Sally Kornbluth is Duke's New Provost

December 8, 2014
sally kornbluth

This past summer, Sally Kornbluth became Duke’s provost, the university’s chief academic officer. A cell biologist, she was James B. Duke Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology and vice dean for basic science in Duke’s medical school.

You’re following a fifteen year provost, Peter Lange. What kind of example did he set for you as you started in the position?

One thing that was really noteworthy about Peter in this job is that he projected the sense that he was having all the fun in the world. I have to say that I can understand that now, because it’s just endlessly interesting.

You’re the first Duke provost from the medical school. How has that prepared you? 

I do think it gives me a helpful perspective in terms of how we do work between the medical school and other areas of the campus. Also, we went through a pretty financially constrained time, and I got used to thinking about what’s involved in the judicious use of resources. We’re in a different financial climate now, but things still need to be prioritized. On a basic level, though, I’m interested in people and programs in every setting, and I developed administrative skills in the medical school that are completely transportable.

What skill do you think is most important?

I’d say listening. The most important thing for me is to seek the opinions of my colleagues. Certainly there are many areas in which I don’t have experience or expertise. There would be no reason for me to formulate ideas in a vacuum, given the fact that we’re in such a rich intellectual environment. So right now we’re starting on a new academic plan. I think the final product, the plan, will be important. But the conversations that go into the plan are equally important. The process itself is going to tease out a lot of new and interesting ideas, and it will be a very faculty-centric process.

How central is interdisciplinary work in your thinking about Duke as a whole?

It’s important to think how we could be greater than the sum of our parts. We have many advantages in terms of geographic proximity, but also with the working relationships among the various deans and institute directors. Duke has a great flavor of interdisciplinarity that I want to keep building. We have to be mindful of the disciplinary pipeline as well. You can’t build interdisciplinary efforts if you don’t have a disciplinary base. Over at the medical school, as a basic scientist, I would always make the point that it’s fine to push for translational medicine, but you need the basic discoveries—the core scholarship—in order to have something to translate.

How did you become a medical researcher?

I started as a political science major, and I stumbled into a science course to fulfill distribution requirements. That first course was on human biology and social issues; I thought the social-issues part would be the most interesting, but for me it was the science part. What excited me about science was that I found I could ask interesting questions and I could have the tools at hand to answer those questions. On retrospect, from my mature perspective, the same would have been true of any field. But the particular reason I caught onto that in science is that I had fabulous professors. That’s why I’m a big advocate for undergraduate research in all areas—it gets students to think deeply about interesting questions. What I’ve also liked about science, particularly the kind of science I’ve done, is that it’s heavily dependent on teamwork. It’s managing a group of people in a lab, interacting with people all over the world.

Is there a carryover between being a good scientist and being a good provost?

Absolutely. What I really like in the lab is taking a complicated scientific problem and talking about it from every angle with my students and postdocs—teasing out of them the best possible avenues for addressing the problem. In this role, it’s a different set of problems. But it’s still working with a diverse group of thinkers. And then performing an act of synthesis that puts the pieces together and solves the puzzle. What excites you the most about this role? The thing i really enjoyed in the medical school was enabling the work of my colleagues. The opportunity to do that on a bigger stage was really appealing. The schedule here can be a little crazy, and sometimes issues can be difficult and complicated. But if you’re a curious person who likes to learn about different areas, this is the ideal job.