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Back in theTrenches

Back in theTrenches

Dr. Nannerl Overholser Keohane became Duke University’s eighth president when she arrived on campus in July 1993. She also became the university’s first female president. And after 11 years of leading the 12,000-student campus in Durham, N.C., Keohane is stepping down this month to return to teaching and research. Keohane has been called a prodigious fund-raiser. In December, Duke completed an eight-year capital campaign, raising $2.36 billion, the fifth-largest in American education history, and the most ever by a Southern school, according to reports. Keohane also made headlines last year when she and her counterpart from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Chancellor James Moeser, raised concerns about expanding the NCAA’s Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).
A political theorist, she is the author of Philosophy and the State in France: The Renaissance to the Enlightenment (1980) and co-editor of Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideology (1982). Before assuming the presidency of Wellesley College, her alma mater, in 1981, she taught at Swarthmore College, the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University, where she was chair of the faculty senate and won the Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching. 
Just weeks away from turning over the Duke presidency to her successor, Dr. Richard Brodhead, former dean of Yale College, Keohane spoke with Black Issues about leadership, diversity on campus and her future plans.

BI: What were your goals when you arrived on the Duke campus, and 11 years later would you say you met those goals?

NK: I didn’t come with a large set of goals. First of all, I didn’t know the institution well. I knew it by reputation, but I had never been a student or a faculty member here. So my first goal was to get to know the place — I think I did that pretty quickly. And then in concert with my colleagues, developed some goals for everything from residential life to a stronger health system to an improved campus plan to fund raising, to reaching out to our community, building the diversity on campus — both in terms of numbers and in quality for the faculty, students and staff — and making it more an inclusive place, making it a more international place. All those goals began to emerge fairly quickly in the first couple of years. I think we’ve made progress on all of them, but there is still plenty to be done. 

BI: Looking back, what was the appeal of the Duke position?

NK: Duke was such an appealing prospect as an institution that I have long admired. Having grown up in the South, I had always wanted to come back to the South some day to help this very special, but troubled region, face some of the challenges that it faces, and partly because I love it. I feel deep roots in the South, but I also feel some awareness of the particular challenges of segregation and Jim Crow, and the way in which there are vestiges that are left even in the best institutions. And I wanted to come back and help a strong institution become even stronger.

BI: How were you received as Duke’s first female president?

NK: I was received very warmly. Almost nobody said to me, or even hinted, that there was any problem because I was a woman. But I’m quite aware though, that a lot of people behind the scenes were saying, “How on earth can this woman from Wellesley run Duke?” But they were gracious enough not to say it to me. And because I had already done the job at Wellesley, where there has been nothing but women presidents, it never occurred to me that a woman couldn’t be a president. One of my few regrets is that I probably should have been more aware throughout my time at Duke of how important it was in a positive sense. I think I could have been a little bit more active as a person conscious that I was a role model for faculty members, for students … but since it seemed irrelevant to me in many ways, I probably didn’t pay enough attention to that until the last few years.

BI: You have now led two different types of institutions. What did you learn from your Wellesley presidency that you were able to apply to the Duke presidency? 

NK: Good question. I did find that I had learned a number of useful skills that served me in good stead as a second-time president. For one thing, I had dealt with a number of issues along the way that were sort of generic higher education issues, whether it was students concerned about some problem on campus, or faculty members concerned about their pensions, or trustees concerned about whether one is focusing on the values of the university in the correct way —  I had dealt with those types of issues, and I learned that I could. And I learned some mechanisms for making people feel listened to but then being willing to make a tough decision, explaining it thoughtfully and moving on. Those are useful skills that I was able to bring pretty much intact from Wellesley to Duke. I guess I also learned that you have to pace yourself, and I tried to bring that skill, too. I didn’t always pace myself at Wellesley because there was so much to do, and sometimes I just got really exhausted. But then I learned you have to take some breaks. You have to go off for a weekend; you’ve got to take a real vacation; you’ve got to exercise almost everyday.

BI: As a young scholar, did you aspire to the college presidency? How did you position yourself for such opportunities and what advice do you have for others?
NK: I never had any ambitions to be a university administrator of any kind. I was never a dean; I was never a provost; I was never even a department chair. I was just called by my alma mater to be president. And I loved Wellesley, and I couldn’t imagine turning Wellesley down. I took that from feminist loyalties, from alumni loyalties, and from curiosity to see what it would be like, but I never positioned myself to be a president, so I’m afraid I’m a rather unusable role model.
If someone is ambitious to be a college administrator in general, and interested in lines within the institution that are not directly and primarily academic, then it probably makes sense to move into it fairly early — once you’ve gotten your higher degree and had a little bit of experience on campus.
But if you want to be an academic leader, a dean, a president, a provost, it’s very important to win your spurs as a respected faculty member. If possible, get tenure or at least prove yourself through your writings and your teachings so that you are a faculty member who will be respected by others, because in the end, although there are some notable and very successful exceptions to this rule, most of the people who succeed in jobs like this are people who first won their spurs as members of the faculty. So if you want to be on the academic side of the institution, I think it’s important not to move too soon. It’s important to build your qualifications and credibility as a faculty member.

BI: I read about “Race Day” and the “study-in” held by Black students on campus a few years ago. How would you describe the racial climate on campus, and are you satisfied with where Duke is in terms of diversity and racial tolerance?

NK: Well, we’re never satisfied. It’s ironic, because as you may know, Duke has more of the larger percentage of African American students than almost any comparable institution among the top universities and colleges. And we’re very pleased by that. And it’s an important priority for us. We find that it’s a self-fulfilling success, because once people know this, we get high numbers of applicants, and we’re able to choose really strong people every year. But we find that when they (students) come, we have not been nearly as successful in figuring out ways to make sure that the advantages of diversity are open to people so that they really take full advantage of living in an institution with people of many different backgrounds. They too quickly, after their first-semester freshman year where we distribute them randomly in the residence halls and have various ways in which they are supposed to spend time together, fall into their comfort groups or affinity groups and don’t spend enough time across racial, or class, or religious or other boundaries, and I do worry about that. I think it’s a real problem, and I don’t think we’ve done enough to tackle it. I don’t think it’s just the institution. We can’t institutionalize their lives, but if they don’t make the choice, we’re somehow not helping them understand how crucial it is.
I was thinking about an incident at Wellesley that you may have heard about that sometimes makes me wonder whether we should be a little more proactive. When Virginia Foster Durr came to Wellesley — and at that time (1920s) all the women were required to seat themselves during their freshman year at tables in their residence halls according to assignments so they’d get to know everybody —  (and) was seated with one of the Black women in the class, she said, “I couldn’t possibly do that, my father would die if I was sitting next to a Negro.” And the housemother said quite graciously, “Well, Virginia, you have a choice. You can either sit in the seat to which you have been assigned, or you can leave Wellesley, and go home.” And she did what she was asked, and she turned out to be one of the great civil rights leaders of the 20th century.

BI: In January, UNC-Chapel Hill named a visiting professorship in your honor. That would seem to most people pretty unusual considering the rivalries between the two institutions. What was your reaction?

NK: I was so touched and delighted. And that’s a good question because the fundamental rivalries are still on the athletic field, but one of the things I’m proudest of over the 11 years is that with the eager colleagueship of some of my counterparts in Chapel Hill, we have managed to build real bridges and to have really exciting programs between the two campuses. That professorship was a recognition of that, and it means a great deal to me.

BI: What are your plans post-Duke?

NK: I’m determined to retool myself as a teacher and a scholar. I taught a seminar last semester for the first time in many years and loved it. I’ve been part of a working group in political philosophy that is producing a book at Duke this year. So for the first time in many years I’m back in the trenches as a political theorist. I’m going out to study at Stanford where I’ve been before on sabbatical. I know it’s a wonderful place to write, read and think, and I hope by the time I’m finished there next spring I’ll be fully ready to hit the ground running as a professor again. We’re not sure exactly where we’ll be at that point, but we know we’ll be in the classroom.

BI: What will be the top three challenges for the next president of Duke?

NK: I have deliberately decided I’m not going to go there! 

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