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Honor, Thank You, Unease: An Address From the Academic Council Chair

Honor, Thank You, Unease: An Address From the Academic Council Chair

Friday, May 10, 2019

By Don Taylor

Editor's Note:
Don Taylor, a professor of the Sanford School of Public Policy, is chair of the Academic Council. He delivered this address at the final council meeting of the year on Thursday. On July 1, Taylor will become director of the Social Science Research Institute.


It has been an honor to serve as Chair of the Academic Council the past two years. And a joy to be a part of the community that is the Executive Committee (ECAC). Sharing the experience of eight individual faculty members from disparate parts of the university being formed into a team that tries to take a “big Duke” look at the university has been a pleasure. The job of chair is time consuming and at times exhausting, but I will miss the rhythm of knowing I would be with the members of ECAC each Wednesday.

Early on as chair, you realize the concept of “speaking for the faculty” is impossible. As I often say, if you have 10 faculty members, they have 17 points of view on any given issue. But, what an honor to try and represent the heart of the university—teaching and research from the faculty perspective. And for how much we have talked about bad behavior by faculty members since I have been chair, my enduring image is of a committed faculty pursuing their intellectual passions. It has been an honor.


The Chair of the Academic Council gets too much credit for success. Sandra Walton, coordinator of the Academic Council, is the single best Duke employee with whom I have ever worked—she does her job better than anyone that I know. Her care for the institutions of Duke, and for the Executive Committee and the Academic Council is acute and it shows.

Thank you to the ECAC members with whom I have had the pleasure of serving. Ellen Davis, Claudia Gunsch, Lisa Keister, Mark Anthony Neal, Victoria Szabo, Erika Weinthal, and Larry Zelenak this year. Last year’s ECAC members Gráinne Fitzsimons, Mari Shinohara, Andrew Janiak and Kirsten Corazzini. I am not leaving Duke so will see all these people but I also know that it will never be exactly the same as it was on ECAC.


I think the most important task of leadership is to correctly define reality. I would be dishonest with you if I did not share with this council that for all the great things at Duke, I have a sense of unease about our shared future. I believe that Duke is stalled and drifting.

I want to be clear that Vince Price did not bring this from Philly. The seeds of where we are today have been germinating for each of the 22 years that I have been a faculty member at Duke.

Duke weathered the financial crisis of 2008-09 as well as we possibly could have from a purely financial perspective. However, Duke as an intellectual community has not adapted to the changed financial realities of the past decade, that I would summarize as lower rates of return from our investments due to global economic conditions, coupled with large increases in commitments to Duke’s undergraduate need based financial aid program.

For the 20 years prior to the financial crisis, DUMAC had spectacular returns. They always said those returns could not be depended upon, but Duke came to expect them, and when DUMAC’s warning came to pass in the decade since the financial crisis, there was less money for everything.

At the same time, the cost of need based financial aid was increasing as we moved to match our peers in meeting all demonstrated need. This has resulted in a far more economically diverse student body, and we are rightly proud of opening Duke to all talented students. But, you cannot spend the same dollar twice. We will need to work even harder to keep our commitments while maintaining our ability to dream and invest in new ideas that will create the stories that will be told about Duke in the future.

Duke is one of only six universities to have been ranked in the top 10 for each of the past 30 odd years that U.S. News has been doing its rankings. And while there are known flaws in such efforts, the other 5 universities are the ones we lay claim to as peers. However, our status even in the top 10 is tenuous. The last 5 years, Duke has been ranked 9th four times and 10th once in the U.S. News rankings. The size of our endowment is often used by members of our community as a self-evidently obvious reason that we can easily invest in a given priority. However, our nearly $9 billion dollar endowment is just the 14th largest among US universities and is one third the size of the third ranked endowment (Stanford).

Based on resources alone, it is more likely for Duke to settle out at 14 in the rankings than it is for us to rise again and stay at four. Make no mistake, almost any university in the world would love to have our financial resources, but we covet the spending rate of universities with far larger endowments, and we have long over-performed what finances alone would predict. I believe that we can continue to do so, but it will require some changes in our community.

We do not need a more clever strategic plan, nor do we only need more money, though we do need more money given the reality of the modern research university. We do need to take a deep breath and look inward. My diagnosis of our elemental problem is that Duke writ large has a culture that is too opaque and needs to become more transparent at just about every level. And we have to stop believing our own press. Pride keeps us from plainly seeing reality.

I am going to become the director of the Social Science Research Institute on July 1, 2019, and trust me that if you encounter me in that role I will be telling you about all the great things that we can do together. And I will mean it!

The outrageous ambition that President Terry Sanford declared in the 1970s is a crucial part of Duke’s culture, but we need to have a clear-eyed understanding of where we stand, and we have to stop relying on the truth that no University has risen as far and as fast as Duke. That story is true. But it is now old news. We have to write a new story.

Vince Price, Sally Kornbluth, Gene Washington, the deans and chairs are our primary leaders, and we need them all to succeed. The faculty are crucial in this shared success, and we are going to have to work together to chart Duke’s course to a future that I am confident will see continued excellence and innovation. Who are we? What do we want to do together? We need to take some time to reflect, talk, answer and act.

I love Duke and stand ready to join you all on the journey.

Best wishes and Godspeed.


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