A Conversation with Keohane

Duke Magazine's third annual campus forum.

In the third annual Duke Magazine Campus Forum, retiring Duke President Nannerl O. Keohane had a public conversation with Frank H.T. Rhodes, a geologist who is president emeritus of Cornell University. When he retired in 1995, after eighteen years, Rhodes was recognized as the longest-serving Ivy League president and as an eloquent national advocate for education and research.

Since retiring as Cornell's president, Rhodes has served as a principal of the Washington Advocacy Group, chairman of the board of Atlantic Philanthropies, and a member of the boards of the Goldman Sachs Foundation and the Johnson Foundation, among others. He is currently president of the American Philosophical Society. He is also the grandfather of two Duke undergraduates. The following is an edited version of the conversation.

On liberal-arts college versus research university

Rhodes: President Keohane, how would you articulate the difference between the undergraduate experience at a fine liberal-arts college and the experience at an institution such as Duke, which is also a world leader in research?

Keohane: Well, my answer may surprise you, because it's not the one that you might normally expect. I don't think you can say that the main difference is that students at a research university have more opportunities to do research. Because I know that, at Wellesley, students did research with their faculty members and did independent research, and it was often very rewarding for them. I think the major difference is that you have a far broader set of options among the courses that you take. There are wonderful courses at liberal-arts colleges, and many more than any student could ever take in the course of a four-year period. But the depth and the breadth of a great research university and the things that are available to students are just fantastic.

And that you have the opportunity, also, to have some exposure to the professional-school faculties. And that's something [a liberal-arts college like] Wellesley cannot offer. I know that for many of our students who are pre-med, having had some opportunity to interact with some professors or graduate students from the medical sciences has been a tremendous advantage and the same in business and in law and in divinity and so forth.

I guess, finally, I would say that, at its best, a research university can provide an amazing balance for students between faculty members who care deeply about their work and faculty members who are deeply engaged in research which is truly cutting edge. Even though there are fine researchers at liberal-arts colleges, there are probably more at a research university who are truly on the edges of their fields. And if the system works, they get the benefit from that in the books they're asked to read, the papers they're asked to write, the reactions they get in class. And that symbiosis between a faculty member who cares deeply about teaching, but also is doing truly cutting-edge research, that's a fantastic advantage.

On championing diversity

Rhodes: During your tenure, the university has become more competitive in admissions, and you have championed the increase in diversity. Has that changed the student body? Have you seen in these eleven years significant differences in the incoming students?

Keohane: We have had some very specific goals around diversity, which I think have made a difference, most recently, by raising the percentage of international students. Duke eleven years ago had very few international students in the undergraduate student body, as compared with the graduate and professional schools. And we have changed that. I think it has made a difference to a university that has talked a lot about becoming more global, which we have. But it would be odd to become more global in every other part of our enterprise and not in undergraduate education.

I think we have, also, been more mindful of the importance of diversity in our own domestic recruitment, both in terms of racial diversity, but also geographic diversity and diversity by socio-economic background. We have been fortunate enough to have gender diversity in undergraduate education as almost a kind of a fallout beneficiary of the ways in which we recruit and the kinds of students who want to come to Duke. But, overall, I think we have tried to make this a more multifaceted institution, deliberately. And that we've all benefited from that.

On affirmative action

Rhodes: The University of Michigan found itself before the Supreme Court in recent months over the whole question of affirmative action. Would you say a little about the benefit of that for the whole community?

Keohane: I think that we are very fortunate in the way the Court decided the issue. And that we now feel much more confident about the kinds of admissions procedures which we know to be right, which we know to benefit all students, which allow us to take race into account, just as we take so many other things into account. It always struck me as extremely odd that we might reach a situation when we would be allowed to take everything else in the world into account: your family background or the state you were from; whether you play the flute or pitch a baseball. But we could not take into account your racial background, in a country for which that has always been one of the most important divides and sources of tension and sources of opportunity.

So, I'm really quite relieved that we are now, clearly, able to say--not that we set quotas, not that we give it disproportionate weight, but that we can take that into account as we think about how to build a strong freshman class. People are always pressing back--where is your data that it makes a difference? We are beginning to compile some data. But in the end, it has to be the anecdotal evidence of almost every person who's ever been in a classroom--that you don't make much progress with a homogeneous group of people. It doesn't have to be by race, but there has to be some heterogeneity of views. I think differences of views are particularly important, and people's backgrounds can often give them the ammunition and the perspective from which they offer different views.

I'm teaching this spring a seminar on inequalities. I can't imagine teaching such a class in a course if every student came from precisely the same background and held precisely the same views. It would be very boring and not at all educational.

Frank H.T. Rhodes and Nan Keohane

“We have been more mindful of the importance 
of diversity in our domestic recruitment, both in terms of racial diversity, but also geographic diversity and diversity by socio-economic background.”


On realizing a diverse community

Rhodes: One of the challenges, I presume, continues to be not just having an integrated campus in a broad sense in all the ways you've described. But also, to have one where all the various groups interact with one another.

Keohane: It seems to be one of the most significant difficulties that we face as educators: How you walk the fine line between creating contexts in which students are encouraged to venture into areas that you know will be educational for them, and allowing them to make their own way and find their own pathway. Because that, after all, is part of what a university is about, as well. I don't think you simply can sit back and say, We'll bring a statistically diverse group of people together--1,600 of them in a freshman class--and totally sort of let them do their own thing.

But, you also can't say, We are going to force you to randomly divide yourselves up again, even if you begin to form groups of friends and groups of alliances. I think what we have to try to do is, throughout the four years, provide attractive opportunities for people to rediscover the virtues of having a diverse set of experiences so that it isn't easy just to always lapse back into your comfort group. But, not try to do so in a way that is so heavily, flat-footedly social engineering that the students, rightly, would rebel, and would find it counterproductive. It's a very fine line. I think we walk it well sometimes, and not so well at others.

On the athletics arms race

Rhodes: You have been a powerful voice in the discussion about the "arms race" between universities. How does an institution such as Duke, almost unique in its athletic success on the one hand, but in its maintenance of scholarly priorities on the other--how do you achieve this balancing act?

Keohane: I think you're right that Duke has been fortunate across the years in having an exemplary balance for our student athletes and for the role of athletics in this university. And I believe that is the result of the goodwill and the awareness of many people.

I remember the first time I was ever in this room, at the first Academic Council meeting that I attended as president-elect. On the agenda was a discussion of why there weren't more basketball tickets for faculty members in Cameron. And I remember thinking, "Wow, this is interesting." These are not the topics I had been used to before at Stanford or at Wellesley or at Swarthmore. [Laughter]

Rhodes: Why are there not more tickets?

Keohane: Well--there's got to be somebody in the audience who can answer that one. But [the balance we've achieved] is something that we justly take pride in, but I do not think it is anything that we can ever take for granted. And I'll put it within the context of the way you asked the larger question about athletics in this country--particularly with all the conversations recently about the expansion of the ACC, and the inexorable juggernaut which is, presumably, moving through all conferences for realignments, and stepping up the pressures, and [building] bigger and better facilities and bigger and better conferences in football championships, etc.

I think Duke is continuing to find its way as an institution that tries to be a voice of sanity and that wants to remind us that in the end we're talking about the student athletes--people who come to Duke because they want the Duke experience and the Duke degree, and not just the Duke letter on their shirts--but also, people for whom the athletic experience is a very crucial part of what they do here. And that we should not underestimate that.

I know that many of our student athletes find this enrichment and this discipline and structure of what they do an important part of their success. However, if more and more people come to Duke from backgrounds where they have chosen one sport very early in their lives, and are expecting not just to play at one season, but also to come in their first day and, as you reminded us, engage in strength training, engage in all sorts of activities that are focused on their athletic success, and allow it to work to the detriment of what they do in the classroom or in building friendships or doing anything else, then we have an imbalance problem.

I think Duke has tried to avoid that imbalance problem, but the pressures are enormous--from what student athletes are expected to do in their high schools and as they prepare--some of them at least--for professional athletics after Duke. And we have to continue to think very carefully about that.

On freedom of expression on campus

Rhodes: This links up very closely with another aspect of life on campus which I think isn't easily understood by everyone. Would you say a little bit about freedom of speech on the campus, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression? If you embrace a certain position on a topic, does that leave running room for somebody to take an exactly contrary position on the campus--especially, in an age when some external observers believe that we have a single culture on campus which is way to the left of the public's position on almost everything?

Keohane: The climate for discussion on our campuses these days has become a very complex one, because there are ways in which both students and faculty members can feel that their views are not being treated with the respect that they deserve in situations where, perhaps some years ago, we all would have thought we were just in the middle of a good knock-down, drag-out dialogue where you make your point, and you do it forcefully, and you expect the point will be made in return. I think there is an absence of recognition of the ability to distinguish between espousing a position and condemning an adversary that sometimes makes it hard to have real discussions among some groups of people.

I also believe --to come to the last part of your question--that there are some students who clearly believe that it is hard for them to speak up in a classroom where a professor has indicated a particular bias or opinion. And I understand the problems with that. If you're a freshman uncertain of something, and a professor voices a very strong opinion--particularly, opinions that are around some issues in society that are very different from your own--you may wonder whether, in fact, you're going to be given fair treatment and your views will be heard. And therefore, I think it is very important for faculty members to recognize that they have to be very careful to create an environment in which all parts of a question can be aired. And if they sense that there is some tipping of a balance toward one extreme opinion, at some level they should be providing the other one, so that people really do see this as a dialogue, whatever their personal opinions may be. At least, I find that the healthiest way to teach.

Rhodes: Do you think that, in all the emphasis on diversity, we have an obligation to foster intellectual diversity on some of these great themes of public life?

Keohane: Yes, I absolutely do. It seems to me [that] if universities don't foster intellectual diversity, where on earth is it going to happen?

Rhodes: Would you be willing to grade universities as you know them on how well they're doing that?

Keohane: No. [Laughter] Would you? [More laughter]

Rhodes: No, very wisely. It's been said that a faculty member is one who thinks otherwise.

Keohane: Right.

Nan Keohane

On her legacy

Rhodes: If you had a wish, how would you wish to be remembered for the leadership you've given during these years? What are the things that will stand out--in your own estimation?

Keohane: Well, as people who know me well know, that's a really tough type of question for me to answer, but I will try to do my best. I would hope that people would see this as a period in which Duke spread its wings in some appropriate directions--by becoming more intentionally international, for example; by becoming more conscious of itself as a great research university, as well as a fine regional institution; and by recognizing the unique power of our rootedness in our very special traditions as a university and the ways in which we can develop new strings to our bow and new ways of being excellent in this world.

It's a kind of a roundabout answer, because it's hard to give specific examples. But, one of the things I have really tried to do is to encourage everyone who works here to remain aware of this marvelous balance between our history and our traditions as a university and our rootedness in this region and in our community. And our opportunities to continue to claim our place--the place that J.B. Duke envisioned for us as a true leader in the educational world in every sense of the word: a truly top-ranked university that will be increasingly recognized globally. And to bring off that balancing act has been, I think, one of the biggest challenges that we've faced. I think we've managed in most respects to do pretty well at it, but I'm sure that there will be ways in which we can continue to face those challenges in the years ahead.

[The discussion is opened to the audience for questions.]

On issues over which sleep is lost

Audience member: I have a question for both of you. What is the issue that has kept you up at night; that has been most difficult for you throughout your careers and has caused you the most stress?

Keohane [to Rhodes]: Why don't you answer that one, first? [Laughter] Give me a chance to think.

Rhodes: I sleep pretty well. Especially since I retired. I think the one thing that's a continuing challenge for higher education, and one that we haven't addressed, is the question of unlimited aspirations and very limited capacity to fulfill them. "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for," the poet tells us. But, in fact, universities are built around aspirations that can never be reached. And yet, somehow, we've got to keep that flame alive. And that's something that, at various times, is a challenge that's almost overwhelming.

How do you meet the enormous costs of organized research, now? How do you meet the challenges of constantly rising tuition, which places a real burden on families of which we are very conscious, but still provide the finest undergraduate experience and support for the best faculty in the world? And that never goes away, it seems to me, and is never solved. And one campaign gives rise to another, which is a preparation for a third. So, the combination of unbounded aspiration, but limited capacity, I think, is always a gnawing problem. It never reaches the critical level, but it pervades everything else that a university president is concerned about.

Keohane: You obviously have loftier middle of the night thoughts than I do. [Laughter] I agree that that is a very important question. And there are questions of that kind that I do worry about. I tend to worry about those in the daytime, when I'm thinking about writing an essay or talking with colleagues or planning for the future.

But, to be honest, I don't wake up in the middle of the night that often, fortunately. When I do, it tends to be on some very specific burning, pressing issue of the moment. And that differs from year to year. Sometimes, it's a problem that we're facing with a particular set of student concerns. Sometimes it's an issue around a particular part of the university, like a challenge in the medical center. Sometimes it's a problem with a personnel issue that I don't think we're handling very well. If I wake up in the middle of the night, it tends to be a pretty specific issue.

And I remember one of our colleagues, George Drake, who was president of Grinnell [College], used to say that, you know, there are good years and bad years. And you cycle through. Some years you don't wake up very often because you don't have that many problems, and the next year you may have a pretty sleepless year.

On her plans after Duke

Audience member: What will be your relationship to Duke after leaving the office of the presidency? Maybe you can speak, as well, to the difficulties in letting go.

Keohane: Frank Rhodes and I were just talking about that. I was asking his wise counsel on what life after the presidency is. Well, I have, mainly, thought about the next four months and the twelve months after, because there's still a lot that I want to do.

I must say that I'm so glad that Dick Brodhead is going to be my successor, because he is a wonderful human being, and he's going to be a great president. And I didn't even realize that I was worried about that in the back of my mind until the choice was made, and I could say, "This is fantastic." It makes it a lot easier to step away.

And with that question resolved, I'm in the very fortunate position of being both very eager to get some things done in the last four or five months, and looking forward with at least equal eagerness to going on sabbatical in July.

Rhodes: I was delighted to receive as title President Emeritus, until a friend explained to me what emeritus means. He told me it comes from two Latin roots: e-, meaning "you're out" and meritus, "you deserve to be." [Laughter] So, I'm the wrong person to ask.

Keohane: Maybe I don't want the title after all.

Rhodes: I want to say that I think, President Keohane, you will never leave Duke, because in a real sense you have a mark for good on this place. There's a monument to Christopher Wren, who was the architect for St. Paul's Cathedral, which says, in my schoolboy Latin, which is rusty, "Lector, si monumentum requiris circumspice": "If you seek his monument, look about you." And in a real sense, you have changed the landscape of what was already a great institution and made it even greater.

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