Vince Price is blissfully blue

Noted for his nimbleness, consensus building, and adventurous intellectualism, he's more than ready to be Duke's tenth president.
June 5, 2017

In college, Vince Price’s first stage performance was as a character called The Little Man in The Madwoman of Chaillot, a French farce. And it was a near-disaster. The Little Man, as the name implies, represents all the little people, Price says. “It was a scene of Parisian capitalists dining at an outdoor café, and The Little Man runs onstage, with great excitement, throws a bag of money at them, shouts, ‘Here, take it, take all of it,’ and then runs offstage.”

The director instructed him “to put a lot of energy into this,” he recalls. It was opening night, and the floor was covered in fake wine. Price dutifully bounded on stage, stepped into a puddle, slipped, and slammed into the table. “I took out every actor on the stage; they were sprawling on their backs. I looked up. I saw the set rocking to and fro, and so I just threw my bag of money at them. I said, ‘Here, take it, take all of it,’ and no one in the audience was the wiser.”

Price, though, acquired some wisdom from that spectacle on the stage. He discovered a capacity to read a situation and to improvise effectively, as he puts it, “even when the moment seems to be going very badly.”

Over the past eight years, as provost of the University of Pennsylvania, Price has had to be nimble: Essentially, he’s been in charge of the whole academic enterprise. Now he’ll be stepping into the role as Duke’s tenth president. A bigger role, a different place, but in some ways a familiar context. Penn is often described in Duke-like terms. In the words of its vice president for alumni relations, Hoopes Wampler, Penn thinks of itself as having “emerged over the past few decades from a good regional institution to an internationally prominent institution.” Its ethos embraces “trying new things and not resting on its laurels.”

“There was a time when Penn might have thought we were chasing other institutions,” Price says. “Now there’s a sense that we’re charting our own path. One of the great attractions of Duke is that it very much feels that way to me.”

On the cusp of a slow-to-blossom spring, Penn has various echoes of Duke. There are familiar fragments of conversation on a walkway, like, “How is your job search going?” The “entrepreneurship” and “innovation” buzzwords that find their way into the headlines of the student newspaper. The tour guide proclaiming, for the benefit of potential future students, that Penn may be “the most social” among its peer universities. The director of athletics who tells a visitor, “I’ve had a couple of Ivy stops in my life, and I would definitely say that sports is in the fabric of Penn unlike any other Ivy I’ve been associated with.” And the cluster of current students camped out in the administration building— a protest, advocating campus divestment in fossil-fuel companies, underneath a big, bold banner declaring, “Don’t be a fossil fuel.”

In his office in College Hall, a vaguely Gothic building and the very first structure on Penn’s campus, Price makes his own visual statements. There’s a portrait of the inescapable Benjamin Franklin. A large, luminous painting from 1871 by William Stanley Haseltine, a Penn graduate, called The Greek Theater at Taormina. A shovel from a ceremonial groundbreaking of a new building for neuroscience and behavioral sciences. A Penn football pin from the early twentieth century, when the sport was in its heyday and Franklin Field— which, Price notes, was the site of the first televised broadcast of a collegiate sporting event—routinely was drawing crowds of 60,000. Price has an obvious passion for history, along with an equally obvious sense of humor; his colleagues describe him as secure enough to laugh at himself. One good-humored history lesson he offers: The original provost for what was then the College of Philadelphia was recruited by Benjamin Franklin. During the Revolution, though, the college was somewhat of a Tory bastion. “The provost—William Smith was his name—was briefly jailed before the war by the provincial assembly, and he actually taught courses from the jail on Third Street. And so if I can avoid jail, and it appears that I will before I leave, I will have bested the first provost of the University of Pennsylvania.”

Early in his time as provost, Price met with the faculties of the university’s twelve schools, all of which report to him. He set out to explore the multiple layers of a complicated campus.

“When I was touring the medical school, they wanted to show me a particularly old auditorium in need of renovation,” he recalls. “We opened the doors and there, on the stage, was this fabulous a cappella group of medical students. These are students who, like their counterparts at Duke, are at one of the best medical schools in the country, and they find the time to get together, on their own, and produce beautiful music. Those kinds of experiences— they happened to me every day. These places are a mixture of history and tradition. But they are also forward-looking, youthful, and competitive in the most exuberant way. I just love that.”

One of his initiatives at Penn was the “Campaign for Community,” meant to deploy a particular history and tradition—open conversation—on a modern campus. As the initiative was rolled out in the fall of 2015, The Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student newspaper, editorialized that “[a]t a time when universities are increasingly under fire for disregarding and oppressing open expression, we’re glad to see Penn maintaining its firm commitment to freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry, and freedom of speech— in the form of a university- wide campaign, no less.”

Price describes that campaign not just in terms of promoting open expression, but also as part of the work of defining a community. “We have an obligation as educators to encourage students to seek out challenging viewpoints, to actively seek out disagreement, because that’s how we learn,” he says. “I like to tell students that you cannot go from a state of not knowing something to knowing it without going through a state of confusion. So you should embrace confusion. That’s a very distinctive view of what it means to be a thoughtful community. And it takes practice. We have to remind ourselves that the way we talk, the way we engage, the way we debate has to be practiced.”

The Campaign for Community “formalizes what universities should be doing day in and day out,” he says. Not just the big, structured programs, on themes like Asians in the media and science and race, but also small, free-flowing, student-initiated discussions in the college houses. “This can be difficult to do when the tendencies in society are moving in a very different direction. But it’s also when the idea becomes all the more important, and when universities consequently become all the more important.”

Technology on campus, for Price, is similarly values-laden: It promises not just to make learning more efficient, but also to spread learning to underserved populations. Penn was one of the four partner institutions helping to launch Coursera, an online education platform—particularly for massive open online courses, or MOOCs—that also includes Duke. The Coursera partnership “gave us an opportunity to deliver knowledge outside the university, to the rest of the world,” he says. “And for those adventurous faculty members who wanted to jump on board, we made it easy for them to do so. We made a lot of investments in course development for them.”

Price also led a different kind of curricular outreach, with Penn’s establishing a base in Beijing. Technology applied to teaching. A footprint in China. He likes to trace all of it to the same impulse and to describe it in similar language: building on the mission of a research university and building a community in the process. (Bringing Penn to the world and the world to Penn, according to the university’s latest vision statement.) At Penn, as at Duke, the China initiative began with the business school, expanded into something university-wide, and appealed to faculty who, as Price puts it, “would be adventurous enough to say, ‘I’ll give that a try. I’ll go out there. I’ll teach a course. I’ll run this program.’ ”

For Price, adventurousness hasn’t been exclusively intellectual. His father was active in the Boy Scouts, and hiking and camping—“large and involved productions”—were constants in his childhood and college years. Later, he, along with his wife, Annette (whom he met in college), and their friends devoted summers to such adventures in the outdoors as weeklong whitewater rafting trips on the Snake and Salmon rivers.

Now he and Annette look to their two dogs—Scout, a golden doodle, and Cricket, a labradoodle—as their most avid hiking partners. But some fifteen years ago, his brother-in-law invited him to join a group that would climb Mount Rainier in Washington state. “I had done a lot of hiking in the Sierras, routinely in the 10,000- to 11,000-foot range, and I thought, ‘Mount Rainier, it’s 14,400 feet, it’s like Mount Whitney. That’s manageable.’ ” He didn’t at first grasp that it’s one of the most glaciated mountains in North America, with one of the most dramatic vertical gains in elevation. The climb involved crampons and ice axes. “But I had a great experience.”

Price spent his childhood in a much warmer and more mellow setting, Torrance, California, just outside Los Angeles; today it calls itself “the city with a hometown feel.” He was the sixth of eight siblings—two sisters and five brothers, all of whom still live in California. One brother is ten years older than Price, another is ten years younger. He grew up not just in a large family but in “quite a chronological continuum,” in his words, and with “an ability to get along, a sense of belonging, a willingness to pitch in and work as part of a team.”

His parents experienced Southern California’s radical transformation into a creative powerhouse. His mother started at Berkeley but left to marry his father. His father joined the Navy after high school and served through World War II; from there he was a grip on movie sets, went to UCLA on the GI Bill, and eventually worked in aerospace. His maternal grandfather was a set designer for movie productions who worked on more than fifty films and was nominated for three Academy Awards in the category of Best Art Direction.

Price says he was always a good student. He attended parochial Catholic schools, where he promised a fifth-grade teacher that he would go to college and study history. He persists with that promise through his reading habits—biographies by authors such as David McCullough, Ron Chernow, and Edmund Morris, along with historical fiction, including Hilary Mantel’s evocative take on Cromwell’s England.

In high school, even as he soared to valedictorian status, he leapt into pole-vaulting—not very fast, but with pretty good form. (He had to hold out for the departure of a coach who felt that Price, like his older brothers, should train for middle-distance running.) He recalls that “as a kid, I did engage in a lot of creative play activities around the house. Some of them caused my father great anxiety, because I did a fair amount of damage to the house. I remember, as a young boy, practicing throwing discus. It was not actually a discus; it was a heavy wheel off a wagon. I was rotating in the front yard, and on one of my throws, I threw it through the garage window. I also found some bamboo poles in the garage, set up a little pole-vault pit, and vaulted in the front yard.”

At the University of Santa Clara (“the Jesuit university in Silicon Valley,” as it now calls itself), he was one of two dozen or so students invited into the honors program. One of his honors peers was Janet Napolitano, who went on to serve as governor of Arizona and Secretary of Homeland Security and is currently president of the University of California system. Napolitano remembers Price as a student who came to class well-prepared, avidly engaged in class discussions, showed “a natural curiosity about how things actually work,” and identified strongly with the program’s emphasis on “social justice and ethical behavior.”

Price had won high-school awards in science and math and competed on the math team. In college he started in the sciences. Eventually, he followed his heart and took courses in American and European history, along with art history and music history, and majored in English.

Price’s mentor at Santa Clara, Thomas Shanks, founded the university’s communication department; today he’s a consultant for companies and institutions on ethics. Shanks says that what he aimed to model in the classroom was authenticity, the notion that speaking with authority comes from a life of commitment—an echo of a Jesuit credo that exploring deeply who you are brings you closer to God: “When you teach, what you’re teaching is yourself.” That’s one big lesson, he says, that stuck with Price.

Shanks says the university saw itself as promoting “rigorous inquiry, creative imagination, reflective engagement with society, and a commitment to fashioning a more humane and just world.” He recalls two very different works that he read with Price and that resonated deeply for his then-student: The Manner Is Ordinary, the 1953 autobiography of John LaFarge Jr., a Jesuit priest who worked to embed a concern for racial justice in the Catholic commitment to human rights; and a poem by e.e. cummings that reads, in part, “May my mind stroll about hungry/and fearless and thirsty and supple.” In those two works, Shanks suggests, one can find Price’s essence: the generous spirit, the committed educator.

At the time Shanks was running the campus TV studio, housed in what had been a small Jesuit library. Price spent a lot of time there and with the campus theater. It wasn’t just the near-disaster of the French farce; it was also, to cite a favorite memory, playing a fastidious waiter in Between Mouthfuls, one of the single-act, interconnected plays in Alan Ayckbourn’s mid-1970s Confusions. “The conceit of the play is that the audience only heard what the waiter could hear,” Price says. “So as the waiter moved from one table to the next, you would pick up snippets of conversation throughout.”

Shanks says the TV studio and theater work contributed to Price’s self-confidence. It helped impress on Price the complexities of working on a team that, for example, had to concern itself with lighting and sound as well as with the action on the stage. And it gave him an avenue into what Santa Clara saw as the ultimate gift of education—“the mind to make a difference in the world and the heart to want to do so.”

For several years after graduation, even as he performed in summer- stock theater, Price worked as an admissions counselor for Santa Clara. He helped conceive much of the printed material for admissions, along with a video for admitted students. That work was informed by surveys conducted by the office. “We were interested in individual views and opinion, what people knew or didn’t know, but also in gaining a sense of our reputation, which is not as easily grasped or described. That was a matter, I came to learn, of public opinion.”

While the admissions role led him in a scholarly direction, it also informed his ethical thinking. One encounter stands out for him. It was a conversation with a prospective student on a reservation outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. “This young man, who was intense and motivated, who had already accomplished so much with so little, and who so desperately wanted to attend school in California, was—I learned from his caretaker uncle—very unlikely to leave the nearby area for college if he did attend college.”

The student, in a sense, could not escape history: Those who went far afield for education had a record of not returning, so individual ambitions were, in cases like this, often stymied. Price says he was “impressed by the yawning disparities of opportunity,” and by “the inspiring accomplishments of those who managed to find and take the narrowest of pathways available to them.” It was the sort of encounter that underscored the Jesuit understanding of social justice—the need to confront the structures that perpetuate poverty and injustice.

At the end of his admissions stint, Price was offered the position of production manager of the San Jose Repertory Theater. “I briefly thought of how fun that would be,” he recalls. “But I decided I would head to graduate school instead.”

Thoughts of graduate school brought him to Stanford and a Ph.D. in communication. (Shanks had followed the same path.) “I became fascinated with the idea of public opinion and the idea that it’s something like mass cognition,” he says. “It is rooted in psychology, but it’s part and parcel of collective behavior. So it’s a fundamentally social-psychological phenomenon.”

That public-opinion interest, and particularly the underlying role of group identity, led to a series of journal articles and, in 1992, the book Public Opinion. In one article, he discussed a scenario that, to this day, plays out with numbing frequency: The media detect, simplify, and report disagreements among groups; such reporting inspires members of the public to retreat into their group identities; and that behavior heightens what might have started as a vague polarization of opinion—essentially feeding the phenomenon of group identity. Elsewhere, he charted the group-identity effects from an invented change in a college curriculum: Liberal-arts and science-minded students were made to feel that they were being treated either gently or dismissively in the new curriculum. As a result, they bonded more tightly within their cohorts.

One of Price’s closest collaborators on public-opinion research has been Joe Cappella, a communication professor at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication. In 1987, Cappella, then chair of the communication department at the University of Wisconsin, had tried to hire Price, fresh from his Ph.D. work at Stanford. Price instead went to the University of Michigan. At Michigan, Price’s work in public opinion flourished. He and Annette started their family—their daughter, Sarah, now twenty- seven, lives in Arizona, and their son, Alexander, now twenty- five, in Oregon. After some years he became chair of Michigan’s communication studies department.

As soon as Cappella moved to Penn, in the late 1990s, he says, he was determined that “[w]e’ve got to get Vince, because we wanted somebody in public opinion, and I thought he was at the top of his game. So we went and got him.”

On several joint projects, they put together and then surveyed over time what Cappella calls “deliberating groups”—groups that would include “ordinary citizens,” along with “elites” possessing specialized knowledge. The groups would have online chats about a specific issue, like reforming health care in the U.S. How did they conceptualize the issue? How did they exchange information about it? How did they become informed, or misinformed, about it?

One finding, Cappella says, was that deliberating made a difference: A more deliberative process produced better-reasoned opinions. “Vince is really committed to the idea that the study of public opinion is dynamic, that it covers how public opinion is formed and how it’s changed, and that it’s formed by all kinds of information to which you’re exposed, from interpersonal communication to the mass media.”

Price’s scholarly interest in what it takes to inspire collective behavior has worked itself into his role as provost, notably in the Campaign for Community. It carries over to his working style and how he frames issues, according to colleagues, including Penn president Amy Gutmann. Gutmann, on a trajectory to become Penn’s longest-serving president, came to the position from serving as provost at Princeton.

“I’m a moral and political philosopher, as well as a political scientist,” Gutmann says. “While I’m very data-driven, in leading an institution, you have to be driven in the right direction. And I’ve never had the slightest doubt that in Vince we have someone with the utmost integrity and with the ability to stand up for what’s best about not only Penn, but about higher education broadly.”

When Price was new in the role, says Anita Allen, vice provost for faculty and a law and philosophy professor, “people might have assumed that a white male didn’t instantly project the message, ‘I’m a diversity advocate.’ But he has been a diversity advocate. He’s been great.”

In 2011, Price set in motion a five-year “Action Plan for Faculty Diversity and Excellence.” This spring, a report pointed to increases in minority faculty and female faculty, along with more diverse academic leadership. Allen sees Price’s efforts as proving that “diversity, inclusiveness, excellence, and eminence are not at odds with one another. They are consistent and compatible.”

In the policies he put in place—for example, around promotion and tenure for faculty—Price pushed for clarity and consistency, even as he held to the values of “fairness and justice,” Allen says. “I’m by nature a little anti-authority. I guess a lot of people of my generation—who came of age in the late 1960s, early ’70s—are. We don’t trust the Man. So with bosses, I tend to be a little on the sassy side. Vince disarmed my sassiness. You can trust him. You know that he’s on your side. That’s been a great thing about this job: I feel I’ve grown as a leader, not just by virtue of the responsibilities that I’ve been given, but also through the mentorship and the role model that I’ve had in Vince.”

She adds, “I would like to become more like Vince.”

A similar perspective on Price, as a consensus-builder around common values, comes from Beth Winkelstein Ph.D. ’99, Penn’s vice provost for education. Ruminating on her work as an administrator, she observes: “I took this job to work with this man.” (She’s a bioengineering professor who combines a Penn undergraduate degree and a doctorate from Duke in biomedical engineering.) She says Price has a knack for looking at issues from all angles. “That consultation process—with students, faculty, and staff—is part of why he is so well-liked. People know he hears them, and when their viewpoint isn’t addressed by a final outcome, he always explains the ‘why.’ ”

Even around such seemingly ordinary issues as negotiating student space requests—whether for practice, performance, prayers, or meetings—Price will educate himself about the full set of implications, she says. “He’s always thinking three steps ahead of the conversation at the moment. I don’t even know if he plays chess. But he’s not someone I’d want to play chess with.”

Grace Calhoun, who began at Penn three years ago as director of athletics, trains her sights on other playing arenas. “In thinking about Vince as a leader, I often draw the parallel to what an athletics director looks for in hiring a great coach,” she says. “You obviously need someone who’s a good identifier of talent and also a good recruiter. And as I look at my time working with Vince, I don’t think there is another leader whom I’ve learned more from over time.”

He doesn’t just listen politely, she says; he listens to learn. One example: Shortly after she arrived, Price, along with Calhoun, spent hours meeting with every head coach in Penn’s thirty-three sports. “It just spoke volumes to me about his leadership, that he not only committed the time, but that he truly wanted to understand the issues and to build a personal relationship with our coaches as well.”

More recently Calhoun worked closely with Price in shaping a five-year strategic plan for Penn athletics. “It was a constant dialogue, where Vince was challenging me to think through things I hadn’t necessarily thought through. So there was this depth of conversation, and with each stage, I felt things got better and better.”

Working behind the scenes to make things better and better—that’s a Price proclivity. His college mentor, Thomas Shanks, recalls that’s a Price proclivity. His college mentor, Thomas Shanks, recalls the joy that his then-student took in such mundane tasks as stringing together lights for a theater set. Since that time Price has become something of a handyman. After he and Annette purchased their first house in the 1980s, “a true fixer-upper,” as he describes it, he took on a range of remodeling projects. Over the years he has acquired a tool kit that he has since applied to do-it-yourself activities, large and small, in that house and two houses since: designing and installing walkways and sprinkler systems, interior and exterior wiring, kitchen and bathroom plumbing, tiling, masonry, rough and finish carpentry.

“The projects that give me the most satisfaction are those that are interesting in design and problem-solving, such as built-in shelves or cabinets, or trim work in irregular rooms,” he says. “One of my favorite challenges was designing and building a freestanding cabinet some years back to accommodate a very large and very unattractive fifty-five-inch rear-projection TV. The world of consumer electronics has since moved on. But my cabinet remains in use.”

A hard worker and a dedicated builder he may be, but “chance has definitely played a large role in my success,” Price says. “I was so lucky to have been raised in a family that valued education, to have been nurtured by so many supportive and engaging teachers over the years, and to have been able to work with incredibly talented students and faculty colleagues. At so many times in my life, I have experienced that ‘pinch-me-I-can’t-believethis- is-true’ reaction to my extraordinarily good fortune.”

Being named president of Duke “stands out as the most intensely felt, but by no means the first of those times,” he says.

Right now Price is leading a dual existence, completing his stint as Penn’s provost and making recurring visits to Duke. There are lots of strategic plans to absorb, lots of people to meet—the board of trustees and Duke health system board, senior administrators, deans, faculty leaders from the various schools, student leaders across the university, coaches, and more.

After one of those visits, he talks about the work of reading a new situation, figuring out new complexities, connecting with a new audience. As he looks ahead, the same unalloyed joy comes through that he shows when he reflects back on the time, decades ago, of discovering his nimbleness on the stage. “I would not want to be president at all that many places,” he says. “Duke is absolutely the place. I feel with every trip there, I’m falling in love with Duke that much more.”

  • As editor, Bliwise has overall responsibility for editorial direction and content and for representing the magazine to its various constituencies. He also teaches a seminar in magazine journalism through Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.