Peter Lange’s long legacy

Aug. 29, 2013 @ 06:35 PM

In a different era and in many jobs, 15 years may not sound like too long a tenure. We all know people who, especially a generation ago, might have stayed 40 years in a single job.

But today, with the seemingly constant tectonic shifts in the economy and the culture, and for a younger generation for whom mobility seems a given, a decade and a half with the same title on the door seems like quite a while.

Especially in a high-powered, high-profile job in the upper echelons of a sprawling research university with its crosscurrents of institutional politics, continuing expectation for innovation, and the opportunity to on any given day  to be almost guaranteed of dismaying if not infuriating one of your many constituencies or another.

So it is fairly remarkable that Peter Lange has remained provost at Duke University since 1999. When he steps down next summer at the end of his third five-year term, he will leave as the longest-serving chief academic officer in the university’s history.

He has, in that period, not just overseen but helped drive with his relentless energy and intellectual heft a continuing increase in the university’s stature.

Indeed, his 30-year career at Duke, which began in the political science department and included a three-year stint as its chairman, spanned a time of intense expansion of the university’s scope and influence.

“When I came to Duke, it was just emerging from being perhaps the leading university in the Southeast, and now we’re a global leader, among the top,” Lange said Wednesday, the day his impending retirement was announced.

Lange championed the interdisciplinary focus that infuses much of Duke, led two strategic planning processes, played an important role in the Campaign for Duke and oversaw campus expansion that added new academic, student life, library and arts facilities.

He has led Duke’s global efforts – including withstanding some early criticism of the university’s efforts to open a campus in Kunshan, China.

He also has pushed to broaden on-line instruction and the incorporation of more on-line materials in the classroom. The energetic creation of on-line courses, too, has met with some skepticism.

But Michael Munger, a political science professor who chaired the department after Lange, thinks those doubts will evaporate in coming years.

“Ten year from now, when Duke is a player in education in China and a leading force in online education, people will conveniently forget their initial skepticism,” he told The Herald-Sun’s April Dudash. “I think Dr. Lange will be proven consistent right in the bets he has made, though in some cases he may not seem right just yet.”

It is a mark of his longevity in the provost’s office that nearly two-thirds of the current faculty members were appointed during his tenure – as were all of the current deans.

His impact on the university has been substantial – and creates a high bar for the committee that has been tasked with searching for his successor.  That successor will have the challenge of filling some large shoes – and the advantage of a powerful legacy on which to build.