Seeing Duke in the World

Richard H. Brodhead, President, Duke University

Richard Brodhead

Chris Hildreth

This summer, President Richard H. Brodhead spent three weeks traveling in Asia and Africa to take the measure of Duke’s growing presence on those continents. The trip— the first time a sitting Duke president visited Africa— featured stops in Tanzania, Uganda, Singapore, and China, including the site of Duke’s future campus in Kunshan. Shortly before the fall semester, Brodhead sat down to share his reflections on the trip and the semester to come.

As you visited with students and faculty members in Asia and Africa, what did you find most striking?

It was a fascinating three weeks. Until you go in person, you can’t begin to imagine the depth and richness of Duke’s presence in other places, all the ways Duke is helping with world problems and adding to our own understanding along the way. Each day highlighted different aspects of Duke by showing Duke’s reflection somewhere else.

Since I’ve been to China and Singapore a fair bit, the Africa part of the trip was the most eye-opening. On the shores of Lake Victoria, I visited a sanctuary created by a Duke Divinity School faculty member where people from war-torn regions are promoting the work of reconciliation. In Tanzania, I visited a medical center where Duke medical faculty have collaborated for over twenty years. With Duke support, they had recently secured a $10 million grant to promote the training of health personnel. In this remote location, it was extraordinary to see these new research and teaching programs supported by the latest technology and to learn of all the ways Duke faculty and staff continue to help.

Probably my favorite experience was going to see the DukeEngage students in action. One day we drove to two small villages on the side of Mount Kilimanjaro. In one, Duke students were using their engineering training to fix medical machines. In the other, Duke global health students were teaching biology to kids so eager to learn that they had come to school on a holiday.

At Duke, we talk about bringing knowledge to the service of society. It was just phenomenal to see what that amounts to in practice.

What was it like to encounter the future Duke in Kunshan campus that’s drawing closer to completion?

The first time I went to Kunshan, the site had absolutely nothing on it. It was just empty, clear ground. Now, the buildings are topped out, and you can easily imagine them being hives of activity.

How do you respond to concerns about the viability of that project?

Negotiating the logistics of our programs with China took longer than we expected. But when you talk to anybody who’s ever done anything in China, they will tell you the same thing. The Chinese need time to build shared understanding and mutual trust—there’s no rushing the process.

Now that we’ve reached basic agreements on Duke Kunshan, we’re ready to look at the content of the specific programs. That’s a school-by-school activity. The global health faculty have taught certificate programs in China before, so they’re already pretty far advanced in their thinking. Our colleagues in the business school are hard at work on their plans. The provost had meetings at the beginning of the summer with Duke faculty from several other schools who might be interested in teaching at Kunshan at some later point.

We should remember that part of Kunshan’s value is as a space for experimentation. We intend to start fairly small, learn from our efforts, and build on that knowledge as we go forward.

Does 2012 still strike you as a reasonable start date for Kunshan?

The campus the municipality of Kunshan is building will open in the 2012- 13 academic year. I’m betting that more likely it will be early in 2013. It would be better to move forward in a careful and considered way than to rush to meet a certain date.

Are you confident, personally, that the academic-freedom conventions guiding discussion in the Kunshan classroom would be recognizable to a Duke classroom?

Freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression are the founding principles of American higher education. If the Chinese want to experience high-quality Western education, and that is their motive for inviting a school like Duke, they will have to accommodate these principles. We have made that clear from the beginning. At the same time, we know that China does not have the same culture surrounding personal freedom that we’re familiar with in this country. As good global citizens, we will need to understand these differences while standing by our own core values.

I take your question very seriously, but some things help. First, we are leading with professional-school courses that have fairly tailored aims, and we’ll have a chance to gain experience before we expand. Second, we have consulted other Western universities with existing projects in China. Every one of them says that if they had it to do over again, they absolutely would open a China program. Many testify that the norms of free inquiry and expression inside such programs are very different from the society at large.

On my trip this summer, I saw a bit of such cultural change. The first time I lectured at a Chinese university, seven years back, the question period was totally perfunctory. Students read polite questions off cards, and it was not clear that they had even written them. When I lectured at Wuhan University this June, the Q&A period was amazingly free and lively.

But the heart of the matter is this: If you want to enjoy the identical freedoms you would at home, you have to stay home. If you want to engage the world, you have to venture into foreign spaces. We think that engagement with China will be crucial to our students’ understanding of our interdependent world. So we’ve embarked on this experiment— and we will carefully monitor the results.

You’ve started work on the American Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences that you’re co-chairing. What sort of impact are you expecting it to make?

A range of people in different parts of American society were asked if they would be part of this commission—not only university presidents, but also CEOs of major corporations, congressmen, newspaper commentators, museum directors. Almost everyone said yes, and said yes instantly. It’s a group of people united by the fact that they understand that the future health of this country is, in the most direct way, a function of education. A strong case has been built for math and science education in recent years, but what we really need is broad, comprehensive education—an education that includes math and science but also history, ethics, everything that prepares you to be familiar with foreign cultures, and everything that trains people in the arts of expression and interpretation. The commission has only met once, but the level of enthusiasm was high. It’s our hope to support this broad form of education at every age and every part of our society.

As a humanities scholar, what do you think recent political events signal about the shape of American culture?

We expect people around the world to think of democracy as the highest form of human society, but to win that respect, we ourselves need to present it in a more attractive light. If you’re a good arguer, you know how to follow the arguments of others and understand the partial truth of other people’s point of view, then help them to understand your point of view. That’s a fundamental skill. But a dialogue where everyone pretends that there’s no right answer except on their side—it’s just hard to see how that’s going to get us anywhere.

Certainly the biggest financial infusion of late has come from The Duke Endowment’s $80 million commitment to renew Baldwin Auditorium, Page Auditorium, and the West Campus Union. How do you think those projects will affect the student experience?

The West Union, Page, and Baldwin are the core common spaces of this campus, but for many years they’ve looked shabby and haven’t functioned the way they should. This is our chance to turn them into scenes of vibrant communal experience. When we built the Nasher Museum and the Bostock Library, they instantly filled with life. I’m confident we’ll be seeing the same magic with these structures.

UNC, our neighbor down the road, is immersed in a controversy surrounding football. And this week [in early August], a number of university presidents are gathering in Indianapolis to talk about the vitality of the current intercollegiate-sports model. Are you concerned that expectations of football success will put new pressure on Duke’s academic program?

You and I are sitting in the very chairs in which I interviewed [football coach] David Cutcliffe. David Cutcliffe said to me, “I will never come to you to pressure you to lower the admissions expectations for football players.” He said, “The last thing I want is someone on the field whose mind is preoccupied by how poorly they’re doing in their courses.” And indeed, last year the Duke football team had a grade-point average higher than 3.0. Now, I’m looking for this to be the year when Duke has wonderful success on the football field. But it will always be my pride that our players came here for reasons in addition to football.

What did you read over the summer?

Lots of good books! Most recently, Ann Pachett’s novel State of Wonder and Noah Feldman’s Scorpions, the history of the justices brought onto the Supreme Court by FDR. They were brought in to try to create a New Deal majority, but soon thereafter, the issues that came before the court turned out to be totally different from New Deal issues—issues of civil rights, personal privacy, issues that continue to be timely. I must be the last person in the world to have read Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner, which I loved. And after flying from Tanzania to Uganda, I re-read the history of the exploration of the sources of the Nile, The White Nile by Alan Moorehead.

This interview was conducted, condensed, and edited by Robert J. Bliwise.



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