Terry Sanford, former governor, U.S. senator and president of Duke University, was an FDR Democrat and a party power. But when Republican former President Richard Nixon was looking for a home for his library in 1981, Sanford, then president of Duke, saw an opportunity to make the university better.
Nixon was a 1937 graduate of Duke Law School who resigned the presidency in 1974 after the Watergate scandal. Sanford thought a Nixon library, which would have included all of Nixon’s papers as U.S. senator, vice president and president, would have been a treasure.
But some Duke faculty members bitterly opposed a Nixon library, fearing it would include a museum that would gloss over the truth. The Duke Academic Council voted not to proceed with the proposal—a short-sighted move that shows how smart people can exercise poor judgment.
There are echoes of the old Nixon library debate with the recent revelation that about 125 Duke grad students have signed a petition urging the dean of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy “against any formal affiliation” between the Sanford School and former Gov. Pat McCrory. The students wrote that “McCrory repeatedly eroded North Carolina’s democratic institutions” by dismantling voting rights, supporting HB2 (the so-called Bathroom Bill) and making false claims about voter fraud.
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The students, who are from a variety of academic programs, wrote that “McCrory continually demonstrated a strong antipathy toward evidence, contempt for dissenting opinions, and indifference toward marginalized populations.”
I believe Sanford, who died in 1998, would have welcomed having McCrory, a Republican, at Duke. Sanford loved politics and was a tough, shrewd pol. But he didn’t take politics personally and even his political opponents liked him. Sanford knew when to give partisan politics a rest, an increasingly rare trait among today’s hyper-partisan politicians.
Sanford was proud of having served as governor — more proud of being elected one of 50 governors than being one of 100 U.S. senators. Being governor was a more exclusive club, he once said, and being a former N.C. governor was an even more exclusive club. Sanford felt a kinship with former N.C. governors and would have welcomed McCrory to the club.
Sanford thought he could convert his political opponents, at least in some ways. After he won a bitter Democratic primary for governor in 1960 against a strong segregationist, Sanford immediately reached out to his opponent’s campaign manager, Robert Morgan, who later because a U.S. senator and embraced the causes of African-Americans.
Sanford’s wife and campaign staff were stunned that Sanford so quickly embraced Morgan. Sanford’s old friend Dickson Phillips of Chapel Hill wasn’t surprised.
“He was skeptical of ideological feelings so strong that they made you lose your sense of proportion,” Phillips, a former judge, once said. “He would never get his emotions caught up. There was an element of shrewdness but I think it went deeper than that.” Sanford would have believed that he and Duke could have influenced McCrory for the better.
McCrory was a successful, seven-term Republican mayor (in a Democratic city) with expertise on transportation issues. He led the effort to build the state’s first light-rail project and pushed for coordinated planning along the rail and other transportation corridors. As governor, he implemented a data-driven approach to transportation funding that helped remove politics from decision making.
No doubt he made mistakes as governor; his success as a teacher would hinge on his willingness to discuss what he learned from his successes and failures.
Sanford was president of Duke from 1969 to ‘85. As governor and president of Duke, he was an unusually creative leader. He would have thought about how McCrory could be an asset to Duke in the classroom. If he could pair McCrory with a Democratic strategist — such as Mac McCorkle, director of the master’s in public policy program at the Sanford School — he’d have the foundation of a lively, valuable and memorable class.
Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School, told me he met with McCrory at Duke on March 1. “We’re not making any offer to him to have a teaching role at the school now but I’ve made it clear to our faculty that he’s interested in engaging with us,” Brownell said.
He said there were numerous factors that went into making such a decision, including finances, the school’s teaching needs and the experiences of the potential teacher. He said the graduate students “were one influence among many.”
Duke has brought Republicans and Democrats together to work on key issues facing the state. Brownell said he could envision McCrory participating in forums and discussions, and that he was committed to having a range of viewpoints at the Sanford School.
Sanford would agree with that — and he would have thought McCrory could help.