Last month, as we were gearing up for finals and looking forward to winter break, we awoke to an e-mail bearing the most unexpected news. Duke University, it seemed, had conducted nothing short of an administrative coup, luring Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead down to Durham, N.C. to serve as Duke’s new university president.
We reacted first with shock. We thought the e-mail was a joke, that it couldn’t possibly be true. But when reality hit home, we felt an acute and powerful sense of loss. We felt almost abandoned. Brodhead, who has spent over 40 years here, became both a beloved and mythical figure to us when we began our time at Yale. We remember the speeches he gave during Bulldog Days that convinced us to come to New Haven or at the freshman convocation where he won over our parents. It seems that Brodhead — who, in a now oft-quoted bit of trivia, came to Yale as a freshman and never left — is Yale.
Brodhead has a undefinable but powerful presence. He is the master of the personal interaction and actively reaches out to students. For many, Brodhead is a fatherly figure, providing reassurance and warmth during campus or national tragedies. Brodhead was not only a great leader himself, but the kind of leader that we wanted to become. It was hard to imagine Yale without Brodhead without being overwhelmed by sadness.
But after the sadness came a distinct anxiety. As the chairman of the 41-member Committee on Yale College Education, Brodhead led the university’s comprehensive 18-month academic review, the first at Yale in over 30 years. The recommendations released by the committee last spring were substantial, requiring not only vast financial resources but immense faculty support. With implementation just beginning, Brodhead’s departure is an unexpected blow. How, without Brodhead to lead them, will the grand reforms be accomplished?
Yale runs smoothly behind the scenes and Brodhead’s departure certainly won’t cause collapse. But it does present new challenges. Part of Brodhead’s great value as a dean is that in addition to inspiring the faith of students, he has earned the trust of faculty. To enact the committee’s recommendations will require a leader with enormous political clout among the faculty, a leader the faculty can rally behind. It seems hard to imagine a new dean will be able to do so as effectively as Brodhead — at least in the early stages of a new term.
But we should not forget that Brodhead’s time in New Haven is not over yet. Brodhead, who will assume his new post at Duke in July, has said that he intends to spend his last semester here working toward the academic review’s goals. While we’re glad he will continue his commitment to the review, the best thing Brodhead can do this semester is to continue to just be Brodhead. Although he will be travelling back and forth between New Haven and Durham this semester, we hope he keeps his energy on campus high and that he continues to be engaged with Yale students.
It will be a sad day when Brodhead finally steps down from his deanship. But that day is not yet here. And until it is, we hope Brodhead keeps on doing what he’s always done best: continue to be a warm and noble leader in a community he has inspired.