Durham County

Duke welcomes Vince Price as its 10th president amid calls for academic freedom

Vince Price pauses for a selfie with a student as he departs the Allen Building to begin his inauguration ceremony on Thursday.
Vince Price pauses for a selfie with a student as he departs the Allen Building to begin his inauguration ceremony on Thursday. ctoth@heraldsun.com

Duke University’s 10th president, Vince Price, received the full regalia of his new office Thursday in an inauguration ceremony he capped by saying the university “must be careful not to overlook the challenges in our own backyard.”

Though Duke is a global university, “the most accurate gauges of our resolve are right here in North Carolina,” Price said. “Much good work remains.”

In office since the summer, Price said Duke and its people have to “prepare ourselves for a diverse and often chaotic world whose challenges and controversies” don’t stop at the campus gates.

To meet them, “we need to work together to defend and even seek out voices who are not our own,” Price said. “We have to open ourselves honestly and deeply to a diversity of perspectives.”

Thursday’s inauguration took place under clear skies outside Duke Chapel, and in the presence of Price’s two most recent predecessors as Duke president, Nan Keohane and Richard Brodhead.

The dignitaries present also included former UNC system President C.D. Spangler, 85, who marched in the opening procession as a representative of Harvard University, his master’s degree alma mater.

Video: In an interview, Duke University​'s new president, Vince Price, spoke of his appreciation for the university's established relationships with the Durham community and expressed excitement for the opportunity available to become more engaged

Trustees Chairman Jack Bovender said Price convinced him he was the right man for the job when he told interviewers he loves “the energy that comes from being the vehicle of collective ambition.”

At that point, “I knew he understood what’s special about Duke,” Bovender said. “We’re strivers. We're a younger institution than our peers and we've worked hard to get where we are. What sets us apart is our grand, collective and outrageous ambition.”

Price came to Duke from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was provost. His boss there, Penn President Amy Gutmann attended the ceremony and said Duke “could not have made a better choice” about whom to hire.

The new president “understands that at the end of the day, the greatest accomplishment is a house united,” Gutmann told the 4,000 or so who people in the audience.

He takes over the leadership of “not only a beautiful campus, [but] a happy one,” Gutmann said. “I don’t need a blueprint to tell me how this project is going to turn out. It’s going to be amazing.”

Durham Mayor Bill Bell, offering greetings on the city’s behalf, said he anticipates a further improvement in town-gown relations that have grown stronger with each Duke president from Terry Sanford forward.

Bell said Price has already shown himself “a quick study,” via the decision-making that went into the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the entrance of the chapel and the pledge to raise the university’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2019.

The day’s festivities began with a faculty symposium that included a call for Price to defend academic freedom here and abroad.

Duke Divinity School professor Xi Lian told Price at the conclusion of the event he believes the spirit of free inquiry and discussion in academia “remains fragile” thanks to domestic pressures and others exerted internationally by the government of China.

In facing this challenge, “we need each other, and we need our great university,” Lian said, drawing applause from his colleagues. “I turn to you, President Price, for your leadership in helping us defend academic freedom going forward.”

Price was still in the audience when Lian spoke, and in fact had participated in the symposium earlier in the afternoon as officials prepared for the actual late-afternoon inauguration ceremony outside Duke Chapel.

The symposium gave professors, and Price, a chance to weigh in on some of the institutional challenges Duke and its 10th president will face on the coming years.

They ranged from Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Robert Lefkowitz’s worry that Duke’s competitors have been “eating our lunch” in the competition for donor dollars and top faculty talent to math professor Ingrid Daubechies’ lament that science itself seems to have become a focus of “animosity in some quarters.”

“It baffles me completely,” said Daubechies, a Belgian who joined Duke’s faculty in 2011. “I’m used to the fact that there can be scientific controversy, that there can be people looking at things and finding different interpretations for the same fact. Now we’re at the point where we avoid the question. Truth for me is what you strive for. The fact that people say, ‘Your truth I don’t care about’ … that is a big shock.”

But even on the medical front, there are signs that Duke has to strengthen its ties to neighboring communities, and listen harder to what the people living in them have to say, said Robert Califf, vice provost for health data science.

“As long as we talk only to ourselves, the scholarly educated elite, we’ll actually only heighten the divisions that exist,” said Califf, who headed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the latter portion of the Obama administration.

He added that in parts of North Carolina and other rural areas in the U.S, life expectancy is actually decreasing, a challenge that should be in Duke’s wheelhouse presuming it “understand how to communicate better” and understand that patients need “friendly faces” they can turn to for advice.

Responding to an initial round of comments, Price himself lamented what he termed “garbage-can decision-making” in the public realm that’s driven by ideology.

“Everybody knows the solutions and they’re just waiting for the right problem so they can ram their solution through,” Price said, elaborating on what he meant. “It is not rational. And so what we can do as the academy is really dig into the problems.”

If academics are appropriately humble about posing solutions, “we will maintain our neutrality and [higher education’s] treasured position in society,” he added. “And it is at some risk. We are being politicized, heavily politicized, and we cannot allow that to happen. We’re partly responsible for that ourselves, I would say.”