Brodhead says his goodbyes to Duke faculty leaders

Duke University President Richard Brodhead’s long goodbye to the institution he’s led for 13 years began Thursday, with a final appearance before the professors who serve on the university’s Academic Council.

Brodhead, who’s retiring at the end of June, giving way to incoming President Vince Price, used the occasion to urge faculty to support Duke’s attempts to underwrite need-based financial aid for “students of every income and origin.”

In the balancing of Duke’s competing needs, “we will not get the answer right” without putting access-to-education and economic-opportunity questions front and center, Brodhead said, noting that he’d help raise around $750 million for the cause during his term in office.

He also urged faculty to continuing supporting Duke’s attempts to take calculated risks, as the council did as the university launched a branch campus in Kunshan, a suburb of Shanghai.

The in-house deliberations over the China initiative exemplified faculty leadership and governance “working at the highest level” as professors, administrators and trustees sought to weigh the merits of a “high-risk, high-reward venture,” Brodhead said.

There aren’t many U.S. universities who’ve followed Duke’s example in China, and that’s partly because “their cultures of faculty deliberation would not have permitted such a departure from their orbit,” he said.

“You were willing to take a carefully calculated gamble,” Brodhead said. “I would ask you to preserve that beautiful feature of Duke faculty culture,” as the university “will not advance on the basis of risk aversion.”

Thursday’s meeting of the Academic Council — Duke’s version of a faculty senate — served as the kickoff for commencement weekend.

In addition to hearing from Brodhead for the last time as Duke’s president, the council also held its customary advisory vote on the list of degree recipients for Sunday’s graduation ceremony in Wallace Wade Stadium. As is the norm, it backed the candidates presented by each of the university’s schools, sending it to trustees for a final OK on Friday.

Sunday’s 9 a.m. ceremony at Wallace Wade will be Brodhead’s last scheduled appearance before the student body — and also a goodbye to David Rubenstein, an alumnus and major donor who has chaired the trustees since 2013. Rubenstein is term-limited and will leave the board this summer.

In his farewell to the Academic Council, Brodhead said “it’s a good time for a presidential transition” because “major institutional projects” like the Duke Forward capital campaign and the start-up of Duke Kunshan University are nearly complete or have reached “a milestone where they can advance confidently to the next stage.”

He said Duke Forward, which was supposed to yield $3.25 billion for the university, at the most recent count had raised $3.72 billion. That campaign, like Brodhead’s presidency, is due to conclude in June.

The Kunshan project, meanwhile, is moving on to the second-phase launch of an undergraduate program following council and trustee approval votes earlier in the 2016-17 academic year. The China campus is already awarding master’s degrees.

The council, chaired until the end of June by engineering professor Nan Jokerst, had gifts for Brodhead on his way out the door. She and each of the professors who chaired the council during his presidency gave him a children’s book, for Brodhead and his wife Cindy to read to their 2-year-old granddaughter.

Undoubtedly the most pointed of the selection came from law professor Paul Haagen, who handed Brodhead a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It was an acknowledged allusion to the Duke lacrosse case, which played out during Haagen’s term as council chair.

But the most poignant exchange came from Nicholas School of the Environment professor Susan Loizer, who made Brodhead honor a 6½ -year-old promise to read aloud a passage from a book about flow dynamics.

She made it easy on the president by selecting a ditty, which he duly recited. But it gave him one last chance to return to the podium.

“Just so that my last word [to the council] will not be ‘viscosity,” I hasten to say this was like the gift of the Magi,” he said, thanking the former chairs for their presents. “For me, this whole exercise illustrates something I feel pretty strongly about. Universities are big, abstract, institutional structures. But at the end, they are about people.”