Duke president will step down next year

Duke University President Richard Brodhead enters the ballpark during the university's annual commencement ceremony at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Sunday, May 10, 2015.
Duke University President Richard Brodhead enters the ballpark during the university's annual commencement ceremony at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Sunday, May 10, 2015. Al Drago

Duke University President Richard Brodhead will step down in June of next year, having ushered in an era of fundraising and expansion after the reputation-battering lacrosse saga a decade ago.

Brodhead, 69, has led the university for 12 years. He will leave the presidency when his current term ends as a $3.25 billion campaign winds down. Already, Duke has brought in $3.1 billion toward the goal.

“Now it’s a good time for the university to get somebody new and start the next chapter,” he said Thursday.

In an interview after the announcement, he called Duke “the great up-and-coming university in America.”

“No university has come further faster,” he said. “When I came I thought, ‘How are we ever going to continue that?’ But this place is full of imaginative, energetic, collegial people. And when you put it all together, we really have done a lot.”

He has overseen a building boom, with more than $1 billion in construction, including the renovation of Duke Chapel, which will reopen next month. Duke also doubled its undergraduate applications during the period, becoming ever more selective and admitting only 8.7 percent of applicants this year. Two professors won Nobel Prizes during the period.

In recent years, Brodhead has expanded Duke’s global footprint, first with a new medical school in Singapore. Then, he led the creation of a new campus in China called Duke Kunshan University, a joint venture with Wuhan University in China and the city of Kunshan. It opened two years ago and has students in business, global health, medical physics, and soon, environmental policy.

The move did not come without resistance from some faculty who were concerned about academic freedom in China and the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars away from the Durham campus.

Brodhead came to Duke in 2004 after decades at Yale University, where he had been a beloved professor and dean. But he encountered a challenge his first day in Durham – the possible departure of superstar basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who flirted with the Los Angeles Lakers coaching job. In a very public way, Brodhead found himself pleading for Coach K to stay – not a way any university president wants to start.

Two years later, he would encounter an even more devastating event around sports – the 2006 Duke lacrosse scandal, in which three players were falsely accused of raping a woman hired to strip at an off-campus party. The university was criticized for its handling of the situation, including forcing out the lacrosse coach and canceling the season. The three accused students were exonerated and sued the university, settling for an undisclosed amount of money.

“For the whole community it was awful,” he said. “It activated everyone’s passions. It just was inflammatory in the highest degree because it was based on a falsehood that was then compounded by a falsehood from a source no one ever suspected – namely the district attorney [Mike Nifong] himself. I think we all regret it and I think if it were to happen again, there’s things one would do differently.”

K.C. Johnson, a critic who blogged about the saga and then wrote a book about it, sees the Brodhead presidency in harsher terms. “The two adjectives that immediately come to mind are ‘failed’ and ‘weak,’ ” Johnson said. “The lacrosse case was certainly a difficult case but it was a test of leadership and he failed. He was unable to stand up for the rights of his students, he was unable to stand up to the mobbish atmosphere among the faculty ... I think it tarnished his entire time.”

Others say Brodhead managed to rise above the lacrosse mess. Bill Funk, a Texas-based consultant who recruits university presidents, pointed out that Brodhead outlasted the average tenure of private university presidents, who typically serve 7-9 years.

“To come through that and still make the progress that he did, I think, is a real credit to him and to the board who supported him throughout,” he said.

On the other hand, if Brodhead hadn’t had to cope with the lacrosse situation, Funk said, he might have accomplished more. “It was such a distraction,” he said, “you just wonder what opportunities were lost.”

David Rubenstein, chairman of Duke’s trustee board, called Brodhead “a transformative president.”

“The entire Duke community is therefore very much in his debt for the leadership he has provided over the past 12 years -- and no doubt will continue to provide,” he said in a news release. “That Duke will have another year of Dick’s commitment, vision and energy is our good fortune.”

One of the lasting Brodhead accomplishments may be Duke’s part in revitalizing downtown Durham. Duke played a key role in the American Tobacco complex and the development of DPAC, the Durham Performing Arts Center, said Durham Mayor Bill Bell. More than 2,500 Duke employees work in leased space downtown, and Duke has fostered neighborhood renewal, school programs and health clinics as part of the Duke-Durham Neighborhood partnerships.

The relationship between town and gown has recovered after the lacrosse tension, Bell said. “In terms of the revitalization of downtown, it probably could not have occurred had Duke not stepped up the plate,” Bell said.

During the Brodhead years, Duke launched a large initiative called DukeEngage, a fully funded summer program that has given 3,600 Duke undergraduates the opportunity to do service in the U.S. and in 79 countries. And his first fundraising campaign, early in his tenure, was entirely focused on financial aid for students.

A few years ago, Brodhead was co-chair of a national group created by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to champion the humanities and social sciences in an era where technology seems to get all of the attention. The panel’s 2013 report was downloaded more than another other report from the academy, Brodhead said.

Brodhead, who has an appointment as an English professor, will take a year’s sabbatical before returning to teaching and writing. But he said he’s not sure exactly what’s ahead.

“I’m going to take a little free time and think about what I’d like to do,” he said. “My life has been extraordinarily interesting, but not a lot of freedom attached to it.”

It’s safe to say that his next office won’t be occupied by protesters as his presidential suite was earlier this month, when nine students camped out to protest the university’s treatment of parking employees. It was a tense standoff that shut down the building, but earlier this week, the demonstrators took down their tents. When Brodhead made his announcement Thursday, after the last day of class celebration, the campus was quiet.

Next month, Rubenstein said, Duke will begin a search for its 10th president. “But we will do so fully recognizing that Dick’s vision, work ethic, intellect, and eloquence will be extraordinarily difficult to match,” he said.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill