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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

Nan 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 the nation.

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 campus.

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 Durham campus.

“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 neighborhood churches.

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 community.”

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 $2.23 billion.

Changes throughout higher education across the nation are, of course, felt at Duke. However, there are unique ones that don’t affect other schools.

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 are protected.”

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 fans.”

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 interested.”

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 decisions.

“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 and family.”

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 else.”

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 hard decisions.

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 ever had.”

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 fund-raiser.

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 credit. 

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