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Aiming for 'Higher Ground'

Former Duke President Nannerl O. Keohane looks back at the challenges of leadership in her new book Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University.
University Business, Jul 2006

By Jean Marie Angelo

Nannerl O. Keohane is the rare leader who has had the opportunity to head up not one, but two, prestigious higher ed institutions. Just two years ago she stepped down as the president of Duke University, Durham, N.C., a position she held for 11 years. Prior to coming to Duke, she was president of Wellesley College, the elite women's IHE in Massachusetts. She also has taught at Stanford University, Swarthmore College, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Since leaving Duke, she has become the Laurance S. Rockefeller Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, where she says she is "completely enjoying being a faculty member."

In her new book, Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University, Keohane gives her views about education's future in a series of essays and speeches given throughout her presidency at Duke.

Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University

Duke University Press (, 296 pp., $24.95

University Business: The president's job is a tough one. What are some of the pressures?

Keohane: A lot of it has to do with the multiple constituencies because there are so many different groups and individuals who feel, with some justification, that they have a deep stake in the university: students, faculty, alumni, trustees, parents, townspeople, and staff. They all need to be given due attention because their perspectives are important. But they often come in with different views on thorny issues and the president is, in the end, the one who has to bring those views into some focus and also do what he or she thinks is right.

It is a multifaceted job.

University Business: You've led two institutions during the past two decades (Duke from 1993 to 2004 and Wellesley from 1981 to 1993), do you think the president's job is harder today than it was 10 or 15 years ago?

Keohane: No. But I think the job was even harder in the 1960s and 1970s. It has been hard across the years at different times for different reasons--when the culture changes or when there are financial pressures, or growth opportunities, or constraints. I don't think it is harder now. It changes with the years, as the culture, institution, and behaviors change.

In the 1960s societal rules changed for women so that members of my sister's class at Wellesley were supposed to sign out every time they left. They had to be in by 10:00 p.m. They had to wear white gloves. By the time they left, all the rules were down. There could be men's and women's rooms; there were no sign-in requirements.

I think if I were president of Wellesley then and parents had sent their precious daughters to me expecting one set of rules and all of a sudden they changed dramatically because society was changing, that would be a really difficult situation. These changes were happening at the same time as the Civil Rights movement. All of these things had campuses just boiling over. It would have been a very difficult time to be a president.

Many presidents failed at that point because they just couldn't cope with the novelty of the environment and the seriousness of it. I think that would have been, in some ways, the hardest time. I would certainly think harder than right now.

But I think there have been periods across history that have been punctuation points, these times make leadership more difficult.

University Business: In your chapter 'More power to the president,' you explore the inherent tensions between boards and presidents and you conclude that the answer isn't necessarily that more power should go to the board or the president.

Keohane: I've had more time to think about the subject since writing that essay. The question of power depends on the institution. Some institutions would benefit from having clearer power in the office of the president and there are some that would benefit from having a broader perspective on the board. And there are others where the board is doing too much. Where the board is trying to run the place.

So I think one point I would make about that is that maybe I was generalizing too much. It may depend more on the specific institution's history, its tradition, its situation.

Quite a few people these days deplore the idea that university presidents have become a bunch of wimps, concerned only with raising money and keeping the peace-pale shadows of the giants who walked the earth ages past, whom an entire society revered as moral arbiters. I have no desire to be a wimp, but also no illusions about becoming widely recognized as a moral arbiter. That simply is not the way things work in our society. - Higher Ground

University Business: Please be more specific. Which types of institutions would benefit from giving the president more power?

Keohane: I am thinking of decentralized institutions--and I've been part of several of those--where there is a great deal of expectation that the work will primarily be done in the different parts of the institution and the president's job is to keep all these areas on track. It is the flotilla idea.

I think this idea is basically healthy in what you might call normal times, but if an institution faces really critical challenges it may be important for the president to pull the troops together and say, 'Look, I am not trying to trample on anyone's prerogatives, but we are all going to have to face this together.' In the end, the president is the one who has to make the decision.

I am thinking, it is really more dependent on the situation than I had recognized.

University Business: It seems that these days the presidents who do step out and make a decision--who are decisive-are still greeted with criticism and speculation. Strong personalities are not well received.

Keohane: It depends on what you mean by strong personalities. There are a lot of people who are strong in a good way, who don't attract negative attention. There are others who are very visible and publicly, sort of, out there all the time who do draw negative attention. But I don't necessarily think of this behavior as the definition of strength.

University Business: I am thinking of someone like Larry Summers at Harvard. He is one that some felt was put in a difficult position, he made comments about women then claimed he was misquoted.

Keohane: As a member of the Harvard Corporation I really don't think I can comment on Summers. I know there are a lot of ways of looking at that situation and I don't think I can start to shed more light on that at this point.

University Business: Then you also can't talk about the speculation that you might be the next president of Harvard?

Keohane: Oh, that's easy. I am not at all in any way a candidate for the job. I am deeply engaged in the search. I think it is a deeply important search. I am pleased to be a member of the corporation. I think that is where I can serve Harvard best. I am not at all interested in another presidency. I really want to get my work done here.

University Business: One of your major accomplishments at Duke was establishing the Women's Initiative and its related report about women on campus, issued in 2003.

Keohane: This looked at pressures on all women on campus. I am glad to talk about the study because I think it was an important one. I had felt from the time I arrived at Duke--coming from Wellesley--that issues around women, especially at a co-educational research university, was something I wanted to understand fully, but there were a lot of other priorities on my desk when I arrived. It wasn't very suitible to turn to this as the focus because as a woman president I needed to establish that I was concerned about the whole university.

However, it slipped away for longer than I would have wished. When we finally got back to it, I found it was deeply rewarding and one of the most important things that we did.

It was very much a collective effort. We looked at the whole range of women's experience at Duke--everybody from trustee emeriti to the youngest freshmen. This included graduate students, post-docs, and every level in every school. It was fascinating to have each of those groups spend time in focus groups and surveys talking about their lives.

The common things that emerged for students, faculty, and staff were concerns about juggling career and family, and support for childcare and other needs.

In general, the conjunction of the tenure clock and the biological clock is particularly difficult for female scholars. In some ways they are lengthening the time available before coming up for tenure, or making sure that they have better support for family and flex time and childcare. For staff, the concern was very much for flex time and childcare. These are the pressures of anyone responsible for taking care of other human beings, whether that is children, spouses, or elderfolk.

We became much more conscious of these issues even though everyone knows that women do more of this. These were very important commitments for women. They were a source of joy for them--but also a major obstacle for doing some of the things they wanted to do professionally. So, we wrestled a lot with that.

The report received the most media attention for the reporting on the pressures on young women students. Most publicity focused on their description of "effortless perfection," and what they were expected to do.

University Business: That phrase "effortless perfection" became very popular when the study was released. Indeed, major news organizations reported on it. Can you define this a little more precisely?

Keohane: I think I can expand on this, but I don't think this is only going on at Duke. "Effortless perfection" is the idea that women are supposed to be beautiful and sexy and accomplished and not to show any strain or that they are spending any time on any of this.

It is almost an impossible standard. The women students surveyed talked rather wistfully of the times when they could just be themselves--like during a geology field trip, or the Outward Bound trip before freshman year started, or building Habitat for Humanity houses--when they didn't have to worry about putting on their eye makeup or about what they looked like.

It was very much a peer pressure issue, which relatively few in the administration had even been aware of. We certainly weren't imposing this on them. The students were imposing this on themselves.

University Business: How did Duke address this?

Keohane: We came up with a program called the Baldwin Scholars Program, which chooses a number of women freshmen students in the second semester of their freshman year to be part of a program particularly designed to give them leadership opportunities, to provide support for each other. Many of the students live together in a dorm. This program was one of the things that we saw as addressing this even though it only directly touches a relatively small number of students, maybe 48 per year. The programming and the mood we have helped establish counters this "effortless perfection" creed. We will see.

The ideal of 'effortless perfection' described eloquently by many Duke female undergraduates in our initiative creates a suffocating climate, a climate that too often stifles the kind of vigorous exploration of selfhood and development. - Higher Ground

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