✔✔✔ FC here. Every three months, the administration puts someone on stage in Reynolds Theatre to answer "questions" from employees. On Wednesday, President Richard Brodhead -- wearing a red tie -- got his turn again.
Duke's official press release says 50 people attended; that counts fellow administrators who flocked out of their Allen Building perches. Mr. Brodhead noted there are more than 37,000 Duke employees.
Assistant vice president Paul Grantham asked the "questions" that consumed the first 15 minutes of the hour-long program. With issues like the faculty revolt over Kunshan looming large, these are the queries to and answers from Mr. Brodhead:
1) What was your first job? Answer, his parents believed he should have to earn his own spending money, so at age 11 he cut lawns for neighbors. Later he went to work in a grocery store for $1.25 an hour. And one summer, he worked in the manholes of Bridgewater, Connecticut in a water department gig. (FC is on good behavior and will not make a wisecrack on that.)
2) What was your worst job? Answer, his college roommate was from Hawaii and one summer he went there. The only job he could get was in a clothing store that sold garish shirts, typical Hawaiian.
3) What is the best advice someone has given you? We will omit Mr Brodhead's attempt at humor and cut to the real meat: on the first day he was going to teach at Yale, a distinguished professor used the lecture hall immediately before him and as Brodhead entered, the professor tugged at his sleeve and said Dick, Dick, Dick, don't be afraid to say something profound.
Finally the vapid conversation turned to inane, soft-ball questions about Duke itself. In the entire hour, only three employees asked questions, the rest coming from the moderator or an assistant off stage said to be monitoring e-mail from people watching on the internet.
✔ Of particular interest to the audience -- which sat stone silent and never applauded Brodhead until the end -- was an assurance that Duke's employees will see "merit based compensation increases (as) we have done in the past." This puts down talk that the raises effective July 1 will be accompanied by a new system to award them.
Next were soft-balls that let the President wander in thoughtful response:
-- explaining that the building of West Campus involved a railroad line to the stone quarry in Hillsborough, with locomotives right down the middle of the main quad
-- milking the $80 million dollar, multi-year transfer of funds from The Duke Endowment to renovate Page, Baldwin and the Union
-- responding to a request that he explain the good that will come out of the new Comprehensive Cancer Care center at Duke Hospital.
The moderator then returned to the initial theme. Mr. President, what do you really appreciate most about Duke!!! Answer: "How about the fact that I did not have to shovel my driveway a thousand times this winter," as he might have if he had remained at Yale.
Knowing when there is opportunity, Brodhead shot back at the moderator, "what was your first job, Paul?"
✔✔ Brodhead revealed he will take a long, wandering summer-time trip on his university credit card: London, Shanghai, Kunshan, Singapore, Tanzania, Uganda, the latter two locations to visit outposts of Duke Health.
✔✔ Brodhead defended the Kunshan Initiative, but said nothing new even when the most pointed question of the afternoon focused on whether the China campus was robbing money from the Durham campus. "We're not going to go willy nilly to spend the resources of the university on international ventures. This project was studied (emphasis on that word) very very carefully.... Significant care (was made) to minimize our financial exposure in this venture."
"We have taken significant care that we are still able to meet all of our fundamental obligations in Durham before we go spending money elsewhere." Brodhead then mentioned one -- sustaining the level of financial aid for need-blind admissions. He did not mention scalping the budget for Arts and Sciences.
The president said the question of short-changing Durham to build Kunshan "makes it act as if that everything we did abroad subtracts from what we do where, and that it is a zero sum game." He said that was not true.
✔ Brodhead painted a bleak picture for financial support for the humanities. "I'm glad you asked that question," said the president, as he basked in being co-chair of a professional interest group's new commission on the future of the humanities. Still, as the question was being asked, Brodhead showed how impatient he can become, nodding and saying "sure" three times to push the speaker on, changing expressions in his face, tapping the fingers of his right hand on his knee, and then saying "yep" twice more to speed up the question.
And in a hint of significant cutbacks to come, he said the federal government had sustained spending on scientific research as part of a two-year stimulus package. Duke enjoyed the fourth highest dollar amount of any university. With the clock running out on those grants, Brodhead said no one anticipated the political climate, which at best will keep funding at previous levels and more likely result in cutbacks.
Overall on federal research -- much of it directed at medicine -- Duke is within the top ten.
✔ Asked about Dr. Anil Potti, the President ducked, not talking about the cancer quack or his patients, but about "structural issues" involving the use of bio statistics and clinical trials in the emerging world of genome study. "It is my hope that at the end of this episode, Duke will be known as the place that tried to step right up to the problem and figure out the large scale things that we could address that could then be the model for everyone because every school is going to have this problem in the age of research. (pause.) Or at least I should say.. Every school will be liable to have such a problem."
Mr. Brodhead did not mesh how we stepped right up to the problem with actions of two vice deans -- when Potti was under internal investigation -- toin conceal key evidence that had arrived from the renowned M D Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. Nor did he say how letting Potti remain as a paid employee even after it was confirmed that he faked a Rhodes Scholarship was stepping right up to the problem. Much less saying how Potti got hired, unvetted.
Back to stuff that matters. Hardball:
"The single thing I am happiest about about the time I've been president is that we did not dig a big hole in the middle of Central Campus and then have to put up a sign saying 'we'll come back later, God willing.'" He was talking of course about the shelving of "elegant" planning for a massive construction project because of the financial meltdown.
One employee asked about time off to volunteer in Durham. Nice try buddy. And then Brodhead tackled questions of whether he tweets (no) or is on Facebook (no).
The performance drew a light round of applause for Brodhead. And then he plucked the winning ticket out of a bowl for lunch with him. He recognized the winner, did not identify the person and said they had already had lunch in Italy, but would dine soon on West Campus again.
All this takes place on a Hollywood-like set that is quite tacky. Two chairs plopped awkwardly on a cheap oriental rug. A coffee table that was too low was covered in a light blue tablecloth (it's dark blue, you clowns) but at least there were glasses of water, not the usual environmentally ignorant bottles.
✔ Time well spent by Fact Checker!