Q&A: Peter Lange

The magazine talked with Peter Lange as he was preparing to step down after fifteen years as provost. He is the longest-serving provost in Duke History.
April 28, 2014

Is Duke good at risk-taking?

I think we’re pretty good; compared to most of our peers, we’re pretty risk-accepting. Schools like ours have not only an opportunity but almost an obligation to take risks, to experiment in our academic work.

Any university has to manage the power balance between central administration and the various units. How does that balance feel here?

It generally feels about right. There are strategic plans that set basic values and priorities for the university as a whole. Those are bought into by a group of deans who are hired into that culture, even as their hiring is filtered through the specific needs of their schools.

You’ve talked about higher education shifting more and more to a winners-take-all environment. What do you mean by that?

There’s kind of a flight to quality. Everybody wants to be at the best institutions. And the best institutions are soaking up more and more of the total resources. Think back to 2008 and the beginning of the economic downturn. A lot of people said, “This is going to be bad for the elite private universities because they cost so much.” Well, of course that’s exactly not what happened. Applications went up substantially. The sense was, “If I want to get that edge in a much tighter economy, I’ve got to have that combination of education, reputation, and recognition that comes with going to a place like Duke.”

You’ve identified Duke’s core qualities as interdisciplinarity, global reach, knowledge in service to society, and engagement. But they’re not unique to Duke, are they?

They’re not unique, but they’re pretty distinctive in combination. It’s important to recognize that these are qualities that we’ve built up over a sustained period. Interdisciplinarity we’ve been working on since the late 1980s; our global strategy, since the early 1990s; knowledge in service to society, since the early 2000s and especially since the beginning of President Brodhead’s time in office. And there’s the same sustained period of attention around a more engaged and rigorous undergraduate education.

With all that sustained attention, has Duke also become more self-confident?

I think that’s one of the big changes over the past fifteen years. Fifteen years ago, we were much more other-directed; we had the joke about Harvard as the Duke of the North. I mean, we were looking there all the time; it was our reference point. Now we’re much more aware of what we are and what we want to be.

Faculty growth and renewal is one of your hallmarks. Is that process now slowing with fewer resources and a lower rate of retirement?

The student-faculty ratio in Arts & Sciences has fallen to about eight-to-one. Greater faculty numbers just to keep driving down that ratio doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore. We had a period of fantastic revenue growth—5 percent a year. In a growth period of 3 to 4 percent, you’ve got to be more selective. It’s not a grim scene; it’s just a little tighter. The faculty-renewal issue is going to be different across schools. Some schools have room to grow and the resources to do it. Some schools have room to grow, but don’t have the resources to do it. Some schools don’t need to grow but may want to put greater support into the faculty who are here.

One initiative you’re identified with is Duke Kunshan University. What do you hope to see there in, say, ten years?

I think DKU will be a vibrant, innovative, culturally and educationally important initiative in China. It will contribute to the reputation of Duke, to the strength of Duke. A serious presence in China will enable us to recruit outstanding students, to recruit outstanding faculty both to DKU and back to Duke. It will give us a site for the engagement of our faculty in research areas in which China is going to be a very important player—energy, environment, health. And we’ll be able to provide our students with a base for global experience.

I think you’d agree that it’s been a complicated path to DKU. Is there anything we might have done differently?

There was a stretch when we got a little too far out in front of the faculty, and we had to repair that. I think we underestimated the time it would take to work our way through the Chinese administrative process. But assuming that over a reasonable period we achieve our goals, it will have been worth it. I always try to ask what it would be like if a Chinese university wanted to create a new campus in the U.S. They’d have to deal with SACS [Southern Association of Colleges and Schools], the Department of Education, the Department of Commerce, and who knows what else. So you always have to have a little perspective.

Even as Duke has a physical presence in China, do you see a higher Duke profile virtually through MOOCs [massive open online courses]?

I don’t think MOOCs are going to be a critical element of a Duke education. But flipped courses, more use of online materials, collaboration with other universities around things you can’t deliver in your own curriculum—those things are going to expand in a substantial way.

How have you spent your time as provost, and has that changed?

The first two or three years, you’re making yourself known to everyone. I understood my role to be building a team and a culture, and that takes a lot of effort to start up. We hadn’t done a strategic plan in a while; strategic planning was a big thing. And the downturn certainly was a big thing. All of a sudden I have to go to every school and explain how the budget is going to work, what their constraints are going to be, how they might adjust but still sustain their strategic priorities.

How many meetings have you been part of in a typical week?

Here’s a typical five-day period, and it has forty-six appointments. I carry this little card with me; it has my appointments for the day. There are non-back-of-the-card days, when you can get everything on one side, and back-of-the-card days. There are a lot of back-ofthe- card days.

What are you going to miss most, and what are you going to miss least about the job?

The way I’ve thought about my transition is that it’s going to take me a while to figure out what it’s like not to be provost. I love my job, and knowing what I’m going to miss most and going to miss least will sort of emerge. Ask me that question in nine months.