On the Road with the Duke Idea

April 1, 2009
Idea illuminators: clockwise from top left: Sheppard, Williams, Dzau, Woodruff, Levi, Jones, Merson, and Harwood.

Idea illuminators: clockwise from top left: Sheppard, Williams, Dzau, Woodruff, Levi, Jones, Merson, and Harwood. L to R: Duke University Photography, Duke University Photography, Duke University Photography, Alex Wong, Alex Wong, Courtesy Duke Medical Center, Courtesy Duke Divinity School, McIntyre Photography

It was late November and typically cold in Boston, but the setting inside the conference and reception center looked warmly familiar to most members of the audience—Duke alumni, parents, and friends. The backdrop had been carefully arranged to suggest the office of President Richard H. Brodhead, complete with Gothic windows and West Campus architecture projected beyond them, a coffee table, two armchairs, and some paintings. (While the paintings weren't particularly familiar, Brodhead joked that he'd be happy to take them back to his authentic office.)

The Boston event, the debut of the Duke Idea—a presidential update followed by a conversation between Brodhead and another speaker—drew more than 230 attendees. Sterly L. Wilder '83, executive director of alumni affairs, introduced the event as an effort to "bring the intellectual excitement of Duke directly to you."

In his remarks, Brodhead made note of "a world full of uncertainty" owing to widespread economic distress, but observed that in many ways "it was a particularly fabulous fall on the Duke campus." He talked about the successful completion of the Financial Aid Initiative, the Nasher Museum's acclaimed exhibition of Spanish art, a variety of ways in which students have been "taking the whole of their education and putting it to work in the world," and the improved fortunes of football. (On his way to the home game against North Carolina State University, he said, he was approached by a scalper who tried to sell him a ticket.)

"This is a time when the nature of the world is changing," Brodhead told the crowd. Higher education "needs to track and lead those changes," he said. "So Duke needs to keep advancing."

Brodhead then brought on Blair Sheppard, dean of the Fuqua School of Business and founder and chair of Duke Corporate Education. Sheppard was the force behind Duke's M.B.A.-Global Executive program in 1996 and was instrumental in shaping the school's global strategy.

Over seven years under his leadership, Duke CE grew from one office with thirty-nine employees and $12 million in revenue to five offices on three continents, with 140 employees and $56 million in revenue.

Much of the conversation at the Boston event centered on the current financial crisis and the lessons it provides for the appropriate education of business leaders. Sheppard said the curriculum, in the past, has de-emphasized "basic principles of risk management" and overemphasized shareholder value. With the traditional model, business education has been parochial in its concerns, disconnected from other parts of the university, and resistant to interdisciplinary perspectives, he said. "The world just doesn't allow that" any longer, he added.

Fuqua's emerging model is built around the need to create nimble leaders with expertise and a broad skill set, he said, along with "the need to be embedded and connected in places of the world that are shaping the future."

Following the Boston launch, different iterations of the Duke Idea will be held in cities with large concentrations of alumni. University officials say this is a new twist on presidential events that have taken various forms over the past fifteen years in the U.S., Europe, and Asia—cocktail receptions, mealtime discussions, single-speaker events spotlighting the president, and educational events with multiple speakers. The Duke Idea model consists of a dinner reception; the program, featuring remarks from the president and then a dialogue with another prominent Duke administrator; and dessert and coffee.

Over the course of the spring semester, the Duke Idea will travel to Dallas, South Florida, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Nashville, and Chicago. An event in London in June is under consideration.

Brodhead's conversation partners are Victor Dzau, chancellor for health affairs; John Harwood '78 of CNBC and The New York Times; Greg Jones M.Div. '85, Ph.D. '88, dean of the divinity school; David Levi, dean of the law school; Michael Merson, director of the Duke Global Health Institute;  Sandy Williams M.D. '74, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at Duke medical school, a principal architect of the medical center's global expansion in recent years, and now senior adviser for international strategy for the university; and Judy Woodruff '68, Hon. '98 of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.