Fashioning Faculty Futures

How does Duke find the best professors? How does it keep them happy--and here? The issue of what it takes to attract and retain faculty was brought into sharp relief with the winter announcement of the largest faculty-targeted gift Duke has ever received.
March 31, 2002

Entering the Harvard Square hangout known as Pinocchio's, you're confronted with the requisite menu of pizza variations, the requisite photos of sports teams, and a framed testimonial. An article from The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, provides the testimonial; it reports on Harvard's having lured a leading Stanford researcher in "sub-micron electronic technology." He turned down tenure at Stanford in favor of Harvard's offer.

According to the article, the decision between the two "came down to intangibles" while the physicist was visiting Cambridge. It quotes him as recalling, "I was having pizza with my son at Pinocchio's and everything just felt right." Pizza is, of course, very tangible. Other elements of the environment are less so: "For me, it's the perfect job. You don't have to wear a tie, you can keep your own hours, and as long as you're smart, you can be as weird as you want."

At Duke, the issue of what it takes to attract--and keep--faculty has been brought into sharp relief with the February announcement of a gift of $25 million. The gift, from Ginny Lilly Nicholas '64 and Peter Nicholas '64, is the largest the university has ever received directed specifically for the faculty. By matching new contributions, the gift is expected to yield a total of $75 million over the next two years. Those new funds will go toward "faculty development," a category highlighted in "Building on Excellence," the university's strategic plan, that includes professorships, directorships, and curatorships; research grants, sabbaticals, and leaves; and the infrastructure of teaching and research.

Inhabiting the relatively new infrastructure of the Levine Science Research Center, Alex Hartemink '94, though hardly new to Duke, is a new assistant professor of computer science. As an undergraduate, he majored in mathematics, physics, and economics; he never took a computer science course. Later, he went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, earning an M.Phil. degree in economics. In the fall of 1996, he began a doctoral program in electrical engineering and computer science at M.I.T. He finished the Ph.D. last summer.

Hartemink, who focused his Oxford efforts on choice and preference in economic theory, considered career paths in industry, consulting, and even politics. But he was drawn finally to academe--to the idea of devoting himself to wrestling with ideas. In his job search, he investigated top-ranked programs in computer science. The advertised Duke opening was in artificial intelligence. His own work concerns computational methods for processing and interpreting genomic data--data that point to what the make-up of our genes is, what the expression of those genes results in, how genes change over time. The department ended up hiring a Stanford professor in artificial intelligence and making an "opportunity hire" of Hartemink.

One of the selling points for Duke was an initiative in genomics. Gradually, that initiative is becoming visible in new bricks and mortar, programs, and research directions. "This was pretty central to the way in which the university was going to grow in the next five, ten, twenty years," Hartemink says. "I was looking for an academic research institution that was extremely supportive of the direction in which I was going--in particular, genomics--coupled with a place that sort of felt like home. Not home in the sense of a return, although that's how it played out in my case. But a place where I felt comfortable with my colleagues.

"As a young guy, I'm at a point where I'm exploring. So going somewhere different would help me expand my horizons and perspectives. On the other hand, I had an exceptionally good time at Duke as an undergraduate. In addition to the kinds of undergraduate experiences that I never had any hope of reliving, I just knew the tone of this place. I knew the ability of the administration and the faculty to do amazing things with comparatively fewer resources than a lot of our peer institutions. When I visited Duke and they espoused certain commitments or intentions, I had a lot of confidence that they really meant it. At other places, I wasn't really sure if it was just talk."

Compared with other disciplines, computer science is more a buyer's market. So the places vying for Hartemink showed plenty of flexibility in order to be competitive in salary. Guarantees of research support, he says, were equally alluring--the kind of support that pays for travel to professional conferences, which are important arenas for young faculty. This winter, he attended the Pacific Symposium in Biocomputing in Hawaii, and other conferences are on the near horizon.

Hartemink wants to guide (and attract funding for) a diverse team of graduate students. He says one reason for his hiring at Duke is his enthusiasm for collaboration within and outside the department, including graduate students and colleagues in areas like biology, medicine, and engineering. And he has a computer scientist's eagerness for equipment--encompassing everything from purchasing a laptop computer to outfitting an entire lab. "The nice thing is that the department has an excellent computing infrastructure. So it's not the case that every professor needs to go buy his or her own supercomputer. Eventually, if the things that I'm working on are really successful and the amount of data becomes large, I will need to compute on very fast machines with vast amounts of memory."

Computer science professor and department chair Alan Biermann says Hartemink's application signaled an "incredible opportunity in computational genomics just at a time when Duke wanted to grow in this area. So the deans decided to go for it, and we were able to entice Alex into coming, even though he had very attractive offers elsewhere. Alex's coming has been as big an event as we had expected."

Thomas Crowley has made a career of sifting through large quantities of data, though his concern is not with genetic goings-on but with the patterns of the planet. It was a serendipitous encounter that brought Crowley to Duke last fall as the Nicholas Professor of Geology and Earth Sciences. At a meeting about three years ago, a colleague mentioned that Duke was searching to fill the new chair. Crowley called up Paul Baker in Duke's geology department, whom he had known through professional circles, and was encouraged to apply.

As a Ph.D. student at Brown, Crowley studied sediments and fossils to understand changes in ocean circulation. He went on to teach college courses aboard U.S. Navy ships, collaborate with a climate modeler at the University of Missouri, direct the National Science Foundation's Climate Dynamics Program, serve as a research fellow at the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and join a private consulting firm. At Texas A&M, he was professor of oceanography and deputy director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies.

He works with his mathematician wife, Gabi Hegerl. "Because my wife is a professional scientist, we were interested in what type of arrangements Duke might make for her," Crowley says. "And they were, I felt, very open-minded, generous, and flexible in the way they dealt with that." Hegerl is now an associate research professor in the Nicholas School's Earth and Ocean Sciences division.

"Even though I am a geologist, I had worked for a physics department, an oceanography department, I had worked for the government, but I had never been an employee of a geology department," Crowley says. "What I do is some geology, but I also do a lot on modern climate. People with those types of interests sometimes fit in well in geology departments. And sometimes they're a little bit out of step. So it was important for me to see if this type of science meshed well with the rest of the department. Really, there are not many earth and ocean sciences departments in the country where I felt it would be possible. This wasn't just people being polite to a newcomer applying for a job. This really was genuine; it felt that we were connecting well with the people we were meeting at Duke."

Just as Hartemink picked up on a commitment to genomics, Crowley perceived an institutional interest in global change. "And it's really global change, not just climate change. We're changing the chemical makeup of the atmosphere and of the oceans, and we're cutting down trees all the time. All of those things will fold into a comprehensive research program."

"I'm very interested in interactions with different groups of people," says Crowley. "Climate is a very interdisciplinary science. It includes geology, oceanography, meteorology, physics, and statistics, and it spills over to public policy along with all the environmental sciences. I wasn't just interested in doing my own research. I could have done that at Texas A&M; Texas A&M gave me a very generous counteroffer. But I wanted to do more, to interact with people on interdisciplinary topics. I also like the idea of knowledge transfer, of bringing a message from pure science to the general public."

Duke provided what Crowley calls "a generous start-up package," much of it going to purchase equipment from his former operation, carve out space in the Old Chemistry Building (which is "going to be filling up," he points out), and bring on one member of his former research team. The biggest expense in his computer modeling work, he says, isn't in hardware but in staffing. He says the modest-scale operation he prefers would involve the collaborative efforts of research scientists, two or three graduate students, possibly a post-doctoral student, and a couple of undergraduates. "We don't have to worry about giant computing facilities for our own research, although there are some available. The financial burden is really salaries for people, people at the support level and at the Ph.D. level, because a lot of the work is analyzing results--analyzing huge volumes of data. Some of the research we do is covering the last thousand years or so. Then we're doing another project where we're looking at the climate of the Earth from 300 million years ago."

For Crowley, helping to manage a climate center at Texas A&M became a less-than-sunny task. "We just didn't have the resources nor the time to really do what we wanted to do." He says he's likely to be happier as a researcher than an administrator--particularly as a researcher with a chaired professorship. "It's nice to be a chaired professor; it feels nice to be recognized. I think it's an opportunity for more interaction than you might have had otherwise, and also to be able to contribute more. Because, let's face it, you have a little bit more clout."

Fashioning Faculty Futures

Professor Roni Avissar

 

Having risen through the Rutgers ranks, Roni Avissar had plenty of clout on his campus. Before he was recruited to Duke last fall, Avissar, the Pratt School's new chair of civil and environmental engineering, didn't envision himself perpetuating an administrative role. But through the recruiting process, that thought become more inducing for Avissar, chair of the environmental science department at Rutgers for the past three years. After starting twelve years earlier as an assistant professor, he had landed a distinguished professorship along with the directorship of an environmental center. (Quite apart from his decision process, his son, a high-school senior, applied to Duke. He's now a freshman at the university.)

At Rutgers, he was working to create a new environmental-engineering component in his department; as it happens, he was trying to recruit someone from Duke to head that area. He learned about a position in Duke's civil and environmental engineering department in his field of hydrology, and he decided to go for it. "I wanted to move into a real school of engineering," he says. "My research is very much based on quantitative analysis in models of the atmosphere and the ocean. Usually, students with an engineering background are much better trained for this type of work." Then, the head of the faculty search committee told him of the vacant department chairmanship. "Originally I thought that if I was going to leave Rutgers, certainly I would want to go back to be a faculty member and focus more on my research."

He changed his mind in the course of the search process. "I realized that this was a unique situation because of the dynamics of the school right now"--with the planned growth of the faculty, a commitment to building new space, and the openness to "a new vision for civil engineering." At the culmination of the department-chair search last spring, Engineering Dean Kristina Johnson, herself relatively new to Duke, flew to Rutgers to meet with Avissar. "The next day she sent me an offer letter. And I accepted it right away. I cannot believe myself that it went so quickly."

"This department is going to remain a small department," he says. "And therefore, instead of focusing on traditional civil engineering, we are going to pick out areas that are really looking to the twenty-first century. The other point that is important to realize is that the students who are coming to Duke to study civil engineering are probably not the traditional students coming to schools of engineering. The ones that we have a chance to attract might be students with a broader vision, students who look to professional careers that have nothing to do with engineering."

Feeding into that "broader vision," Avissar would like to see the department make closer links with the Nicholas School and Duke Medical Center, and to concentrate in such areas as sensors and instrumentation--areas where scientists lack the technology to monitor and gauge environmental changes. That work might mean getting buildings to "respond" to early-warning signs of earthquakes, or allowing experts to understand how the deforestation of the Amazon affects the water cycle of the planet.

He also sees a future for the department in what he calls "environmental models." There are familiar physical models--wind tunnels, water tanks--used to simulate the real world. Imagine, he says, super-sophisticated physical models that thoroughly replicate environmental conditions, including the relevant chemistry, biology, and physics. Understanding interaction between environment and structure is essential to space exploration, he observes, and he can see Duke becoming a space training ground of sorts. "When you make a box that is its own environment--air, water, and soil, basically--and you close it and you study the system, in fact what you are working on is a self-sustained life system. That is basically what NASA is trying to develop for space exploration."

With the eventual addition of six to ten new faculty, Avissar will be re-engineering his department. He says, "The idea is that within three to five years, when we have completed our recruitment and have moved into new facilities, we'll have sixty Ph.D. students in our program, bring in $6 million in external funds, and produce about sixty papers as a group." That would mean roughly double the current number of graduate students, ten times as much in external funding, and three times as much in publishing activity.

When Dean Johnson landed at Rutgers to make her pitch, Avissar recalls, she told him he shouldn't think about how his career looked then; he should think about what his career might look like when he is about to finish it. "Her point was, I could have the chance to look back and say, that is where the school was and this is where it is now. I could be part of an absolutely unique opportunity. And she is so right. It's true that by taking this job, what I am probably doing is instead of finishing my career with, I don't know, 200 papers, I will probably finish my career with 150. Big deal. If I have to choose between adding an extra fifty papers to my career and helping to build a school and change a department, well, that's what brought me here. And I feel that was the right thing to do."

For François Lutzoni Ph.D. '95 and Kathleen Pryer Ph.D. '95, new assistant professors of biology, the Duke lure had more to do with sustaining than reshaping a familiar program. They met in 1987 at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, that nation's oldest and most prestigious natural-history museum; Pryer was coordinator of the Canadian rare plants program and Lutzoni was working on his master's degree at the University of Ottawa. In 1990, they began graduate work at Duke--in space that was so cramped, they recall, that there was a forced division of labor between a "day shift" and a "night shift" of researchers. Pryer traces the evolution of early land plants, ferns and their relatives, by integrating evidence from structure, genetics, and the fossil record. Lutzoni studies lichens, which consist of a symbiotic partnership between fungi and photosynthetic organisms (algae and cyanobacteria); his recent research has shown that major fungal lineages, including some important human pathogens, were derived from lichen ancestors.

As graduate students, both recall being pushed to "think big" and not to limit the scope of their research interests based on financial constraints. (And they managed to secure external funding that allowed them to do just that.) Lutzoni and Pryer received their doctorates one year after they married. They defended their dissertations within two weeks of each other. After a year of postdoctoral work at Indiana University in Bloomington, they took up curatorial positions at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Those jobs also gave them faculty appointments at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois-Chicago. But they say their interactions, and those of their students and research associates at the Field, were limited in a very small botany department of five curators. So they were drawn back to Duke, "where we have a core of people who are doing genetics and evolutionary biology all in one place," Lutzoni says.

About two years ago, they saw an advertisement for a Duke opening. Both made it to the short list of finalists; they were seemingly in competition with each other. The department then created two positions and offered them the slots. "Not always, but often it is the male who is the target for the position, and the woman has to be content with a lecturer position," Pryer says. Lutzoni adds, "Perhaps we didn't want to think about this. But I guess we thought, let's hope at least one of us gets the offer, and then we will try to negotiate something for the other person. But we were fortunate not to be put in that position. I think it's a matter of timing. Sometimes one person in the couple will be more senior or more advanced in his or her academic career. In our case, we were at the same stage in our careers."

"There were a couple of people who asked us if we would feel odd coming back," says Pryer. "Would we feel like graduate students all over again?" "My answer," says Lutzoni, "was always, I didn't particularly feel like a graduate student here before. Especially in the last years, you feel like a colleague. In our field of systematics at Duke, there was never a stifling hierarchy imposed between students and faculty. I mean, as students, we felt we could really contribute to the systematics program, even in the hiring process for new faculty."

"This was a pretty brave move" on the part of the dean, says biology professor Donald Stone, chair of the botany department when the two were being recruited. (At the time, biology was divided into departments of botany and zoology.) "He had to make some major 'over-commitments' to accommodate their salary, space, and research needs. With the strong support of both departments, the hiring of these two young investigators soon became linked to the renovation of the Biological Sciences Building."

Completing the link, the two now work out of extensively renovated third-floor laboratories and offices--a modern area that seems agreeably out of context in the decades-old building. To begin staffing their research teams, they brought along four graduate students and three post-doctoral research associates. They also negotiated for more support for the department's extensive herbarium collection. The lichen collection is the third-largest in the country in terms of number of specimens, and first in the world in terms of number of specimens that have been chemically analyzed.

"Duke is one of the rare places in the country that never gave up on organismal biology," Lutzoni says. "Many other universities are trying to rebuild their organismal biology programs. As we enter the genomics era and examine genomes from many different organisms, there is a need to do this within an evolutionary context. That's the foundation you can build upon in comparative genomics."

Faculty form the foundation of a university, and there always will be competition for faculty talent. In a January New York Times op-ed piece, Donald Kennedy, president emeritus of Stanford, reflected on the larger significance of the departure of Stanford's much-admired football coach for Notre Dame. He wrote, "Big-time college football is a tough marketplace, and anyone who believes it has room for institutional loyalty is living in cloud-cuckoo land." Nor is that kind of loyalty deeply embedded in the rest of the academic culture, he added. In 1998, Columbia made a "stunning offer" to Harvard economist Robert Barro; the salary reportedly was nearly $300,000, plus various benefits. The economist elected to stay at Harvard, "presumably for a sweetened offer."

Kennedy concluded that "there are all kinds of loyalties, and the institutional kind no longer trumps the others."

Duke has seen some high-profile faculty losses. Some of those losses have been to corporations with attractive research agendas and enviable resources. In the summer of 1997, Allen Roses, Jefferson Pilot Professor and chief of neurology at the medical center, left to join Glaxo Wellcome as director and vice president of the pharmaceutical company's genetics program. (The arrangement allowed him to build ties between his former Duke colleagues and Glaxo scientists.) His research team at Duke had published the results of path-breaking studies--studies that suggested new possibilities for understanding risk factors behind Alzheimer's disease and for developing new treatments. At the time that he moved on, he said the decision was motivated by a desire to take promising research developments from the lab bench to the bedsides of patients suffering from Alzheimer's and other neurologic illnesses.

Just over two years later, in the fall of 1999, Roses was on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, heralding a new era of research driven by gene-based drug-making techniques. "I want to state as clearly and loudly as possible that the technology now exists for drug makers to find genes, like the one we found at Duke for Alzheimer's disease," Roses told the newspaper. "I am convinced that uncovering these so-called susceptibility genes will unleash ways for drug makers to diagnose, treat, and prevent disease that scientists like myself could only dream of doing a few years ago."

The Journal article noted that Roses' novel strategies for finding susceptibility genes "had been turned down repeatedly for important grants from the National Institutes of Health, and he was spending the bulk of his time searching for private funding." A Harvard colleague in neurology said that Roses, in his corporate research role, was "in an extremely enviable position--a full genetic program, a large budget."

Other faculty have departed Duke for settings that squared more precisely with their scholarly and teaching interests. Hervé Moulin, a James B. Duke Professor of economics, left in the summer of 1999 for Rice University, about ten years after joining the university. Moulin is a widely published scholar on game theory, social choice, and mechanism design. He had been chair of the decisions science department at the University of Paris, then had taught at the University of Paris at Dauphine and Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Duke was an easy sell, he says: "I was attracted by a strong and rising school." At the time, the focus of the economics department was on "building the core fields of the discipline, micro and macro theory." In later years, he says, "the department recruiting policy veered sharply toward applied and empirical fields, and I was unable to convince my colleagues to continue the build-up in the core fields." According to Moulin, Rice's is "a smaller department poised to develop its micro theory group, as well as its econometrics."

Beyond intellectual currents, the power of personality can be alluring. Malcolm Gillis was dean of the Graduate School when Moulin joined Duke, and was involved in his recruitment. When Moulin went back on the market, Gillis--who had become (and remains) president of Rice--convinced his fellow economist that "this school is poised to bring its social sciences up to the level of its hard sciences." He adds, "Houston is a great place to live."

Back in the fall, when Hartemink, Crowley, Avissar, Pryer, and Lutzoni, among many others, were starting at Duke, Alex Keyssar was starting at Harvard. On an unusually warm November day in Cambridge, the noontime sun is streaming into his office--clearly still an office-in-progress--at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Keyssar had been at Duke since 1986, most recently as Boyd Professor of history and public policy. He's now Harvard's Stirling Professor of history and social policy.

Over the years, he hadn't sought out other opportunities. But multiple offers had come his way, and he had rebuffed them all--until recently. He says he was almost lured to one of the campuses in the University of California system. An academic administrator there had promised him that he could build a graduate program in American history. "Part of the deal was that I would get to hire three more people, unless there was an extraordinary exigency. In fact, California went into one of its periodic dives a year later. So there was the extraordinary exigency." He was grateful he stayed put--at best, the promise would have been postponed.

Keyssar, who specializes in labor history and the history of American democratic movements, describes recruitment at the senior level as an elaborate courtship ritual. "The major currency in this line of work is what you write, and that's what makes people interested in you," he says. Right around the time of the successful courtship, his latest book was about to be published. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States would become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history, and it was selected as the best book in American history by the American Historical Association in 2001.

There was "an early signaling process," when the Kennedy School sent out a feeler to see if he'd be interested in being considered for a new senior appointment in history and public policy. "Then they fly you up and take you out to dinner, show you nice houses and good schools, and tell you how wonderful they are and how wonderful you are." In the course of the search, he met with deans, prospective colleagues, and a search committee from different schools within the university. (To be finalized, a senior appointment at Harvard must be approved by a committee that includes the president as well as academics from other universities.) "Senior appointments here, even more than other places, take forever to get through the many different hoops."

Keyssar found some frustrations in his later years at Duke. He was concerned about limits on the number of history graduate fellowships, and therefore on the number of history graduate students. Duke, in the past, has expanded the ranks of faculty even with a stable or shrinking graduate-student population, he says. That means depriving some of those faculty of young intellectual collaborators. "I think the under-funding of the graduate school is a significant problem for Duke, and a major reason why it does lose people." He also says that in his research areas, Duke's libraries don't have adequate collections, such as federal and state census reports and official records from organized labor. He'd like to see--but says he didn't see at Duke--the library get a budget boost with every new faculty hire.

But more intangible forces were largely behind Keyssar's move. He was interested in shifting from a history department to an interdisciplinary social-science center. That wasn't a new thought: He had been with the Russell Sage Foundation in the Eighties, and a few years ago he spent a sabbatical leave at Stanford's Center for Advanced Study. "These were settings that worked for me. I really do history and public policy; I think like a historian, but the problems that interest me are the ones with public-policy implications."

Of course, geography can be destiny. As Keyssar puts it, "I, like other people who might leave Duke, also have cravings for more urban environments, where the universe of intellectuals, and of people in general, is simply larger than it is in Durham."

While Duke tried to keep him, the intellectual attractions of Harvard and the Kennedy School proved irresistible, he says: "This is a very special place at a particularly special phase in its history." In recent years, the school has increased the size of its faculty, and it has dramatically expanded representation in what Keyssar calls "nontraditional public-policy areas," hiring sociologists, anthropologists, and political theorists.

Fashioning Faculty Futures

Professors Kathleen Pryer & Francois Lutzoni.

A different decision was reached a couple of years ago by John Aldrich, a Duke political science professor. Aldrich came to Duke in 1987 from a University of Minnesota political science department that, in his view, appeared to be stagnating. Duke's department "was trying to build a national reputation, which, according to professional rankings, we now have." Since then, Aldrich has published prolifically, won various awards, held leadership roles in professional associations, and trained numerous graduate students.

In 1996-97, he had just finished a stint as chair of political science at Duke. While spending a sabbatical leave researching and teaching in Harvard's government department, he learned that Harvard was considering him for a permanent position--right around the same time that he was awarded an endowed chair at Duke, the Pfizer-Pratt Professorship. ("To be recognized by my peers in this way was and is very important to me," he says.) The next academic year, Harvard extended an offer. Meanwhile, Aldrich's book Why Parties? The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America had been named "best book in U.S. national policy" by the American Political Science Association.

It took almost a year for Aldrich to think through the offer; he ended up turning it down. During that period, one of his friends left Harvard's government department for Stanford. Another outside scholar targeted by Harvard, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also decided to stay put. Part of what was playing out at Harvard, Aldrich says, was a tension between traditional and quantitatively oriented political scientists. The Harvard Crimson, making public the unsuccessful effort to lure Aldrich, lamented that "faculty members find it easier and easier to leave the university for other schools, or simply to turn down the offer to come to Cambridge in the first place."

During the negotiations, Aldrich pressed Duke less for personal advantages than for program enhancements, he says. One outcome was the creation of the American Political Research Group. A joint effort between Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, the group supports collaborative teaching, organizes seminars with outside speakers, and helps graduate students by, among other things, posting academic job listings.

Given the cost-of-living reality in Cambridge, salary lures didn't weigh heavily in his thinking, says Aldrich. He had a different reaction to Harvard's departmental dynamics than Keyssar. "One of the things that I disliked about Harvard was that the sense of intellectual community was limited. There were groups that should have been collaborating and that just didn't talk with each other. Interdisciplinary collaborative work is more difficult there than a lot of places. It's much easier here than a lot of places: Duke seems to have an open intellectual community, and it's easy to put things together across fields within political science, across the social sciences, across the colleges."

Putting things together across a single department has been the key concern for Maureen Quilligan. She arrived at Duke two years ago as the Florence Professor and chair of the English department. She had been the Bryson Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, and earlier had taught at Yale. A scholar of the Renaissance, with a particular interest in women and literature, Quilligan is the author of three books and has edited two volumes of essays.

Asked why she made the choice to join Duke, Quilligan laughs--it's a conventional question to which she knows she'll give an unconventional response--and says, "I felt it was an act of professional duty. I could be of more use at Duke than I could be at the University of Pennsylvania." Quilligan talks about wanting to help in healing a "community in pain."

Duke's English department had received unflattering attention from a variety of directions. The New York Times had published a front-page article focusing on the fracturing of a once-heralded program; an external review committee reportedly characterized the department's condition as "seriously weakened" and suggesting a "personnel emergency." The department had been plagued by intense intellectual disagreements, signaled by the moves to other places of many of the high-profile hires made under a former chair, Stanley Fish. "It was absolutely a duty to a profession that had supported me," Quilligan says of her Duke decision. (As an undergraduate student at Berkeley, she had been taught by Fish.) "This was an important English department to save. If I was the one who looked like I was in the best position to help it save itself--and I think that's exactly what it's done--then I couldn't say no. It was a very moral and political and possibly even spiritual demand."

Quilligan sees the department as an intellectual community that collectively is figuring out its direction, even as each new hire potentially changes that direction. As she puts it, "We're going to recruit a group of people who can work together. And then we'll figure out what we are, through a shared conversation that has people speaking beyond their specific idiosyncratic specialties."

English is searching for scholars to fill slots in medieval, nineteenth-century, and early American literary studies. After listening to the candidates in invited presentations and getting to know them in informal circumstances, the department as a whole will make those choices collectively, she says. The idea isn't so much to find a fit for a neat definition of teaching and scholarly background. Quilligan says, "We're not looking to satisfy certain preconceived notions of what an English department ought to look like." Rather, department members are aiming to select "those people who it feels will have the greatest contribution to make to the group and who will profit the most from the group." The department is "constantly being raided," but so far it has withstood the "immense number of outside offers," Quilligan says. "I think people who have stuck around are sticking around for the conversation, just as the people who are coming here are coming here for the conversation."

In a single year, two relatively new faculty members in English, now associate professors, won book prizes from the Modern Language Association: Ian Baucom and Srinivas Aravamudan. To Quilligan, that distinction points to the intellectual energy fostered by recent recruits. Musing about her hoped-for legacy as department chair, she says her main indication of success will be "that the department can happily have any one of its members as chair after this."

Such an observation points to the main measure of "faculty development": a community of colleagues, bound together by shared conversation--and perhaps even by pizza. In the overall university budget, the faculty category is an awfully big slice. For the current fiscal year, faculty salaries (excluding the medical center) come to $78,686,935; fringe benefits are estimated to consume an additional 22.9 percent of that figure. And each time Duke adds a faculty member (in the sciences especially), the startup cost is $500,000 to a million dollars. As Quilligan's concept of her role and her goal suggests, community is an academic ideal. But it's an expensive ideal.

  • As editor, Bliwise has overall responsibility for editorial direction and content and for representing the magazine to its various constituencies. He also teaches a seminar in magazine journalism through Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.