Passion for Teaching
Nan Keohane may be the best
president Duke has ever had
because her first and strongest love was for the classroom
By Phil Kirk
Keohane, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, spent her formative
years in Texas, South Carolina, and Arkansas. It was during that time
that the energetic president of Duke University decided to become an
educator. “I really never considered anything else,” she says.
From her father, the Rev. James Arthur Overholser, she inherited a
love for travel and a sense of humor. And from her mother, Grace
McSpadden Overholser, she learned the importance of social justice and
equality, along with the social graces necessary for a minister’s
wife to help her husband.
Leading to her successful career in higher education was her love of
studying, reading and traveling. “I’ve always found the academic
community congenial and exhilarating,” Keohane says. “There is no
other field I’d rather be in.”
After graduating from Wellsley College in 1961 and in later teaching
stints at Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania, she
found herself “a very happy faculty member” at Stanford University
where she was a tenured political science professor. Her leadership
position as the chair of the faculty Senate provided her with the
opportunity to meet the movers and shakers in higher education across
However, it was the lure of her alma mater that persuaded her to leave
the classroom; she became president of Wellsley in 1981. A dozen years
later, on July 1, 1993, she became Duke’s eighth president.
Teaching will always be her love. In fact, as president she often
taught a class at Wellsley and did the same on a limited basis during
her early years at Duke. “I really do miss the classroom,” she
says. Still, she finds ways to interact with the students, whether it
is at athletic events, in the dining hall, or simply walking around
What makes a good teacher at the college level? “A good teacher must
have a real enduring passion for the subject,” she says. “It helps
for one to be persuasive and it spurs you to continue research in your
subject area. Good teachers must show a respect for each student and
they must challenge them, praising them when appropriate and expecting
more from them when their work has fallen short of their capabilities.
“Finally, a teacher must be a good communicator, must find ways to
make their subjects come alive, and make students feel like they have
to pay attention all the time.”
The changing role of the CEO of an institution of higher education has
caused Keohane to stay on the road, courting alumni support for the
“Certainly the proportion of time given to fund raising has
increased in the past 20 years,” she says. “The pressures of the
budget, the need to keep tuition as low as possible, along with the
need to improve facilities and keep faculty salaries competitive,
makes fund raising a key part of the job.”
Fund raising is one of Keohane’s lasting legacies at Duke. Announced
publicly in October 1998, the Campaign for Duke raised $680 million
during its quiet phase. The initial goal of $1.5 billion has been
raised to $2 billion. Progress to date is reported at $1,536,599,164.
Priorities include endowment and operating funds for essential Duke
needs: financial aid for students, faculty, programs, research, campus
environment, and unrestricted purposes.
A little known fact about the student body at Duke is that 40 percent
of Duke’s students receive financial assistance. This assistance is
necessary to strengthen Keohane’s commitment to campus diversity.
Minority enrollment has increased slightly since she came to Duke.
Another major part of the Keohane legacy is the increased, focused
involvement of Duke faculty, staff and students in improving the
Durham community, especially in improving public schools.
“With strong support from John Burness, senior vice president of
public and government relations, we have made this aspect a focus
since coming here,” Keohane says. “The health of Durham and the
region is important to Duke’s success.”
Duke has concentrated its efforts in the 12 neighborhoods surrounding
its campus, including seven of Durham’s 43 public schools. This is
perhaps where the Duke presence has been felt most strongly. Tutoring
and mentoring, by faculty and students, after-school work,
partnerships with cultural activities and schools’ use of the superb
Duke medical facilities are areas where the Duke influence has been
felt. And the effort isn’t limited to public schools — Duke also
is active in housing, health and small business issues as well as in
Dr. Ann Denlinger, superintendent of Durham Public Schools, calls
Keohane, “one of Durham Public Schools’ very best friends. Dr.
Keohane is a living example of the positive difference an inspired
leader can make, not just for an institution, but also for the greater
The chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, Mary Ann E.
Black, agrees. “Nan is an astute and dynamic leader with an
extremely keen mind, who possesses the dedication and vision to serve
not only the Duke University community, but the broader Durham
community as well,” she says.
In fact, a recent economic impact report, released by the university,
indicates Duke’s yearly economic impact in Durham is an estimated
Changes throughout higher education across the nation are, of course,
felt at Duke. However, there are unique ones that don’t affect other
Keohane spends a lot of time dealing with health care issues. “This
is a tough time for academic health centers,” she says. “Managed
care, more litigation, the way we handle special research, all make
this a real challenge. And, of course, we have to worry about the
bottom line and we must be sure that people involved in our research
Increased government regulation is another change she has seen during
her eight years at Duke. “While most of the regulations have a good
intent, they are taking more and more time and money.” She
specifically mentions financial aid, facilities for the handicapped
and legal responsibilities.
Another change is the “exploding role of information technology,”
she says. “It’s changed the way in which we manage ourselves and
in the education we provide. This is particularly important in
creating opportunities and challenges in the next five years.”
College athletics and the growing professionalism of campus sports
will continue to occupy some of this passionate fan’s time. “We
are fortunate to have outstanding coaches at Duke, and we are
determined to maintain the proper balance here,” she says. “There
is a lot of pressure from society in regard to sports.
“Athletics is a crucial part of what makes Duke special. All over
the world alumni speak to me about where they were when Duke’s
basketball team has won a national championship. There is an enormous
and effective bond among faculty, staff, students, players and
Keohane’s management style was essentially developed through
on-the-job training. “As a faculty member, I had not been
managed,” she says. “Having a strong team in place is important. I
hire people who are smart, ambitious and trustworthy. Then I give them
the leeway to do their jobs so I can concentrate on the big things.”
On the other hand, she admits to being curious. “Universities are
complex, and I like to see what motivates people — whether it’s
the food workers, the grounds people, or the people who work in the
library,” she says. “I ask a lot of questions because I’m
Early in her tenure at Duke a few critics felt she was aloof from
faculty and students, but that criticism has evaporated. She is
visible on campus, greeting students, faculty and staff when she and
her husband attend athletic events. She answers her own e-mail, often
sending responses before 6 a.m.
She voices a strong commitment to gender equity, diversity, being fair
to people and helping make the community a better place. “On the one
hand, I have a deep respect for institutions, but on the other hand, I
want a lot of things to be better.”
The status quo is not in Keohane’s vocabulary. She admits to liking
to rock the boat. “I’m a traditionalist as well as a
revolutionary,” she’s been quoted as saying. But, “if Duke had
not changed, we’d still be in a one-room classroom in Randolph
County. We need leaders to take risks, to be bold and to make tough
“I’m very much an institutionalist. Institutions make people happy
and help them learn to live together. If we didn’t have
institutions, we would be much less successful.”
Her legion of supporters agree that Keohane is a strong leader. Robert
Ingram, COO and president of pharmaceutical operations for
GlaxoSmithKline, says, “Her keen intellect, coupled with tireless
energy and her high integrity, are traits that not only serve Duke
well but also our entire community.”
Congressman David Price, a fellow graduate in political philosophy at
Yale in the 1960s, says, “Her leadership, in areas ranging from
academics to campus life to Duke’s role in Durham, from building
Duke’s financial strength to championing higher education issues
nationally, has been superb.”
UNC President Molly Broad lauds Keohane’s influence. “Nan has been
a strong and effective advocate for higher education in North
Carolina,” Broad says. “Over the course of her tenure, she has
helped foster greater cooperation and collaboration between Duke
University and multiple UNC campuses. That same collaborative spirit
extended to the statewide campaign for the higher education
improvement bonds — which drew President Keohane’s early public
endorsement — and it characterizes our common efforts to inform the
N.C. congressional delegation and to help shape federal policy
impacting North Carolina’s institutions of higher education.”
Keohane’s dedication to helping students learn the skills to be
successful in life also brings concerns about the challenges facing
young people. Underage drinking is an example. “Many of our students
come to us having already experienced drinking,” she says. “They
often start in middle and high school. It is a real challenge to pay
attention to the health of the students and their past experiences and
to enforce the law. It is important to note that there are many
students who do not drink at all and many who do too much drinking.
There is that healthy middle ground of moderation. All this makes our
jobs almost impossible.”
Keohane also sees a role for education in teaching students how to be
good citizens. Emphasizing Duke’s strong tradition of community
involvement, she sees a great commitment to helping people — usually
in a one-on-one situation, such as tutoring and mentoring, serving
food to the homeless and visiting senior citizens. “They like to see
the results of their volunteering,” she says.
She does not see the same level of interest or commitment on the part
of students to becoming involved in government and politics, which is
particularly troubling to a former political science student. Duke is
trying to address this challenge in a number of ways, including the
requirement of studying ethics at Duke.
While Keohane loves her job at Duke, she treasures her growing family.
Husband Robert O. Keohane, a James B. Duke Professor of Political
Science and professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment at
Duke, is a distinguished educator in his own right. He taught at
Harvard a few years while Nan was at Wellsley. Nor did he come to
Durham immediately upon his wife’s selection as president. He worked
at the National Humanities Center in the Research Triangle Park before
coming to Duke. A couple of years ago he served as president of the
prestigious American Political Science Association and he’s now the
chairman of the Triangle Land Conservancy.
The Keohanes, both in their second marriages, have four children.
Daughter Sarah is married to Mark Williamson. She is an investment
professional, he is a venture capitalist, and they live in San
Francisco with their three children.
Son Jonathan is nearby at the North Carolina School of Science and
Math, where he is an award-winning teacher. His wife, Laura, is a
Durham attorney, and they also have three children.
Stephan Henry and his wife, Danita, live in Portland, Ore., where he
is an actor and teacher and she is in the computer business.
The youngest son, Nathaniel, has a degree in political economy from
Harvard and is teaching in the Yale School of Management. He is
married to Georgia Levenson McKimsey.
“We are very proud of all our children,” she beams.
Keohane also has a brother and sister. Her brother, Arthur Overholser,
is associate dean of the school of engineering at Vanderbilt
University. Her sister, Geneva Overholser, is a member of the
Washington Post Writers Group and a distinguished columnist. She’s a
former editor of the Des Moines Register.
The demands on Keohane’s time require organization, scheduling and
combining business trips with some leisure activities. “Bob and I
love traveling and the outdoors … cycling, jogging, swimming and
hiking,” she says. “We also enjoy the theatre, art, museums, music
and the Durham Bulls.” Another love — reading — is reserved for
airplanes and summertime.
One of her few disappointments in life is “the sacrifice of not
having much time to spend with friends — my time revolves around job
Keohane, who turns 61 this month, has not announced a date for her
retirement from Duke nor for the next step in her distinguished
career. But one thing is certain. “My next job will be in teaching
or research,” she says. “I don’t want to ‘run’ anything
For the time being, Keohane is clearly in charge at Duke. She is a
strong executive, willing to listen but also willing then to make the
Longtime Duke trustee and supporter John A. Forlines Jr., the chairman
of the Bank of Granite and an NCCBI executive committee member, is
staunch in his praise for Keohane. “I have known every Duke
University president since Dr. William P. Few,” he says. “All have
had strengths and weaknesses. All have had a great love for Duke
University. Overall, in my opinion, Nan is the best president we have
Duke has clearly prospered under Keohane’s strong direction and the
success is not limited to the basketball court and to her prowess as a
Keohane is not finished. There are more dollars to raise, more
athletic titles to win, and more students to educate. Still, it is
agreed that Duke is back in the top tier of colleges and universities
in the world, and that Nan Keohane deserves the lion’s share of the
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