Durham County

New Duke president sees university ‘swimming at full stroke’ in his first year

Vince Price took office as Duke University’s 10th president this summer with the school riding as high as it ever has.

Duke Forward, the seven-year fundraising campaign that capped former President Richard Brodhead’s tenure, reached its $3.25 billion goal a year ahead of schedule. The university is generally recognized as being among the country’s 10 best, and its graduate programs cluster in the upper reaches of the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Given all that, one would expect Duke to hire a new president to keep a steady hand on the tiller. Price may well be that, but he is also keen to follow through on the university’s plans to improve its basic science programs, expand its use of online-education technology and build on Duke’s collaborations with nearby universities.

He also recognizes a need to build on the existing town-gown relationship with Durham that in Brodhead’s term helped fuel the renaissance of downtown Durham.

Q: What are you hoping to accomplish in your first year?

A: To maintain the momentum that we have coming out of a very successful campaign. To move even further in our relationships with the local community of Durham, taking full advantage of what we have in the region as a powerful engine for innovation. These are things that Duke has already been doing extraordinarily well. I think we have an opportunity to take things, as it were, to another level entirely.

Q: The first year is still part of the learning-the-campus process.

A: It is, although we will be making some distinctive moves to build the greater strengths in science and technology here at Duke. So it’s not as though we’ll be treading water while the president comes up to speed. In fact, we’ll be swimming at full stroke.

Q: How has your view of where Duke stands and its immediate challenges changed since your hiring?

A: Duke is an institution I’ve admired from afar for many years. Now that I’m here on the ground I’ve seen up close just how effectively the university behaves as a single community. It works well across schools and centers, for example. I love the enthusiasm of the community for Duke. The alumni are in love with this institution. I’ve been very impressed with the local area, as I get to know Durham, and the excitement of that community, the opportunity it presents for students when they come to Duke, the opportunity Duke represents to catalyze even more activity in Durham. That was something I had very little sense of, to be honest, when I entered this process.

Q: What sort of questions and concerns did the mayor and city manager have when you met them?

A: What I heard was an eagerness, which I was delighted to hear, to maintain a lot of the wonderful relationships that have been developed ... in creating the Neighborhood Partnership that we have, in launching the Healthy Durham initiative and in working closely with the city to help Durham catalyze what’s available here. And I needed no persuading on that front.

Q: Duke’s obviously done a lot to contribute to downtown redevelopment and community health programs, but there are rising concerns about affordable housing and the K-12 school system. How do you see Duke, if you see Duke, bringing its weight to bear on those?

A: The problems that affect the community affect Duke, so it’s in our interest as an institution of higher learning to work with our neighbors, to hear their concerns. There may be places where we can be of more help than in others. It’s not as though Duke is a necessary partner. But where we can be a partner, we’ll look for opportunities.

Q: The Chronicle of Higher Education just published an opinion piece that talks about how major universities contribute to community gentrification. Is there something in that for Duke and Durham to think about?

A: Urban development or redevelopment has to be managed thoughtfully. Stasis is not what people are looking for, because to move forward, it does involve change for communities. But that change can be navigated and managed in ways that are fully understanding of and appreciative of the challenges that they present. All of these are problems that are not unique to Durham, or to Duke University. I’d like to see Duke and Durham together as a community map ways forward that minimize those challenges, that don’t step back from the project of working to develop downtown Durham because of the challenges it might present, but in fact embrace those as challenges in their own right and find productive ways to move forward to the benefit of the larger community.

Q: Duke pulled back late in President Brodhead’s term from a proposed revision of Trinity College’s curriculum and from a project to build a gas-turbine power plant on campus. How might those efforts move forward?

A: Curriculum revision, while it presents periodically as a major proposal for change, is actually an ongoing matter at every institution of higher learning. Nothing is more important to the students and faculty than the nature, quality and shape of a curriculum. And I am quite patient on these matters.

I am quite eager, personally and as the president of a wonderful institution like Duke, to think deeply and with a certain amount of creativity about what we could do in the curricular space, particularly as it relates to the adaption to technology that we’re seeing it in various places. That was not at the centerpiece of what was being discussed here, but it will be at the centerpiece of conversations I hope we have going forward.

With respect to the combined heat and power plant proposal, we’ve committed to a full, open and transparent review, sort of hitting a pause button and asking what this means by way of our stated commitments to sustainability and carbon neutrality. When it plays out and we have all the details in front of us, we’ll be able to make a decision that is sensible and appropriate and I would hope embraced by the entire community.

Q: Critics of the power plant argued there was a neglected town-gown component of the discussion.

A: I’ve thought about the importance of having regular avenues for conversation with members of our local community. And the Neighborhood Partnership, as I’ve described, is a good avenue for doing that sort of thing. I would like to be as engaged as appropriate for a university president in working with the community to sort these things out. And that starts with conversation and discussion.

Q: Can Duke strengthen its collaborations with nearby universities like N.C. Central and UNC-Chapel Hill?

A: It actually is more rare than one might imagine to find that institutions of higher learning are collaborating, and collaborating in some fairly deep ways. This region has managed to do that, to an extent that you do not find in many other parts of the country, even in other parts of the country that have collections of high quality institutions. I want to advance as much as I can down that path. We’re different institutions, we have different focii, our missions are slightly different, but we have many shared opportunities. And some of those opportunities won’t be realized unless we collaborate.

Q: How does Duke navigate the budget uncertainty coming at it from the federal level?

A: As a very active conversant in these discussions. We do have a strong commitment as a research university to maintaining the vitality of the research enterprise, speaking not just in the interests of Duke University, [but] as a matter of national interest. We are the Research Triangle. This is high on the list [for] us in terms of public advocacy.

More generally, I think institutions of higher learning are for a variety of reasons attracting more attention. They are becoming to some extent politicized. And I think it’s very, very important for leaders of institutions of higher learning to take that into account, but to keep our eyes on our North Star, which is open inquiry, a significant investment in our shared futures through education and research, and that’s what we’re advocating for.

Q: Likewise, how will it deal with potential changes in U.S. immigration policy?

A: We’re committed as a community to being diverse and vital, and being international. We are international in the scale and scope of our activities, represented not only by international students who come to study at Duke, but a wide variety of activities that Duke pursues through faculty and students and staff around the globe. So it is in our interest to make sure we are part of the conversation.

Q: How do you size up Duke’s online-education effort?

A: Duke is in a very good place, having made some significant investments. I think we’re not as far along as we might be, and it varies from school to school. Our School of Nursing, for example, has done some wonderful work, and very innovative work, in building online programs to deliver some of its graduate-level training very effectively. I’d like to see that kind of activity develop in other schools as well. While these opportunities are largely viewed as a way to take the educational enterprise on campus and kind of export it, I see the long-term value proposition being in taking our knowledge of how best to adapt technology to the educational mission and folding it into what we do right here on the campus, in ways that support better information sharing, in ways that might elevate our advising work [and] make it easier for students to choose a path that’s customized to their needs and interests.

Q: That seems more inwardly-focused than, say, the approach that recently prompted Purdue University to buy Kaplan University.

A: I don’t think reaching out and buying a Kaplan is among the items sitting on my desk at the moment. No, I think the challenge is in taking technological opportunity and thinking about how it serves the core educational and research missions of the university. That doesn’t mean embracing it as a technophile or latching on to the next bright shiny model for higher education. The model that we have right here is a fabulous one. It is not broken. It does stand improvement.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

Vince Price

  • Graduate of Santa Clara University, where in 1979 he earned a bachelor’s degree in English.
  • Did his graduate work at Stanford University, earning a master’s in communication in 1985 and becoming a Ph.D. in the same field 1987.
  • Began his tenure-track faculty career at the University of Michigan in 1987, rising to department chair in communications studies in 1995.
  • Moved to the University of Pennsylvania in 1998, with a joint faculty appointment in the Annenberg School for Communication and the Department of Political Science.
  • Became Penn’s provost in 2009, understudying the school’s president, Amy Gutmann.
  • Hired as Duke University’s 10th president in December, 2016. He replaced former President Richard Brodhead on July 1.