Laurie Patton: The Role of the Scholar in Society

New dean wants arts & sciences to take 'leadership, not ownership' of interdisciplinary initiatives

Laurie Patton comes to Duke from Emory as the new dean of arts & sciences. Photo by Les Todd.

It's a small step from studying the role of poets in a
culture to building a stronger relationship between academics and society.  The former has long been at the heart of
Laurie Patton's scholarship on South Asian religion and ritual.  Now, as the new dean of arts and sciences at
Duke, Patton has an opportunity to do something about the latter.

"There's a Talmudic saying that scholars create peace
in the world," said Patton,
who came to Duke from Emory University July 1.

"I'm compelled by that saying and find it to be deeply
true.  I believe scholars need to rethink
their mission and their relationship to society in every generation.  If the Talmudic saying is true, we have to be
asking how each generation can create peace differently."

In discussions with faculty and administrators across the
campus, Patton is already building a foundation to help arts and sciences
engage the world in new ways. 
Many of those discussions are already happening at Duke, she said - one of the reasons why she was attracted to the university.

That energy can be found, for example, in collaborations
between arts and sciences and the professional schools and universities, she
said.  As dean, she hopes arts and
sciences will assume "leadership but not ownership" of
interdisciplinary efforts to solve real-world issues.

"The title of dean of arts and sciences is a
wonderfully integrative title," she said. "The nature of that title
is to rethink what it is to be at the core of the university.  Arts & sciences shouldn't have ownership
of these efforts, but it has an obligation to lead and make connections across
the university that will benefit the university and make the arts & sciences
identity stronger."

Interviewed in her Allen Building office, Patton has filled
her space with reminders of India.  A
small stone fountain provides white noise while around the wall hang photos of
temples and Indian women.  Many of the images
portray aspects of Indian rituals, including one favorite image of a young girl
denied entrance to a community event, a reminder Patton said "of the power
of exclusion" and that universities have, as Duke Vice President for
Institutional Equity Ben Reese told her, "unfinished business in the academy."

Patton didn't initially plan to study South Asian
culture.  As an undergraduate at Harvard
she was fascinated with Celtic culture and mythology.  But she found unexpected connections then to
India and hasn't looked back.

"One way to make sense of Celtic myth was to turn to
India.  There's a linguistic rule that when
you have lots of languages meeting each other you have lots of interchange, but
when you study the outposts, they're going to resemble each other more because
they're not involved in that mixing.  Ireland
and India have many interesting linguistic and mythological similarities.  I studied pilgrimage practices in both
places, and once you spend a year in India, you get hooked."

She is the author or editor of eight books on South Asian
history, culture and religion and has translated the classical Sanskrit text,
Bhagavad Gita
." (Her husband, Shalom Goldman, author and editor of
several books and articles on Christian Hebraism, Jewish-Christian relations
and contemporary Israel, has
also joined the Duke faculty

Also an author of two books of poetry, Patton's scholarship
since her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago has focused on the close ties
between religious
rituals and poets in South Asian society
. She has explored questions such
as how poets develop influence in society, how poetry is used in ritual and how
women can be involved as poets, if at all. One theme that crops up in her
scholarship is her delight in discovering both poetry and mythology in
unexpected places.

Finding unexpected connections also has guided her work with
interfaith organizations and ultimately her interest in larger questions of the
role of the university.

"I've been very interested in the ways in which poets
have voices and ways in which dialogue, poetic and otherwise, helps create
intellectual spaces," Patton said. "For the very same reason, as a
scholar of religion I became involved in interfaith connections as a public
intellectual.  I wanted to find new ways
of thinking about interfaith dialogue and how we might configure new and compelling relationships -- even poettic ones -- between religions.

"All of that public intellectual work also led to an
abiding interest in how we might construct relevant discussions in education,
and how universities and societies relate to each other.  And I suppose once you get interested in the nature
of university conversations, you become interested in intellectual

Patton said that, after seven years as a department chair,
and three years creating a university center for faculty development in the
office of the provost at Emory, she had decided to move on from academic
administration and return full-time to scholarship and teaching. But after others
urged her to look at the Duke position, she saw opportunities here that she
didn't want to pass up.  She said
academic leadership interested her only if she saw the possibility of marrying
a new position to an appealing intellectual agenda.

"Each time I tested the water and looked at other
positions, it seemed like the kind of intellectual thinking and management that
was needed to make that marriage work in academic life was rare, if not

"But Duke changed my mind.  I came here and saw a nimbleness that was
unusual and a match of global education to civic engagement; a linking of in-depth
research to pressing social concerns. 
Nobody is living in an Ivory Tower here."