"I learn by going where I have to go"

Three years after I was made full professor, Benno Schmidt ’63, ’66LLB, asked me to chair the English department. My plan was simple: continue everything I had liked and do everything else the way I wished it had been done all along. A large part of the job involved combing the land for rising talent to hire for our ever-numerous junior faculty. I found an unexpected new outlet for my love of teaching in mentoring junior colleagues, a need I had learned the hard way. Eventually the chair had to acknowledge that the giants who established the department’s preeminence were beginning to retire, so we had to get serious about senior rebuilding—which meant coaxing people whose intellectual disagreements had festered for a decade to see the need to work together. Having lived through three versions of the literary-critical enterprise, each proud of its strengths and blind to its blinders, I wanted to build a pluralistic department, with many approaches represented with bracing excellence, none with a title to hegemony. This was harder than it appeared, but we had significant success, and I view with satisfaction the colleagues promoted and recruited in my time.

But the biggest difference it made to be chair lay in the larger exposures that it gave. As head of a large department, I was asked to serve on the university budget committee in 1988. This was new territory, and a revelation that one can work in a university for decades without understanding the most basic things about how it functions. Not long after, hard times were back, and I and other chairs were named to a committee tasked to recommend a 15 percent reduction in the arts and sciences faculty.

The restructuring committee was education on a whole new scale. Suddenly I was working closely with my parallel numbers, the young leadership generation across the Yale faculty, most of whom I scarcely knew before we joined this project. Educating each other as we went, we had to assess a range of scenarios. The going-in position of the administration favored avoiding uniform cuts by eliminating weak units, sociology and engineering chief among them. It took time to articulate why this suggestion would prove disastrous. (An urban university without sociology? Snuffing out engineering just on the cusp of the technology revolution? Are you serious?) We then had ringside seats as the enraged faculty responded.

In the spring of 1992, the exercise came to a dramatic finish. Frank Turner ’71PhD resigned as provost in March. A month later, Don Kagan resigned as dean of the college. At graduation, Benno Schmidt told the Yale community what he had already shared with the New York Times, that he would leave the presidency more or less at once.

In short order, the whole authority structure of the university had melted away. This was disconcerting, but it created unexpected opportunities. Restructuring committee member Judy Rodin, previously chair of psychology, became the new provost. Chair of economics and committee member Rick Levin ’74PhD replaced Judy as dean of the Graduate School. In December, acting president Howard Lamar ’51PhD invited me to become dean of Yale College. In April Rick Levin was named president. When Judy left to become president at Penn, committee member and chair of anthropology Alison Richard became the new provost.

So here we were, a gang of people near in age who had become friends by coping together with a university in distress, handed Yale University to run as we pleased! I told you I had always known what I wanted to do, but when we reached this point, I blew past the limits of known ambitions. There was much to do in such a demoralized institution. When I went here, Yale College boasted to offer the best education in America. My job was restoring that aspiration, then doing everything we could to deserve that boast. Many precincts I had minimal awareness of—admissions, athletics, student counseling, career services, the Yale Symphony Orchestra, and dozens more: these were my business now, eager to learn the key we were going to play in. This gave me a massive education in the multiple dimensions that enrich each other in liberal arts education. Rick’s generosity allowed me to be the principal spokesman on Yale’s philosophy of education to alumni, students and their families. Speaking to people not enrolled in my classes about subjects other than American literature was new to me and yielded powerful self-discovery: this was a chance to learn what I deeply believed and to tap into powers I did not know I had.

The new administration countered the faculty’s distrust of administration in an ingenious manner. Oversight of searches in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences was moved from the deputy provosts to the deans of Yale College and the Graduate School. This meant that when I held the job, the dean acquired an expansive knowledge of individual faculty and their sense of their discipline’s future. I was not shy about reminding colleagues of the imperatives for scholarly excellence and finding excellent teachers as well as scholars. In exchange, I had the chance to learn about fields beyond English and to make a new universe of friends.

My enthusiasms, I was learning, had inscribed my early life within a rich but limited horizon. My teaching career and my first years as chair brought new roles without fundamentally altering that horizon. It was university administration that blew those limiting bounds wide open and gave me the vast further education I never knew I wanted. Meanwhile, I had stumbled into what proved to be the most absorbing of my scholarly projects: a study of people who have taken themselves or been taken by others to be prophets, privileged bearers of an ignored truth, a group that in America would include the lunatic fringe (Jim Jones, David Koresh, the Unabomber) but also other distinctive types of leaders: Joseph Smith, the prophet of the Latter-day Saints; Nat Turner, leader of the most important slave revolt; John Brown, antislavery terrorist and martyr; Martin Luther King, the man who had been to the mountaintop. I got deeper and deeper into this project until, in the summer of 1999, I was writing on it eight or ten hours a day.

Coming up from this deep rabbit hole to start the new school year, I found that I faced a choice. If I wanted to give this work the time and attention that would be needed to complete it, I would have to take a leave from the deanship and maybe not come back. If I wanted to follow the paths administrative work had opened, I would have to cut back hard on my personal projects.

We only fully know ourselves by watching the choices we make when faced with close calls. After a short while, I decided not to take the leave Rick had approved and soon I was back, more invested than ever as dean of Yale College. Prosperity had returned to the university for the first time since the mid-1960s, so instead of just fixing what was broken, we could do great new things. It was inspiring to have a hand in re-envisioning and rebuilding the residential college system and expanding need-based aid worldwide. Then I was asked to lead a comprehensive review of Yale College education, the first in decades. Like the restructuring committee, this was a chance to educate faculty about the university and its choices and to cultivate potential future leaders, this time with a less dismal occasion.

As the report was being approved by the faculty, something happened. I had been asked to consider major university presidencies as early as my fourth year as dean. The first times I found it fairly easy to say no. I loved the Yale we were helping to build. I didn’t see why I should go somewhere I would see as like Yale but less. And I didn’t have any craving to be a president as such. Anchored in the world of faculty and students, the job I had suited me to perfection. But Duke approached me in the fall of 2003 and after a preliminary interview, I quickly found myself a finalist. The trustee chairing the search then asked: would I take the job if offered? I brooded over a long Thanksgiving weekend, but when the time came to give my answer, I could not bring myself to say yes. The search chair was not delighted, but he agreed that if I had further thoughts, I could phone back in a day or two.

And now I had to choose, once for all, between two mutually exclusive lives. Here was Yale, my home since I was 17, a place perfectly resonant with my values that had given me unimagined opportunities. Everything I loved was here. Why would I leave that? But this time, my decision did not sit right with me. At this late date, how much more was there for me to learn or do at Yale? And there was Duke, superficially similar but actually quite different—a rising university, a university still in the process of making itself, with all the freedom that brought for defining new priorities for a new time. Plus the surprise lesson of my career had been that holding responsibility for shaping institutions and articulating their missions brought me my deepest education and the fullest use of my gifts. How could I pass up what I might learn in a new job at a new place? And lo, it came to pass: having phoned Rick Levin on Monday to tell him I was staying, I had to phone on Wednesday to say that I would be leaving. In a week I was announced as the ninth president of Duke, and in summer 2004, 40 years after arriving, I drove away from here at last.

The Duke chapter of my trajectory is beyond the scope of this talk. Suffice it to say that I got what I bargained for: a new life; an introduction to thousands of new people and situations in and out of the university including around the world; immersion in the issues facing every school across a comprehensive university; a first-hand lesson in the hard new facts universities have had to respond to since 2008—financial challenges, cultural challenges, the challenges social media have created, a newly negative attitude toward education itself; and a chance to help determine how the resources of a great university can be best deployed to uphold traditional functions grown more crucial than ever and to meet new human needs that require new forms of knowledge and students differently trained.

I would not know my life if it had not included my 13 years as president of Duke. Seen from this vantage, my life to age 45 looks strangely self-enclosed, self-impoverished in its inability to guess how much more there was beyond my academic niche. But would I have had the opportunity for this broadening without the tight focus of my earlier years? Realistically, no: my road to institutional leadership lay through my devotion to scholarship and teaching; I would not have got there by any other route. So I close by sharing what I told the Yale chapter of Phi Beta Kappa last spring as lesson of my trajectory. May you find something you love to do; may you then have the chance to do it; and may you then find your way past that to unseen further possibilities and further uses for your gifts.

9 comments

  • Christine Stansell
    Christine Stansell, 11:12am July 12 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I was a grad student (in American Studies) in the late '70s. I was entirely unaware of these big changes. Grad students pretty much have their noses to the ground, aware of university politics insofar as they impinge on their fellowships and teaching possibilities, but that is it. So this was great to read. It is good to learn that a great university was flourishing under the leadership of a person with so much heart and intelligence. I had been an undergrad at Princeton and I eventually went back to Princeton to teach (although I ended up at the U of Chicago). And thus, under Shirley Tilghman, I was there to witness real change at Princeton. And now I see that change was happening at Yale, too. Thank you so much for giving readers this thoughtful piece. I am one of those Ivy students who was lucky enough to find a fine use for my gifts--as a teacher, scholar and a writer. I was also one of the lst women to make it through the Ivies all the way (Princeton BA '71--lst full-fledged class with women--and then a Yale Ph.D.). And I remain grateful and delighted for the changes that gave me these opportunities. Christine Stansell, Yale Ph.D. '78 American Studies.

  • Peter E. Hook
    Peter E. Hook, 8:43pm July 13 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    This was a very interesting essay to read. (But I must say the first half was more engaging than the second.)

    I hope you had a chance to return to your work on Jim Jones, David Koresh, the Unabomber, Joseph Smith, Nat Turner, John Brown, and Martin Luther King,among others. If not study of the career and mentality of #45 can be added to the "lunatic fringe"!

  • Tim Merrill
    Tim Merrill, 6:52pm July 15 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    An interesting trajectory that I enjoyed reading. Thank you, Dick. Even though I was an engineering person, I enjoyed your voyage through through Yale.

    And I remember introducing you to a steel plant, an experience I hope was a part of that journey.

    My trajectory was from steel mills, to energy, to distribution energy to retirement (which is itself a journey).

    Tim Merrill

  • Kimerly Rorschach
    Kimerly Rorschach, 5:12pm July 16 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    As a Yale PhD in art history, who was hired by Dick Brodhead to direct the new Nasher Museum at Duke in 2004, I am enormously grateful to have worked with such an outstanding leader and mentor. Thank you for this inspiring and thoughtful article, Dick, and please give us another about the Duke years!

  • Robert Schonberger
    Robert Schonberger, 9:58pm July 17 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I still remember your greeting to our class when I arrived as a freshman in 1992. You spoke of that moment as one of the truly - and truly rare - fresh starts of our life.
    I heard and remembered but did not understand until many years later.
    Now with my daughter looking where to start her freshman year, I look forward to offering your wisdom to her and hoping she understands better than I.

  • Maryellen Toman Mori
    Maryellen Toman Mori, 10:59pm July 18 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this fascinating account of Professor Brodhead's life and career. He has certainly been on an extremely rewarding journey, full of stellar accomplishments that he has amply shared with everyone who has crossed his path. Years ago I read his book The Good of this Place (I think that is the title) and was much impressed with his commitment to infusing university life with his genuine humanitarian values. (I also appreciate his lucid and graceful writing style.) What I associate most with this outstanding scholar and leader is his witty and elegant oratorical style. I was privileged to be in the audience on several occasions when he addressed Yale undergraduates and their families, and those were always delightful experiences. I remember thinking how fortunate his students must be to take his classes. (If he ever offers a talk accessible to the public on the authors of the American South, please let me know. I'd love to hear him discourse on Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor.)

    May he bask in the pleasures of an active retirement!

  • Robert P. Hendrikson
    Robert P. Hendrikson, 12:06pm July 21 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    As a member of the Yale College Class of 1972, there are many parallels of my Yale experience to those of Professor Brodhead. And I would opine that many YALE students have gone through a similar educational journey. What is most satisfying is that Professor Brodhead decided in the end to accept Presidency at Duke. This position is in my opinion the culmination for any scholar who has made academic pursuits their life goal. He has reached the pinnacle of his career.

  • Robert M. Grenley, M.D.
    Robert M. Grenley, M.D., 1:36am July 25 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I remember the excitement of being taught by Professor Brodhead in freshman English in the Fall of 1972, Chaucer-to-Eliot (though in this class it was Chaucer-to-Stevens), and apparently that was his first year as a member of the teaching faculty at Yale. It was such a great experience that I took a full year course of Shakespeare from him the following year. He was such an enthusiastic teacher. I can still recall working on my paper on the Auroras of Autumn by Stevens, and how I felt when it was well-received by Professor Brodhead…and that was almost 50 years ago. Although I ended up as a Plastic Surgeon, now retired, these were formative experiences and are remembered fondly.

  • Eve Ellis
    Eve Ellis, 1:23pm July 25 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Bravo, Dick Brodhead! Thank you for sharing your inspiring journey with us!
    Enjoy your retirement to the fullest, too.
    My best to you and Cindy,
    Eve

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