Forever Duke Q&A: Jack Bovender '67, M.H.A. '69

Sterly Wilder ’83, associate vice president for alumni affairs, talks with Bovender, the new chair of Duke’s board of trustees and the former chair of Duke’s presidential search committee that brought the university’s tenth president, Vincent Price, to Duke. Now retired, Bovender is a forty-year veteran of the health-care administration industry—most recently as the chairman and CEO of Hospital Corporation of America, a leading provider of health-care services. Bovender and his wife, Barbara, who worked as a nurse at Duke University Hospital, have donated millions of dollars to diverse initiatives at Duke—including support for Trinity College, the School of Nursing, a professorship at Duke Divinity School, and the Fuqua School of Business, where their son, Richard, received an M.B.A. in 2008.

As of July 1, you are the chair of the Duke board of trustees. What’s been rewarding about being on the board?

One rewarding project that comes to mind: We did a study of the relationship of the Duke health system to the university as a whole. We did a lot of work on the financial side and the governance structures. That was right down my alley. Anything I’ve been asked to do at Duke, I’ve done—it’s that rewarding.

At Hospital Corporation of America, you led the effort to evacuate patients and staff during Hurricane Katrina. What was it like to be at the head of an operation during a national emergency?

It wasn’t me. It was a team of people and a culture that has been built over the years—that this is what we do. Hospital Corporation of America owns Tulane Medical Center in downtown New Orleans. We had to work on the fly. We cobbled together helicopters from nearby hospitals that brought in supplies. We found private contractors who were willing to evacuate patients. We flew our employees and many patients to Atlanta and Houston with vouchers to get tickets wherever they needed to go—to relatives in cities of their choice. And we did this without any concern for what it was going to cost to do it.

It was a great honor to lead during this time. There is something very special about taking care of people at the most vulnerable times in their lives. That’s a sacred trust.

You and Barbara established a $1 million scholarship to support Duke’s commitment to diversity in honor of the first five African-American students to integrate Duke in 1963. Why was it important to you to fund this specific scholarship?

It began with Barbara and me sitting at the kitchen table one morning. I started talking about the “First Five.” I didn’t know them very well at the time. I would see them on campus and say hello. But at the time I didn’t appreciate the significance of them and their bravery—for them to integrate an all-white institution in 1963. They were putting themselves in an uncomfortable and unknowable situation.

Barbara and I decided to establish a scholarship in their names, and over time, I’ve gotten to know the remaining three of the “First Five.” I’m closest to Wilhelmina Reuben- Cooke ’67, who I began to get to know at one of our class reunions.

Duke taught me what it meant to be human. I came out of a small, rural, all-white high school in the 1960s. At Duke, I was living in community with a lot of different people. It made my life much richer. You either get it right or you get it wrong. Duke helped me get it right. You can’t pay that back. So you have to figure out a way to make it better for the people who will come after you.

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