Duke President Richard Brodhead has been keen on strengthening ties between his university and the broader Durham community. Here, he discusses in detail how he's tried to do that, as well as his plans for the future and what he does in Durham on the weekends.
DM: Why has outreach to Durham been a priority for you?
RB: Duke grew out of what was once upon a time a small college, Trinity College, in Randolph County. It was either going to go out of business, or it was going to have have some new life. At that point the decision was made to move it to Durham. There was financial support here, and a piece of land was given to us that’s now our East Campus. So since 1894, the history of Duke and the history of Durham have been completely intertwined.
Intertwined for us because Durham is the ecosystem we live in. Intertwined for Durham because we’re the biggest employer by far in this town. And yet the relation between Duke and Durham remained a little unthought out up until the early 90s. My predecessor Nan Keohane did a great job in just helping to be more mindful and intentional about what Duke did in Durham.
I think a lot of universities reached that moment in their evolution at about the same time. Partly because that was a tough time for cities in most places, and universities realized they weren’t going to be able to count on the health of their surrounding organisms if they didn’t make more of a conscious effort to increase that health. It’s about the same time that Penn became much more involved in Philadelphia. Yale became much more involved in New Haven. It was just not something you could take for granted. So in the first phase of the neighborhood partnership there was a lot of work, a lot of neighborhood rebuilding in Walltown, Trinity Heights and elsewhere.
We’ve worked with the schools in an evolving way.
As you know, we’re a big medical operation, so we’ve been very very active in trying to understand how we can contribute to the growing health of the city of Durham.
And Duke played a role in the economic development of downtown. Our idea was, if somebody has a good project, we would like to commit enough space in it so they have our commitment so they can take our commitment to the bank and get financial support. That was very important for American Tobacco. Now we have almost 2,000 workers working in downtown Durham.
For one thing, it’s just great when a downtown of a city has attractions. It’s horrible when the downtown of a city is a void. The last time I had lunch, it was downtown at Dos Perros. Why wouldn’t you? There are a hundred places to go down there. Wherever I go, I run into Duke people and non-Duke people. Duke doesn’t want to be closed in its own cocoon. We benefit from every form of interaction we have with all the different people and parties of this city.
DM: This might be a naïve question but, how exactly does Duke benefit?
RB: Well, how to start? We recruit the top people in dozens of fields from around the world. If you can attract people to a thriving metropolis, well, it’s just a lot easier, you know? [laughs] This city is really on the map as a place where cool people wish to move. A very pleasant quality of life, lower cost of living than many regions and then you throw in the attractions of something like DPAC. Just knowing that there is the kind of life that there now is here is very, very helpful to us. We have 35,000 people who work at Duke. Every good thing that happens to Durham has direct benefit to the people of Duke. The people of Durham, the people of Duke aren’t separate; they’re the same people. When something is done to strengthen Durham Public Schools, who are the students of Durham Public Schools? A lot of them are the children of our faculty and staff
DM: Can you give me a few examples of what Duke is doing in the schools?
RB: We’ve had very close relations with the school board and the superintendent. We did when Carl Harris was here, and we’ve had lots of meetings with Eric Becoats, so we can understand how we can be most helpful and so he can understand the ways in which we are helping. We’re very interested in the idea of keeping kids connected at the crucial early stage of their education. It’s well known there are periods of development, especially when kids get into late grade school, when people really fall off the sled as far as school goes. That can lead to social disconnection, it means you’re not going to have the ongoing development of your powers that’s going to help you get a good job later on.
We’ve had a multi-stage strategy. We've started Stepping Stones to get kids school ready before kindergarten. We’ve been running programs (Enlaces) particularly for Latino youth, recognizing that’s a growing part of the Durham population. And we’ve always had a very active tutors program in all the schools through the America Reads program and others.
DM: The Nasher Museum of Art opened on your watch. What’s the signficance of having an art museum of that caliber at Duke?
RB: First, I love the Nasher. I usually go on the first or second day of every show just for the fun of it. These shows are fascinating. I had a dozen or so El Grecos down the road from me for a while. The exhibit on the record that’s been there this year. What makes me really happy is a) the freshness and excitement of programs and exhibits we’ve had there and b) we don’t want to have a little isolated museum here. There’s been very much a spirit of collaboration and connectivity among the arts enterprises in this whole region. We gave our big award this year from the Nasher to Larry Wheeler at the N.C. Museum of Art. It’s 20 miles away, but art isn’t a field of competition. We compete with other people’s basketball teams. We don’t compete with their museums. You want them all to add together to make a scene.
Don’t forget the arts scene at Duke is only partly a function of the Nasher. There are things that are just quite amazing here. The dance at Duke, of course you’ve got the American Dance Festival, which we’ve always had a share in. The Center for Documentary Studies, which is really the national center for documentary film. The jazz program here.
The arts have a special value. The arts feed the soul. They improve the quality of life and help make this an attractive place to live. But the arts are also great community builders. There are meetings I go to where I know I’ll only see Duke people. But when I go to an art exhibit, I’m going to see all the people who are interested in using their eyes.
DM: You wrote a letter recently to the student body urging them to take more responsibility for their behavior in the wake of some embarrassing incidents. You could have ignored those things, let them blow over. Why did you feel like you needed to speak up?
RB: I had two things in mind. I was hoping a little bit to cheer people up. We live in a world where the media is only interested in certain stories. No one ever prints a story on a student who’s done an important piece of research. But if somebody does something a little sexy, a little sensational, a little wild, it’ll get covered from here til the end of time. Everybody knows the things that got that kind of attention this fall aren’t really descriptions of life at Duke. It’s all a caricature. So I just wanted people to understand that we all do know the truth about our students and about the wonderful things that go on at this place.
But it’s also true that life in modern America, especially life for young people, there are many curious dimensions to it, if you know what I mean. And I just wanted to remind students that it’s always in their power to take responsibility for their life, both the personal choices they make and the kind of culture, the kind of community they make here. Communities aren’t given by fate. They’re made by the choices of people who live in them. That’s true of the Durham community, and it’s equally true of the Duke community. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. I received many notes of thanks.
DM: To the extent you feel comfortable sharing them, what are your plans for the future? Do you see yourself retiring here?
RB: Oh come on. I’ve got a job I love, a job that’s endlessly interesting. No two days are similar to each other at all. We’ve accomplished a lot of great things here, everybody working together. And I’ve things I’d like to continue to accomplish here. So I consider that I’m here for a while, until we get a few more things done.
We have projects in support of student life. Projects in support of how we get the global connections right without losing the proportions for what must be local specific to this place.
I have to add that, as we come out of the recession, it seems to me that Durham is extremely well positioned to benefit from the next phase of economic growth. This city has the features that are going to be attractive to the new industries and the inventive people in social entrepreneurship and commercial entrepreneurship. I’d like to be here to watch that develop. I think it has developed in very significant ways in the time I’ve been here. I’m amazed at the things that have happened. That’s a trajectory that I’d like to follow and support.
DM: Let me ask sort of a chicken-or-egg question. Who benefits more: Duke from being surrounded by these innovative companies, or the companies from being so close – and in some cases closely tied – to Duke?
RB: It’s a perfect win-win for new enterprises that are knowledge driven. Naturally they’re going to take to places that have great universities because that’s where great ideas come from. On the other hand, for us, it’s valuable every which way. If you’re trying to hire a couple, it’s a lot easier to hire people here than it is at a lot of other universities because there are other jobs around besides other university jobs. That would be one thing. The partnerships and collaborations between our faculty and some of the new industries are very very important.
DM: What do you do for fun?
RB: The thing I most like to do in Durham is to eat. Durham is a great eating town. And if somebody asks me where I like to go, the trouble is that the list is long. No, I’m not going to give any plugs for any restaurant. My wife and I are huge fans of the farmers market. Any Saturday morning that I’m not occupied, you’ll probably find me and my wife there. There are just a lot of interesting people in this town.
DM: What’s been the most surprising thing about this job?
RB: It’s not so much that anything has been unexpected, but there has been a lot of learning. I never had a health system under my domain before. So I’ve learned a ton about that. I was at a university that took great interest in its relations with the surrounding city. Here of course I’m much more intimately involved with the Durham face of Duke, helping those things grow. It’s such fertile soil. DM