DURHAM, N.C. — Five years ago today, Richard Brodhead ’68 GRD ’72 was struggling to get back to New Haven as snow blanketed the northeast.
Brodhead, who was at the time in the middle of his 11th year as dean of Yale College, had been on Duke’s campus here in balmy North Carolina to interview one last time for the Duke presidency. As he headed back to New Haven, to what he had called “the greatest job in higher education,” he was coming to terms with the fact that he was finally going to leave the college he had called home since he first entered as a 17-year-old freshman.
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It seemed that even the airlines were trying to keep him in Durham; because of the snow, planes were only flying as far as Washington, D.C. Ultimately, Brodhead found himself on a long cab ride as he headed home, and, as he is prone to do with just about anyone, fell into conversation with the driver.
When the Afghan immigrant asked Brodhead about his work, he revealed that he was a college professor, though he did not say which school he taught at or which school he was returning from.
It did not matter, as the cabbie immediately interjected, “Oh! It’s the dream of my life that my daughters will go to Duke.”
The story is one that Brodhead tells often and insists is true — “you couldn’t make it up,” he said at the start of a wide-ranging interview with the News here last week — but the moment was one that gave Brodhead renewed confidence in his decision to take on a new job.
At that time, he was leaving a school where he was arguably the most prominent person on campus and entering a far different community. Duke is not just halfway down the Eastern seaboard from Yale, it is also a halfway different culture. At Duke, almost everyone acknowledges, the basketball coach is at least as important as the president.
That coach, the legendary Mike Krzyzewski, known as Coach K, said in an interview last week that he was surprised Brodhead wanted the job in the first place.
“When Brodhead came, when I first met him, I said, ‘It must have taken a lot of courage on your part, because you were so firmly planted at Yale and so revered and loved, it must have taken a lot to give that up and come to Duke,’ ” Krzyzewski said. “I admired that decision a lot. It showed me he had real guts.”
Brodhead’s move was gutsy; he says he came to Duke in search of not just new work, but also new experiences. Little did he know just how many new challenges he would find in Durham.
‘COACH K, PLEASE STAY!’
Ironically, it was Coach K himself who first tested Brodhead. On the new president’s first day in office, June 28, 2004, ESPN reported that the Los Angeles Lakers had offered Krzyzewski their head coaching job.
Duke could never compete with the Lakers’ offer financially, but Brodhead knew better than to let the biggest celebrity on campus be snatched away as his presidency began. So Brodhead took Krzyzewski to dinner and told him that at Duke the coach was valued for not just his winning record but also his status as a teacher and campus leader. More publicly, Brodhead even joined students as they shouted “Coach K, please stay!” in front of Krzyzewski’s office.
Coach K did stay, and today says he is grateful for Brodhead’s support. But the president’s first year in office did not get any easier from there.
Just a few months later, in the middle of October, the Palestine Solidarity Movement chose to hold its annual meeting on Duke’s campus. Nearly 70,000 people signed an online petition condemning Brodhead and Duke for allowing the group to hold its conference at Duke.
Brodhead stood his ground, though, saying that academic freedoms were essential and that Duke would not infringe on the group’s right to free speech, even as some called the movement anti-Semitic and even violent.
But that episode passed, too, as the conference went forward peacefully.
What nobody was prepared for was the incident that rocked Duke in 2006 and brought national attention to some of the university’s most sensitive issues.
The details of the Duke lacrosse incident are no secret — there are already three books on the subject — but it is impossible to discuss Brodhead’s time at Duke without thinking about the night of March 13, 2006, and the saga that unfolded in the months following.
That night, two strippers were hired to dance at a party the lacrosse players were holding in their team house. One of the women, a black single mother who was studying at North Carolina Central University, accused the players of gang-raping her.
Her credibility as a witness was suspect from the beginning; a week after the party, she could not identify any of the players, but the district attorney, Michael Nifong, pursued her story relentlessly.
The players were mainly white and almost all came from privileged backgrounds; given the overtones of class and race and sex, the national media descended on Durham and covered the story breathlessly.
CNN’s Nancy Grace devoted hours of coverage to the Duke case, beginning one segment this way:
“But first tonight: At Duke University, they consider themselves the cream of the crop — top grades, top scores, rich endowment, top athletics. Duke University squares off with Lady Justice. Tonight, legal smackdown, Duke’s entire lacrosse team under the microscope on the alleged multiple rape of another student.”
Amid all the attention, Brodhead made clear his intention of letting the criminal justice system handle the case. As Nifong continued to press the matter, though, and as new information came out, Brodhead ultimately accepted the resignation of the lacrosse coach and cancelled the remainder of the team’s season on April 5.
Just five days later, DNA results showed no evidence linking any member of the team to the accuser, but Nifong did not reveal that information at the time. He was in the middle of a heated primary election, which he won narrowly on May 2, and seemed to be using the case to shore up his credentials with black voters in Durham.
The case dragged on throughout 2006, but by Dec. 22, Nifong was forced to drop the rape charges against the three indicted players and on April 11, 2007, all charges against the men were dropped. Nifong would later be called a “rogue prosecutor” by the state’s attorney general.
Divisive as the lacrosse scandal became on the national scene, it had also brought tensions to the fore on campus. A group of 88 Duke professors — dubbed the Group of 88 — took out an ad in the student newspaper the month after the accusations surfaced, headlined “What Does a Social Disaster Sound Like?”
One professor, Houston Baker, wrote a public letter to Duke’s provost, in which he wrote that “young, white, violent, drunken men among us — implicitly boasted by our athletic directors and administrators — have injured lives.”
For his part, Brodhead ultimately issued an apology for not being more unequivocal in his support of the Duke students.
“Given the complexities of this case, getting the communication right would never have been easy,” he said at a conference convened by the Duke Law School in September of last year. “But the fact is that we did not get it right, causing the families to feel abandoned when they were most in need of support. This was a mistake. I take responsibility for it, and I apologize for it.”
When the lacrosse incident became a media circus, Nannerl Keohane GRD ’67 was not envious of the situation in which Brodhead, her successor as president of Duke, found himself. But she was familiar with the underlying issues that came to the fore in the spring 0f 2006; after all, she had identified many of them in her time as president.
“The lacrosse thing was kind of a zinger out of the blue,” she said by phone this week from Princeton, where she is now a visiting professor. “It was the accident of timing that it came on Dick’s watch and not mine. I had attempted to deal with some of the things that may have been at the root of the problem, but we hadn’t really made a huge amount of progress.”
The Duke Women’s Initiative, launched by Keohane near the end of her tenure, attempted to address the difficult social climate that some students experience at Duke. Keohane was especially concerned about girls, whom she said were expected to be “effortlessly perfect.” At Duke, she said, women had to be pretty without trying to be pretty; smart, without trying to be smart; funny, but not overbearing. Keohane worried that Duke men did not always respect their female counterparts.
It was because Keohane had become so engaged with undergraduate life by the end of her time at Duke that she felt her successor should have strong experience in the field.
Keohane was not alone in this intention; in interviews with three members of the 19-person search committee that recommended Brodhead to Duke’s Board of Trustees in 2003, each said the committee was looking for someone with particular experience in undergraduate education.
By that measure, Brodhead was their man. He had been a popular lecturer and dean of Yale College, and was as comfortable eating dinner with students as with visiting dignitaries.
Brodhead, of course, could never have imagined that his expertise would be tested so deeply in his time at Duke. But he insisted in his office last week that, despite all the difficult moments of his tenure as president, he remains glad to be at Duke.
“You don’t get to pick whether you’re going to do fun stuff or the hard stuff,” he said. “There will be a mix of both, and if your leadership is only successful in highly favorable circumstances, then it doesn’t amount to much.”
Now, as the lacrosse incident approaches its two-year anniversary in March, Brodhead may finally be able to move on. But in another sense, it will always stay with him: new programs were created — and other initiatives were delayed — in the scandal’s wake.
One of the new president’s top priorities when he took office was to create a position similar to the dean of Yale College — someone responsible for all things undergraduate at Duke. Steve Nowicki, a biology professor, now holds the new position of dean of undergraduate education. Even he acknowledges, though, that the creation of his post in 2007 could have come sooner.
John Simon, vice provost for academic affairs at Duke, put it more simply: “Consider the lacrosse incident a 12- to 18-month total disruption of the life of the president.”
PROGRESS AND RECESSION
But not all of Brodhead’s projects came to a standstill.
Brodhead managed to raise $300 million in three years to bolster Duke’s financial aid program; he announced this fall that Duke’s business school would open five satellite campuses around the globe; and he started a program called DukeEngage that, with a $30 million endowment, allows undergraduates to pursue community service anywhere in the world and have Duke foot the entire bill.
Perhaps Brodhead’s most ambitious initiative is a planned overhaul of Duke’s central campus. Under Keohane’s watch, the east campus was made into a home for freshmen — similar to Yale’s Old Campus — and there is little land left to develop on the historic west campus.
Brodhead hopes that the central campus will become a bridge between Duke’s east and west corners, as well as a vibrant home to students and classrooms. But now he is faced with another challenge, one that has nothing to do with athletics or peace in the Middle East: the economy.
While Duke has retained the architectural firm of Cesar Pelli, a former dean of the Yale School of Architecture, to oversee planning for the central campus, there is no telling whether the project will be able to move forward in the current economic recession.
Tallman Trask III, Duke’s executive vice president, said last week that the project would likely be slowed down, if not stopped entirely.
“We’re going to have to scale back on capital plans,” Trask said. “All of them.”
He added: “You have to say Dick’s timing here hasn’t been perfect.”
‘THE ROAD LEADS FORWARD’
Still, Brodhead came to Duke looking for a challenge, for a change of pace after nearly 40 years at Yale. He was not looking for perfect timing.
“My main reason for taking this position was a selfish one,” he said. “I thought I would learn more. I like to think that I know the world of undergraduate education and arts and sciences education backward and forward. But that’s only a small sliver of the pie.”
That small sliver, though, is one that Brodhead fell in love with at Yale.
University President Richard Levin has seen many administrators move from Yale to presidencies at other universities on his watch. But he said in an interview Wednesday that Brodhead struggled with his decision more than any of the others.
“Dick had a very hard time making up his mind,” said Levin, who was the only person at Yale aware that Brodhead was interviewing for the job at Duke until the offer had been made and accepted. “Because Yale had meant so much to him.”
And Yale still does mean a great deal to Brodhead. In the interview with the News, he asked questions about Yale, hinted at his opinion on the expansion of Yale College, and repeatedly professed his affection for the school.
In fact, the only question that made Brodhead pause in almost an hour of conversation was one about whether the 61-year-old might ever return to his alma mater, perhaps even as its president.
All Brodhead could offer was this: “The road leads forward.”