Nearly every instant of Richard Brodhead’s adult life, from the “Eureka” moments of his college days to national tragedies and the birth of his son, are inextricably tied to Yale’s storied Gothic campus. After all, he moved to New Haven as an undergraduate 40 years ago and never left. But now Brodhead is packing his bags.
Yale College’s long-serving dean, beloved orator and celebrated professor is preparing to head south to Durham, N.C. to become Duke University’s ninth president. Professors and students at both schools, as well as Brodhead himself, have said they are curious to see how he will use the blank slate to create a new legacy — and what will become of the one he leaves behind in New Haven.
Brodhead, who has been dean for 11 years, jokes about his move to Duke, claiming it will be an easy one.
“Everything I own is blue, and I am used to four-letter names,” he has said on more than one occasion.
Brodhead, a literary scholar, referenced John Milton’s classic epic to describe the adventure that awaits him at Duke.
“I was quite concerned during my deliberations about what it would mean to go to a place that I didn’t know the history of and that I didn’t have a history with,” Brodhead said. “I was very mindful of the passage in ‘Paradise Lost’ when Adam talks about what it would be like after they have eaten to live in a place — ‘nor knowing us nor known.’”
When he departs Yale next month, Brodhead will leave a legacy of steady leadership and educational reform sprinkled with his signature witticisms.
“He was immediately this grand and eloquent figure,” Astronomy Chairman Charles Bailyn said, describing one of his first encounters with Brodhead in the 1980s. “You could say something and see the gears turning. That, of course, was very flattering for a third-year assistant professor.”
Sitting for an interview in his dark wood-paneled office, Brodhead’s demeanor was as Bulldog Blue as Handsome Dan at The Game. He shied away from answering biographical questions, but his curriculum vitae reveals a life of scholarship and leadership.
Born in 1947 to an engineer father and housewife mother in Dayton, Ohio, Brodhead spent much of his youth in nearby Fairfield. He attended high school at Philips Andover Academy, where he rubbed elbows with a young George W. Bush ’68.
At Yale in the mid-1960s studying with literature luminaries Harold Bloom and R.W.B. Lewis, Brodhead’s life was changed.
“I had some pretty decisive intellectual experiences in college,” he said, recalling a sophomore American literature course that was a “Eureka moment for me.”
Brodhead spent endless time talking with friends in dining halls and dormitories. As a freshman he lived in Lanman-Wright Hall and moved to Branford College as an upperclassman.
“I spent a bizarre amount of my time in college buying and reading books,” Brodhead said, noting that he often sat in campus bookstores reading unassigned texts.
Brodhead was an “intensive English” major, a selective program he likens to Ethics, Politics and Economics. His promise was apparent at an early age, longtime English professor Penelope Laurans said.
“Dick was a student in the heyday of the English Department,” Laurans, an associate dean of Yale College, said. “The great figures — were teaching at Yale. He was seen from a very young age as someone who might distinguish himself at Yale.”
After attaining his Ph.D. at the Graduate School in 1972, Brodhead was appointed to the Yale faculty, where he quickly climbed the ranks. He was named a full professor with tenure in 1985, became chair of the English Department in 1988, and five years later assumed the undergraduate deanship.
History professor emeritus Gaddis Smith called Brodhead one of the greatest deans in Yale’s history. Yale President Richard Levin said Brodhead was one of the “finest educators of his generation.” Former Yale Provost Alison Richard said her only regret was that he was not planning to work at Cambridge University, where currently she serves as vice-chancellor.
History professor John Gaddis said he walked around campus the morning of the Duke announcement and heard students and professors call Brodhead “a friend.”
“It’s amazing that someone in such a position of authority over so many years would be regarded as a great friend,” Gaddis said.
In his annual freshman addresses at Woolsey Hall, Brodhead has warned young Elis of the hazards of success urging them to prepare for an unknown world and to learn by choice and by chance. In contemplating Duke’s offer, Brodhead listened to his own advice.
“And then came the day when, as Huck Finn said, I had to choose, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it: my wonderful life in a known world or the adventure of Duke,” Brodhead said in his acceptance speech at Duke. “Well, you know my choice.”
This spring, as he leaned back in his emerald green office armchair, Brodhead said he has come to terms with leaving Yale, the institution he has adored for so long — the place where he has left his mark. He said he will transfer his loyalties to Duke, a place where he says he already feels “completely at home.”
“I’ve already begun to compose the new history that will fill that place with meaning,” he said.