Brodhead looks back on time as president with new book 'Speaking of Duke'
Tuesday, February 14
The book, a collection of speeches from Brodhead's time as president
, will be released in April.
With his time as president of the University winding down, Richard Brodhead has compiled some of his past speeches at Duke ceremonies, community forums and faculty meetings into a book called "Speaking of Duke." The Chronicle's Claire Ballentine sat down with Brodhead to discuss the inspiration behind the book and his favorite speeches throughout the years.
The Chronicle: Why did you decide now to write this book?
Richard Brodhead: The idea was actually brought up to me whether at the end of my presidency, Duke and I might wish there to be a book of major writings and speeches during my presidency. And of course, you do it at the end because that’s when you have the chance to look back. I did a book at the end of my deanship at Yale called “The Good of This Place.” That’s sort of the corresponding version, but since the president’s job is way bigger, this has more scope than that.
TC: Is it typical of presidents to write books like this at the end of their tenures?
RB: I would say some do and many don't. As I look at this book, the book is mostly major talks, so something that's very striking to me is that I can remember what faces were in the room when I gave each of these talks.... These talks are all kinds of things—the day of the noose [incident], that talk is in there. Talks to the Academic Council about Duke’s emerging international vision. So it just covers lots and lots of subjects. I work very hard at these things, so it's kind of fun for me to look back at them.
TC: How did you choose which ones to include?
RB: How many talks do you think I’ve given while I’ve been president? Probably 1,000. Many of those are done without any text. I don't like to speak from text, I like to think out what I'm going to say and then speak as if to the people in the room. These are ones where there is a text or where a speech could be turned into a text. But you want ones that show some range of issues and some evolutions over time.
TC: How do you typically go about preparing for a speech you're going to give?
RB: It really all depends. The ones that I've always really agonized over have been the ones for the arrival of the freshman class because I figure this could either be a meaningless moment or a meaningful moment. If you have the chance to speak to everyone all at one time in such a solemn place, you really have a chance to make people think what's at stake the day you start upon your new life as a college student. So it's ludicrous how much time I’ve spent on those through the years. Plus they can never be quite the same. The graduation ones too.
TC: How do you make sure each are different each year?
RB: Well, you have to make them different, if only because someday someone might make a book! But there are points you want to make that are so important that you can't skip the point just because you made the point last year. For me, the challenge has always been to find totally new ways to makes points that have enduring qualities. So this year, I was in England for the Brexit vote and all the stuff about immigration, so that's when I got the idea to do the talk about citizenship and what that word means and what it means to think of yourself as a citizen of Duke. That was very interesting for me to try to spell that out. The whole point of these talks are, I don't think of them as saying things I already understand, I think of them as struggling to put something that's important to the University such that it might get some purchase on the minds of the people listening.
TC: Are there any particular speeches that stand out to you as your favorites?
RB: I think that you could say you're going to find my favorites in this book. You're not going to publish 13 baccalaureate speeches or 13 convocation speeches. I wanted something from every year I was in office. But the book isn't a thousand page chronicle either. So there was the need to blend some selectivity with some representativeness. It tries to touch everything that was a big issue while I was president and that's not just Duke issues but national issues and issues of higher education.
TC: As you were going back through your older speeches, could you tell how your ideas and writing had evolved?
RB: To some extent, I could. The very first one in the book is a little talk I gave the day I was unveiled as the new president at Duke. And looking at it, I totally love that talk. But in general, I like the later ones better than the older ones, I don't know why. Maybe because they're fresher to me or closer to the present.
TC: Who do you think the primary audience of the book will be?
RB: I hope it's read by people outside of Duke, but I hope it's read by people in the Duke community too. When I step down as president, 40,000 of the people with Duke degrees will have gotten Duke degrees while I was president, so in a way this is a kind of an oral history of their time.
It's amazing to think about.