Q&A: Jack Bovender and Ellen Davis on the search for a new Duke president

October 21, 2016

An autumn update from Jack Bovender ’67, M.H.A. ’69 and divinity school professor Ellen Davis, chair and vice chair, respectively, of the presidential search committee.

Where has your work taken you so far?

Bovender: We have nominations from faculty members, students, staff, alumni, friends of the university. Based on those nominations—some of which coincided with a list from [search consultant] Isaacson, Miller—Ellen and I have started on the road. We’ve been meeting not just with potential candidates, but also with people who have a deep understanding of higher education and who might be able to suggest candidates. It’s kind of a grueling schedule, but it’s very worthwhile. Isaacson, Miller, by the way, has an incredibly deep knowledge of Duke from having worked on several searches to hire senior Duke administrators.

What’s the next step?

Bovender: Late in the fall, we’ll be vetting people who have essentially declared they’re willing to go through a more thorough interview process. Eventually, we’ll push the list down to about eight people. Think of them as “the Elite Eight.”

It’s quite a formidable list of qualifications, isn’t it?

Davis: We’ve come to feel it’s an aspirational list, as it should be, but it’s not an unrealistic list. Among the people we’re talking to, there are a number who hit the high points in our criteria.

Who will be involved in the final interviewing? Bovender: The whole search committee will interview each of these eight or so candidates. Eventually, we’ll try to narrow the list some more, down to no more than three. And then the aim is either late in this calendar year or early next year to have one candidate to put before the board of trustees.

Are the candidates stepping forward on their own or being pursued by you?

Bovender: Both. Some, on being contacted, have read our position paper around the next president and have been intrigued enough to want to pursue it further. Others may have jumped in because they’ve always thought of the Duke presidency as the perfect job. But even the ones who tell us, “I can’t do this at this point in my life,” don’t need to be sold on Duke. They recognize that this university is on a great trajectory.

Cornell is searching for a president. Are there other research universities competing right now for the same top talent?

Davis: Cornell is the only major one we’re aware of. As it happens, there have been a few presidential posts filled in just the last couple of years, and that provides us with another avenue into a pool of candidates.

Have you been looking outside higher education?

Davis: The board of trustees feels that we need someone who has serious academic credentials. We’re talking to people who have spent considerable time outside the academy. But it’s absolutely indispensable that the faculty regard this person as a strong colleague.

Bovender: And what does that mean? Examples—not meant to be an exclusive list—might include sitting presidents of other institutions, provosts or deans at major research universities. In other words, people who have demonstrated both leadership and scholarship in their careers.

Davis: Something that has been impressed upon us is the complexity of Duke. So we’re looking for people who have length and breadth of experience in complex and excellent institutions.

Are there other criteria that maybe distinguish this search from past presidential searches?

Bovender: We’re very conscious of making sure that our pool of candidates represents the diversity that this university represents. If you look at where we are today with some of Duke’s top administration, you see incredibly gifted scholars and leaders, and you also see diversity.

What’s been the biggest surprise so far in the process?

Davis: Really it’s that people outside Duke see the university the same way we see ourselves. I wouldn’t have known that for sure before we began this. Not everyone knows the Duke campus intimately. But we keep hearing statements like, “Your deans really talk to each other,” or, “Your medical school shares faculty with your divinity school?” People find the Duke spirit of collegiality remarkable. I can think of several who have told us, “This is the only search I would even consider talking about.”

Have your colleagues pressed you for insider information on the process?

Davis: No. We were warned that might happen, but nobody has been trying to wheedle anything out of me.