On President Brodhead: Students, staff, and faculty reflect

December 21, 2016

WILLIAM A. JOHNSON, professor of classical studies, taught in Duke Kunshan University’s first semester, served as its inaugural chair of faculty, and has worked on the DKU curriculum:

“Is that man the president of Doo-kuh Da-shooay [Duke University]? Do you know him? You do?” Turning to another female student: “We’ve got to get a picture.” Grabbing me by the hand (this is an undergraduate in China grabbing her professor’s hand), she pulls me over to Duke’s president, hands me her cell phone, and two Chinese undergraduates plaster themselves on either side of a somewhat astonished Dick Brodhead, who grumbles only a little as I struggle to figure out her Lenovo device. After the picture, he, with that characteristic elegance of manner and his blue eyes twinkling, introduces himself to these very excited and out-of-control Chinese students, and moves along to the reception. So went a small bit of the event officially opening the campus of Duke Kunshan University in November 2014. DKU is a high-stakes proposition, potentially high risk, potentially high reward. If it works, historians will look back to the Brodhead presidency as the critical moment when Duke set its trajectory toward a global presence and character. Anxieties thus have swirled as this baby university gets born, and takes its first toddler steps. But in launching the project and navigating complexities along the way, Dick Brodhead has embodied an unusual and precious sort of leadership. At every turn, one feels Dick’s pressure—but it’s not what you think; it is rather the calm, warm pressure of curiosity, inquiry, exploration, and even joy. The DKU is outlandishly ambitious in its way, but it is also hugely interesting, stirring, provocative. And Dick has not let the Duke community lose track of that. It has been critical to have a leader who brings and stirs deep engagement, who immediately sees the interest and excitement—even joy!—in achievements like the creation of the DKU faculty charter and its new curriculum.

BAILEY SINCOX ’15 is a graduate student in English at Harvard University:

When I arrived as a first-year, I had aspirations of declaring a major in English but had no inkling of pursuing a career in academia—coming from a large public high school in the suburbs of Houston, I imagined professors as aloof demigods in tweed, a tribe to which I could never assimilate. This inhibition began to erode when, through a combination of work-study and good fortune, I began a job in the Office of the President as a student assistant. In the spring of my sophomore year, I directed a production of The Tempest in Duke Gardens; the show’s aesthetic borrowed from the recent Occupy Wall Street movement and the popular Hunger Games films. When I trotted into the office on premiere day to explain that I would be late to work, I was wearing a hoop-skirt dress, blue clown wig, and neon makeup à la Effie Trinket. I hoped to sneak away unseen by the boss himself, but was stopped by a voice: “Are you in a play?” I told President Brodhead the show’s start time, and he appeared a few hours later in the front row of the audience. By engaging with my creative work as research, President Brodhead encouraged my quirky scholarship and validated my ambition to write about Shakespeare with the same passion that came naturally in acting. By attending The Tempest, he validated a “decorum” that is neither politeness nor restraint: Occasionally the best means of communicating Shakespeare’s essence is neither an essay nor a tome, but rather a colorful performance. I spent months preparing to interview for a scholarship that would fund my master’s degree, certain that this prestigious award would guarantee my future. In the anxious hours before the interview, the president asked me to see him in his office. I expected grand advice. Instead he told me, “It doesn’t matter.” “I beg your pardon?” I stammered. “This scholarship is not the Golden Fleece, and its judges are not the guardians of your future. You might win, and you might not, but this is just one way to get to your goal. You may reach it through this channel or through a new one that you carve yourself.” The president reminded me that “decorum” doesn’t dictate adhering to a rubric. At a crucial juncture, he showed me that ownership of one’s trajectory means creating your own rubric.

JAY RUCKELSHAUS ’16 is studying political theory as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford:

His office was in many ways exactly what I had anticipated—neat rows of learned volumes lining the shelves, elegant furniture pristinely arranged, latticed windows through which to survey a university kingdom. I was happy to see that academia’s materialism—still its defining characteristic in my just-past-high-school mind—was alive and well as I met with President Brodhead, shortly after Founders’ Day my freshman year. And yet it wasn’t a delight in the trappings of academic prestige I took away from our first conversation, but rather a clear picture of President Brodhead’s humanity and willingness to engage me on a topic I felt was crucial to the beginning of my Duke career: transcendentalism. For a few years, I had been interested in this nineteenth-century American literary and philosophical movement’s tenets of self-reliance and nonconformity. I thought both were necessary to live a good life and achieve what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “an original relation to the universe.” But my entrance to college—where the values of community and commonality are offered as antidotes to callous individualism—had complicated things. After learning that President Brodhead was a leading expert on nineteenth-century American intellectual life, I reached out to see whether he would be interested in discussing the transcendentalists’ notion of community. He generously agreed, and although no conclusions were reached, we enjoyed the kind of conversation that treats each question as a steppingstone to a higher one. That he was also enraptured by those luminous old texts was exciting, and we occasionally returned to this mutual interest in later conversations. But it was also something more. Speaking urgently and passionately about abstract ideas with our university’s leader gave me a taste of what I was in for at Duke and a template of what intellectual life can look like.

JED PURDY, Robinson O. Everett Professor in the law school, teaches and writes about constitutional, environmental, and property law:

I think back to Dick Brodhead’s approach to preparation for the seminar we taught with David Levi, dean of the law school, on the classic texts of American constitutional law. The seminar was set within broader political currents of the great contests over the nation’s founding, slavery and Reconstruction, the New Deal, and modern ideas of liberty and equality. We assigned the cases in full, which is very seldom done because they are extremely long—as much as eighty to a hundred pages apiece—and dense. Dick would show up with the cases annotated and a sheaf of handwritten notes—and utterly jazzed. He usually had gone straight to the key passage in the case, but found something new there, something that struck his ear in a surprising way. He talked about the New Deal Justice Robert Jackson, who did much to define the role of the federal government in the twentieth century, as “a poet of interdependence,” which seemed exactly right, and which I would never have seen. He stayed with language in Marbury v. Madison about the “great exertion” of making a constitution, repeating it several times, considering it by voicing it, and eventually suggested to the class that the real topic of our seminar was the writing into being of a constitutional identity for the Americans. Students were dazzled: It wasn’t just the insight and work, but also the constant and vital pleasure in reading, thinking, learning that he was sharing with them as a teacher—and with David and me as a model of a way to be in the university. He is so alive.

JESSIE ’06 and JIM MCDONALD J.D. ’09 were married, with President Brodhead officiating, in July 2015; as The New York Times reported, “Leading the ceremony was Richard H. Brodhead, president of Duke University, who received permission from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to officiate.” Jessie works in health-care communications, and Jim is a federal prosecutor:

I (Jim) first met President Brodhead on a Saturday afternoon in my first year of law school while walking across West Campus to a Duke basketball game. He was about ten feet in front of me on the walkway in front of West Union when I suddenly recalled a lawschool professor’s story about his dinner with Brodhead and a Supreme Court justice earlier that week. So I caught up to ask how his dinner with Justice Alito had gone. He, of course, immediately began telling a good story, then somehow looped in another dinner that week with Toni Morrison, and then finished the whole thing by asking me whether I wanted to take his extra ticket to the basketball game, which I accepted. The ticket was next to Brodhead and his wife, Cindy. We kept in touch through the rest of law school. And when I became a young trustee in 2009, we were able to catch up regularly. I always looked forward to coming back to campus to do so. Eventually, Jessie began attending the weekends and got to know President Brodhead as well. We decided to ask President Brodhead to serve as our wedding officiant because we wanted someone who could speak to the fact that Duke was a very special place for both of us. More important, we wanted someone who could find the perfect words to capture who we are, why and how we met, and what we wanted our wedding to be about. While we wrote our own vows, President Brodhead’s remarks were informed by what he called our “homework assignment”—to separately answer two questions in writing, and to send our responses directly him. The questions were: (1) What does marriage mean to you? And (2) Why do you want to marry this person? Ultimately, his remarks at the ceremony took from the best parts of what each of us had written, his thoughts about Duke and New England, and what he saw as a friend of ours. It was perfect.

DAVID CUTCLIFFE was named Duke’s twenty-first head football coach in December 2007:

On his first meeting with Brodhead: He immediately put me at ease. He is a great listener. When you’re sitting with him, the thing you notice the most is that 100 percent of his attention is placed on the conversation. He immediately talked about what he did know about sports and football, and what he didn’t know. What he did know were things that mattered to him because they related to the mission and integrity of the university. He was talking my language; I knew I had a partner. On his relationship with Brodhead: The relationship after I was hired might be different from what people would imagine. I would often sit in his library in his home. It was in the offseason, so there would be a fire—and he showed me a new way to build a fire, which I was impressed with. We would talk about his books and teaching techniques. I don’t think people see football coaches as teachers, but that’s what we are. What I saw in him was that as the president of Duke, he was still a teacher. That reinforced for me that as a head football coach, I was a teacher first. The reason we both have the jobs we do is because we’re committed to the students. I’m going to miss his surprise walks. We practice right by his residence; he will walk through that gate with that smile on his face, say, “Hello, friend,” and put his hand out. On Brodhead as a leader: His greatest leadership quality is being able to listen. He truly has a sympathetic ear to an opinion that may be far from his. At the same time, he can gracefully defuse things. He has done that multiple times in his tenure at Duke. He also recognizes that a leader doesn’t have to be loud or stern to be forceful. I think his style is a quiet but very, very strong leadership.

NELSON BELLIDO ’89 is a longtime Duke volunteer and a lawyer in Florida:

The first time I met Dick Brodhead was in March 2005, when I was serving as president of the Duke Club of South Florida—which as a community is a real melting pot. From the moment I met him, I felt a sincere connection to a man who was very accepting of all races and nationalities. Thereafter, I saw Dick several times a year when I returned to campus to serve on the alumni association board, and he would introduce me quite often as “Mr. Duke Miami.” But I came to know him a whole lot better when I served on the board of the Duke University Hispanic/Latino Alumni Association (DUHLAA). I recall him wanting to meet with our first board, back in 2008. He invited us into his office and expressed his commitment to engaging the Latino student population as well as alumni much more than they had been in the past. Over the years, we saw his words put into action; he routinely reported to us about the efforts that Duke was making to increase enrollment and participation of Latinos at Duke. Earlier this year, DUHLAA honored President Brodhead with its Award of Distinction for his commitment to diversity. He deflected the credit from himself and gave it to DUHLAA, while commenting on his admiration for our volunteers as “all-around Duke champions.” That’s a phrase I would use to describe him.

ANN PELHAM ’74 serves on Duke’s board of trustees and on the Leadership Gifts Committee of Duke Forward; she has been president of the Duke Alumni Association, vice president of the Duke Club of Washington, co-chair of her class reunion, a member of the Duke Magazine Editorial Advisory Board, and chair of the board of the Duke Publishing Company, which publishes The Chronicle.

A university president juggles many responsibilities across a seven-day work week. For Dick Brodhead, the one he embraced most completely, with skill, creativity, sensitivity, and, as time went on, elan, was that of storyteller. He has always had an anecdote ready to illustrate his broad themes, to respond to the day’s crisis at Duke or a headline from elsewhere, to humanize the abstract concepts of the academic world. Like any good storyteller, Dick is always seeking new material. His best subjects have been students, who provide the window into Duke that most audiences are hungriest for. He relishes every encounter with students. He has also enjoyed celebrating faculty and their stellar accomplishments, which he manages to explain in clear, accessible terms. And of course Duke’s role in the world, which expanded so very much during his tenure; the global stories got better, too.