching experience at Duke--with fellow political scientist Peter Euben. Their topic was "Inequalities." Largely relying on "the canonical texts of political theory"--Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Marx, de Tocqueville--they considered issues like "the political significance of what appears to be the growing disparities of wealth and power in the United States."

"It's just wonderful to be back" in the classroom, Keohane says. "I learned, all over again, that although I love reading student papers, I hate grading. So does every faculty member I've ever met. I learned that it's important to have a depth of intellectual capital in order to be able to run a thoughtful seminar. A lot of that intellectual capital has dried up or gone underground, and I need to get it back. And I learned how tremendously rewarding it can be to teach a really good class, and how frustrating it can be when you feel it didn't go as well as you'd like. But all those are familiar feelings. I really have missed it."

As for returning to scholarly endeavors, "I think it will be quite challenging," she says. "Sitting down in front of a blank computer screen to write a meaningful essay on an issue like inequality that will matter to your colleagues--that's at least as difficult as anything the president does. But I'm absolutely determined to try. I have a whole sabbatical to do it, and then, after my sabbatical, I only expect to teach half time wherever we are. So I will continue to have time to write, and think, and read. If I weren't in a field like political philosophy, it would be impossible. One of my colleagues at Stanford, when I took the Wellesley presidency, said, 'You can come back after five years with no trouble. At a stretch, you might be able to come back after ten. But after that you might as well forget it.'

"Well, it's been twenty-four years. So, I don't know. But I'm certainly going to do my very, very best. I'm not going to settle for anything else."