Passion Marks Outgoing Duke President's Tenure

President Keohane never expected to go into academic administration, looks forward to resuming her studies

By Hunter Lewis

This article originally appeared in the June 13 Herald-Sun

DURHAM -- They're called "miracle boxes" because they pop into place with ease and can store a row of papers just over a foot long.

Filled with 11 years of archives from departing Duke University President Nan Keohane, the brown cardboard boxes would stack almost to the top of the 210-foot Duke Chapel.

A fitting coincidence as Keohane's tenure nears an end.

Duke surprised more than a few people in 1992 when its presidential search committee tapped Nannerl Overholser Keohane, the president of Wellesley College, a small, women's liberal arts school in Massachusetts a fifth the size of Duke.

Keohane took Duke's helm on July 1, 1993. She was the university's first female president and only the second woman to lead a major U.S. research university.

Keohane laid out her goals her first day in office. She pledged to raise money, solidify Duke's academic caliber, reach out to the community and enhance Duke's international reputation.

Eleven years later, local cartoonist V.C. Rogers summed up Duke's accomplishments under Keohane in a drawing based on French romantic painter Eugene Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People."

Late last month, Keohane took the drawing, a gift from Duke, off her office wall. She placed it on a chair, kneeling her 5-foot-10 frame on the not-quite-Duke-blue carpet for a better look.

In the place of pioneering Lady Liberty carrying the flag of the French Revolution is a smiling Keohane in her academic robe, holding aloft a Duke flag.

Behind Keohane is an army of Dukies, following her past the markers and milestones of her tenure: the $2.36 billion Campaign for Duke, the Robertson Scholars program that enables top students to attend Duke and UNC together, ACC and NCAA basketball championships, 25 new buildings, the Women's Initiative and the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, to name a few.

"To me, as a scholar of French political theory and lover of art, it's such a perfect caricature," Keohane said.

Her green-blue eyes lingered on the drawing before she returned it to the wall above her desk.

Minister's daughter

Born 63 years ago in Blytheville, Ark., to James Overholser and Grace Overholser White, Nannerl Overholser grew up following her Presbyterian minister father and mother across the South. Stops along the way included Texas and South Carolina before returning to Arkansas.

She graduated as valedictorian of Hot Springs High School about five years before Bill Clinton. American history teacher Bill Mears stoked both Clinton's and Overholser's intellectual passions.

It was Mears who encouraged Clinton to go on to Georgetown and Keohane to apply for the Seven College Scholarship that eventually took her to Wellesley, she said.

Keohane said Mears assigned her class of juniors an essay on the topic "Who should have won the American Revolution?"

"Like the typical first child or dutiful daughter, I wrote a very good essay on why the colonies should have won. He gave me an A-minus," she said.

"When I asked why the minus, he said, in effect, 'You should have taken the counterfactual [route], imagined what could have happened and why it didn't.' "

The experience was an eye-opener.

"Take intellectual risks, the road not before taken," Keohane said. "He really helped chart the course of my life in some fundamental ways."

After Wellesley, Keohane went on to St. Anne's College of Oxford University, then to Yale University. Along the way, she picked up honors and degrees in political science, philosophy and economics.

In the late 1960s, she shared a Yale political theory class with David Price, now a U.S. congressman and Duke professor. Price recalled lively discussions on political philosophy with Keohane and others in a professor's New Haven apartment late into the night.

Price didn't expect the "academic star" to go into administration.

Keohane, never a dean, department chair or provost at Stanford, Swarthmore or Wellesley, said she never set out to become an administrator.

"I only decided to talk to the search committee because I cared about Wellesley and thought it could be better focused and truer to its history, in 1980," she said.

Like her father, who earned his doctorate in theology and later taught at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, N.C., Keohane was a voracious reader, consuming Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James and J.R.R. Tolkien during her adolescence.

Philosophy, essays and books on history, current affairs, politics, culture and science came later. But Keohane still re-reads "The Lord of the Rings" regularly.

"And, yes, I loved the movies," she said.

Though progressive in some ways, Overholser was also a man of his time, said Keohane's sister, Geneva Overholser, a Washington D.C.-based journalism professor for the University of Missouri and former ombudsman at The Washington Post.

"I remember dad telling me that a woman's greatest glory is her hair," she said, laughing.

Grace Overholser was charming and more of a risk taker than her husband, Geneva Overholser recalled. After years as a dutiful minister's wife, she became a dean and English professor at St. Andrews before she died in 1972. Grace Overholser was somewhat of a feminist as well, having read Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," Geneva Overholser said.

A catalyst of the women's movement, Friedan's influential book argued that women were victims of a delusional system that urged them to find happiness vicariously through their husbands and children.

Keohane participated in the women's liberation movement as a faculty member at Swarthmore and Stanford and also protested the Vietnam War. As a political scientist, she focused on social justice and equality.

Keohane made her own statement on the quality of life for women at Duke in 2003, when she released the report of The Women's Initiative, a study she called a "labor of love."

The report found that, although women make up most of Duke's students, faculty and employees, they remained on unequal footing with their male peers.

The report also found that undergraduate women felt pressure from their peers and themselves to exhibit a combination of smarts, popularity and beauty that one undergraduate woman labeled "effortless perfection." The catch phrase stuck.

Some committee recommendations have already taken root.

Duke more than doubled its child care to 153 slots, added more lactation rooms for women employees and extended parental leave for some faculty. This fall, 18 female freshmen will be named the first Baldwin Scholars, participating in a four-year program that emphasizes single-sex education within the greater university.

Keohane said she purposely waited until the end of her presidency to carry out The Women's Initiative.

"When I first came as president [from] a woman's college I thought, 'It's not going to be wise for me to make my very first statement one about gender because that's exactly what people would be expecting of me,' " she said.

Campaign for Duke

Keohane's colleagues describe her as dynamic, pragmatic, brilliant and passionate.

"She has a fire in her belly," said her predecessor Keith Brodie, Duke president from 1985 to 1993. "She can get very excited, very heated up about things. She's known to lose her temper and that's good, too. If you care enough about the place and people and what you want to accomplish, that to me, as a psychiatrist, is a good thing."

Others describe Keohane as reserved and patient. But few question her passion for Duke.

Even before Keohane arrived in Durham, development officers had begun to lay the groundwork for a major capital campaign. Keohane already had proven a capable fund-raiser, having raised $168 million during Wellesley's campaign in the 1980s.

The initial goal for the Campaign for Duke was $1.5 billion, the largest sum ever for a Southern research university. Keohane played a major role as the public face of the campaign. She cultivated years-long relationships with potential donors, wearing a path between her office in the Allen Building and Raleigh-Durham International Airport, sometimes twice a week.

Taken together, the telephone calls, letter writing and travel leading up to the final "ask" from major donors took up about a third of her presidency, Keohane said.

The campaign was wildly successful. In eight years, it produced $2.36 billion.

It was the fifth-largest ever in higher education, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. And it touches almost every part of university, from athletic scholarships, endowed professorships and the library to research and the endowment.

Peter Vaughn, director of communications and donor relations at Duke's development office, said a good president converged with good economic times, driving "the perfect storm" for development.

Unlike other presidents, Keohane genuinely enjoyed the work.

She said she took pleasure in matching someone with money to a part of the university in need. She also personally wrote or edited every letter that went out to potential donors under her signature.

"I like making the case for things that I believe in, I like traveling, and I like meeting interesting people in interesting settings," Keohane said. "Fund raising makes all those things possible."

The early years

The final year of Keohane's tenure has been what her husband Bob Keohane, a James B. Duke professor of political science, calls her "victory lap." But the early years were marked by transition and controversy.

In her second year, Keohane and her senior staff decided to move all freshmen to the university's Georgian-style East Campus to give the campus near Ninth Street an identity and help students get to know one another.

The resulting student protests -- "Don't come to Duke! You'll hate it here," they shouted on Visitor's Day -- caught Keohane off guard.

"I felt that we had consulted to the hilt, so to speak," she said. "Yet [students] were in my face about what a horrible idea it was and were trying to persuade prospective students not to come to Duke -- that was the worst part of it in some ways."

But by 1995, the former East Campus freshmen, now sophomores, overwhelmingly praised the change. And the system has since become a recruiting tool and model for Duke's peer institutions.

The campus-shift protests were tame compared to 1998, however.

On Feb. 28, 1998, Duke beat UNC to win the ACC regular season men's basketball championship. Having endured their team's uncharacteristic slump during the mid-1990s, students longed for a big-time celebration. They defied a bonfire ban and burned wooden benches across the campus.

Police in safety gear tried unsuccessfully to stop the students and arrested more than 20 students that night.

Three nights later, the students struck back. They set several benches in different quads on fire as decoys before setting a large bonfire in Clocktower Quadrangle. They chanted "Burn, Nan, Burn," "Go to Hell, Nan" and "F--- you, Nan" as the flames reached three stories high.

Ironically, students and administrators had met with safety officials the day before and repealed the bonfire ban, Keohane said. But the damage was done.

"[The bonfire] was a symbol of the entire conflict between the administration and the students," said Devin Gordon, former editor of the student newspaper The Chronicle and a current writer for Newsweek.

Under Keohane, the "work hard, play hard" ethos at Duke began to crumble as the university and others across the country struggled to curb campus drinking and inject more intellectualism into college life. Gone were the weekly keg parties on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Many undergraduates had chosen Duke over the Ivy League schools because it supposedly offered a better social life, Gordon said. They took the changes personally and directed their ire toward the administration, collectively known as "Nan."

Still, Gordon put the controversy in perspective. Some of Duke's undergrads -- and future donors -- may have left Duke in the late 1990s bitter about the diluted social scene. But the undergraduate realm is only one of dozens of areas of the university and medical center that Duke's president oversees, he said.

"Blindingly bright and articulate, [Keohane] was brought in to raise $7 zillion, to transform Duke into one of the elite universities, and she did," he said.

Having a legacy based on undergraduate concerns is like "the president of the United States having a legacy [based on] policy with Guam."

Keohane assumed responsibility during controversy, and doled out praise during success, others said.

Sue Wasiolek, vice president for student affairs, was one of Keohane's advisers who told her the students couldn't be trusted with bonfires.

"When it backfired, I felt an incredible individual responsibility for the finger-pointing at her," Wasiolek said.

'A truly great university'

The Duke that Keohane hands to incoming President Richard Brodhead on July 1 is richer, larger and wields considerably more international clout than the university she inherited in 1993.

"Duke under her leadership has just skyrocketed every year," said Stan Ikenberry, president emeritus at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana. "She came to a very good university, but has moved it strongly [in] the direction of a truly great university."

Brodie and his predecessor, "Uncle" Terry Sanford, the former U.S. senator, forged Duke's national reputation. Under Keohane, Duke solidified its spot among the elite private universities such as Columbia, Brown and Dartmouth, a notch below deep-pocketed Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

"She really is right there at the top," said Ikenberry, former president of the American Council on Education. "I can't think of anybody I look up to more. She's the ideal role model of what a president could be and should be."

In the past decade, Duke has built relationships with a medical school in Singapore and with business schools across Europe. The university has also strengthened its ties here at home.

Keohane said Duke deliberately set out to partner more with Triangle universities, particularly UNC.

At the height of this collaboration is the Robertson Scholars program, a joint merit scholarship program operated by the two schools. About half of the Robertson Scholars enroll at Duke and the other half at UNC. But all take courses at both schools and will spend a full semester in residence at the other campus.

UNC recently named a $3 million visiting professorship in Keohane's honor. The gift was unveiled at a dinner in Chapel Hill attended by more than 300 UNC and Duke faculty.

"I think most would agree, we've built a stronger relationship between Duke and UNC than ever existed," said UNC Chancellor James Moeser.

In Durham, city officials credit the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership for improving the sometimes testy relationship between town and gown.

In the late-1990s, John Burness, Duke's senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, helped create the partnership of the 12 neighborhoods near Duke. Burness brought in Bill Bell, now Durham's mayor, as a consultant who went out into neighborhoods such as Walltown to gauge what the community needed.

Neighborhood leaders cited improvements in housing, schools and health care. Duke dispatched volunteers, raised money and used its considerable weight to form a wellness center at George Watts Elementary School, create a teen center at the West End Community Center and help purchase and renovate 30 houses in Walltown for low-income families to buy.

"No question, the relationship between Duke and Durham has been strengthened because of the neighborhood partnership," Bell said.

National town-gown experts say the partnership has become a model in higher education.

Still, questions about Duke's financial responsibility seem to percolate every few years.

In the latest go-round, university officials soon will decide how much to contribute to the city beyond the $300,000 Duke pays annually for fire protection.

Keohane acknowledged the tensions about money.

"We certainly understand we have obligations to our city as a major partner, but we want people to understand we fulfill those roles in other ways," she said, ticking off contributions such as the neighborhood partnership and the millions of dollars worth of free medical care Duke gives to Durham County's uninsured residents.

Keohane said donors and parents give money to Duke for projects and tuition, not to support the city.

"We don't just want to be seen as a money bags, as a rich uncle that can solve all of Durham's problems," she continued. "Nonetheless, I'm sure there's more that we could do."

But Keohane said she's not one to look back on past regrets or spend time replaying decisions. Likewise, she politely shrugs off questions about her most gratifying moments.

Keohane said she would find it hard to write her memoirs, "even if I wanted to." She will leave the biography, or at least the archiving of her legacy, to someone else.