On his first day as a teaching assistant, Duke University President and former Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead ’68 GRD ’72 said, he gestured so enthusiastically that he dropped all of his books and notes into a trash can.
But in spite of this initial setback, Brodhead — who spoke to a small crowd of English faculty and graduate students on Thursday afternoon — went on to become a top administrator at two of the world’s leading universities. He returned to Yale on Thursday to participate in a roundtable discussion in Luce Hall, where he did not deliver a prepared speech but instead spoke informally about the humanities, his teaching experiences and the challenges he has encountered as an administrator at both schools. Students present said they enjoyed the discussion and appreciated Brodhead’s candor and accessibility.
Brodhead said he did not expect to become an administrator when he joined the Yale faculty as an English professor, but it was ultimately satisfying to shape major university policy and expand his own life experience. He told students not to limit themselves to a narrow vision of their future, encouraging them to contribute not only to academic research but also to their university communities.
“What I can tell you is that where I am now, you soon shall be,” he said. “You will find yourself called upon to do civic duties apart from your intellectual life.”
Brodhead, an expert in 19th-century American literature, said his experiences in the classroom gave him the skills he needed to be an effective administrator. Since arriving at Duke, Brodhead has spearheaded efforts to expand the university’s endowment for financial aid and to improve the university’s town-gown relations through neighborhood revitalization, health and education initiatives in Durham, according to the Web site of Duke’s Office of the President.
“Everything I know about how to run an organization comes from teaching seminars,” Brodhead said. “You have to organize it, you have to set some agenda, and try to get people to build on each other to get somewhere they couldn’t have gotten on their own.”
He also recalled some memorable experiences with his own professors at Yale, such as Harold Bloom, who Brodhead said inspired him through his love and personal investment in his teaching.
“I actually think that projecting your own love of the subject is the singular most important thing that the teacher can bring to the class,” he said. “All kinds of people can find ways to connect to that.”
When Brodhead announced his departure from the University in 2004 after four decades in New Haven as a student, professor and administrator, Yale President Richard Levin praised Brodhead for his contributions to the University.
“Dick Brodhead is one of the finest educators of his generation and one of the greatest deans in Yale’s 300-year history,” Levin said at the time. “It is difficult to imagine Yale without him. Duke’s students, faculty, and alumni will find him an inspiration.”
Since he arrived at Duke, Brodhead’s administration has received attention for its handling of a controversy involving the school’s lacrosse team, when several varsity players were accused of raping a stripper hired to perform at a team party.
At the end of his talk, Brodhead advised students to shape their own directions in life and to take an active part in the world.
“One spends one’s own life thinking that authority is something other than one’s own self,” he said. “In truth, one is always building the world one inhabits, so then the questions of one’s responsibility as to what kind of world one is building and why become very important questions.”
Several Duke alumni who are now grad students at Yale were present at the discussion. A number of students said they enjoyed the informality of the conversation.