Duke president weighs in on athletics, public education and China

By the end of this academic year, Duke University had opened a campus in China, nabbed another men’s basketball national title and forged ahead on fundraising and construction.

It wasn’t all rosy, though, as the university dealt with questions of race, after a student hung a noose on campus, and religion, when it reversed course on a decision to play the Muslim call to prayer from the Duke Chapel bell tower.

On Thursday, in a session with News & Observer reporters and editors, Duke President Richard Brodhead discussed issues dominating higher education – from intercollegiate athletics to sexual assault to college costs. He marveled at the renaissance in downtown Durham, and suggested Duke had a strong role in it. And he explained why he pays attention to North Carolina politics and laments the departure of UNC President Tom Ross.

Here are some excerpts from the conversation:

▪ On college costs, fundraising and facilities: Duke is a year ahead in its quest to raise $3.25 billion by mid-2017, Brodhead said, having raised $2.66 billion at this point. Construction cranes dot the campus. He said the university is having to update facilities – including its library, Duke Chapel and Wallace Wade football stadium – that were built in the 1930s. He defended the spending, adding that Duke puts significant money into financial aid to offset the price tag of Duke, which will reach $62,000 in 2015-16. He said annual price increases have generally been below 4 percent. “The kind of person who wants less from a university isn’t interested in Duke,” he said.

▪ On North Carolina’s politics and policies: Brodhead said his greatest concern has been about the tax side of the equation in the state. He said he has sensed a weakening in the dialogue about public goods – roads and education. “North Carolina used to have a reputation as an education state,” he said. “To see the erosion in K12 education, in early education and in university education, these are very concerning.” He said it’s important to Duke for there to be a strong education system statewide because all the universities collaborate on research and other partnerships. “If North Carolina became known as a non-education state, this is actually going to have impact for Duke. It has to.”

▪ On the forced departure of UNC President Tom Ross: Brodhead pointed out that the job is a political appointment. He didn’t criticize the UNC Board of Governors’ action directly, but said when someone like Ross is removed, the board has set a high bar for what it’s looking for in the next leader. “A state that had someone of Tom Ross’ quality as the head of the state university system was a very lucky state. Tom Ross is a steady, even, fair-minded person, very thoughtful, good listener and a great articulater of the value of education.”

▪ On UNC-Chapel Hill’s academic and athletic scandal: Brodhead said the day he first read of the scandal, he called in all of Duke’s staff with responsibility for athletics. “I said, ‘You tell me why this couldn’t happen here.’” He said he left the meeting “flabbergasted” at the checks and balances Duke had in place. He also said coaches at Duke have not asked for academic shortcuts.

▪ On the “one and done” phenomenon of athletes going pro after one year in college: He said he doesn’t like the system any more than fans do, but pointed out that Duke basketball’s three departing freshmen all finished their first-year coursework this spring despite having earlier announced their intention to enter the NBA draft.

▪ On sexual assault on campus: Brodhead said one assault is too many, but universities are changing and improving the way they handle the issue. Duke, he said, has hired more staff and required more training and education. He said he recently took online training himself, now required of faculty. The challenge, he said, is that the student population changes every year. “The thing is, you’re never going to be done with this.”

▪ On Duke’s new campus in Kunshan, China: The campus got off to a slow start because of bureaucratic approvals in the Chinese government and construction delays. The controversial venture has begun to bear fruit, he said, because Duke has been able to attract top scholars with an interest in China. Brodhead stressed that Duke won’t compromise on freedom of inquiry and expression. “China is a fact of the world. For the next 50 or 60 years, China is going to be more and more a feature of every issue in the world,” he said, noting topics of climate change, aging, security and economic development.

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