So Much for a Honeymoon

Duke’s president decided to take down Robert E. Lee statue after less than two months on the job.

August 22, 2017
 
Robert E. Lee (center) in Duke Chapel, prior to removal, and President Vincent Price

Vincent E. Price had been the president of Duke University for 49 days when a statue of Robert. E. Lee was taken out of the entrance to the university chapel this weekend.

In those 49 days, he’d gone from being vaguely aware of the statue’s existence to learning that it was vandalized as Confederate monuments across the country came under a wave of new scrutiny in the days following a violent white supremacist rally around a statue of Lee in Charlottesville, Va. He’d reached out to students, faculty members, alumni, Duke senior leaders and trustees. And he’d decided that Duke’s Lee statue needed to be removed.

“It was clear that a lot of attention was being given to the statue and that the issues that had percolated for some number of years here on campus were rising with a new sense of urgency, and certainly with a heightened visibility,” Price said in a telephone interview Monday, two days after the statue was removed.

Not everyone agreed about what should be done with the statue, Price said. But opinions tended to lean in the way of taking it down in light of its history, the challenges of the moment, safety concerns and as a way to express Duke’s institutional values.

Those values, as Price explained in an email that went out to students, faculty, staff and alumni Saturday, are a “commitment to justice, not discrimination; to civil protest, not violence; to authentic dialogue, not rhetoric; and to empathy, not hatred.”

The events of the last week at Duke stand out as a stiff test for a new president at one of the premier private universities not just in the South but in the country. They expose the college presidency’s nature as an executive position that is often less about planned priorities than it is about making difficult decisions under less-than-ideal circumstances and at inopportune times. They also show that presidents seasoned and unseasoned are ultimately defined by the decisions they make.

“I think there are moments that define who we are as a leader,” said Alvin Schexnider, a senior fellow with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and a former chancellor of Winston-Salem State University. “It matters less that you’re in a new position than what you bring to it -- not just in the way of skills and talents and that sort of thing, but what your core values are, what you believe in.”

A New President Faces an Old Statue

Duke has traced the history of the Lee statue back to the late 1920s and early ’30s, when stone carver John Donnelly was trying to decide what figures to carve for the university’s chapel. The building had been designed to echo Europe’s Gothic cathedrals with their entrances flanked by stone carvings of biblical figures and saints. But James B. Duke was a Methodist, so carvings of saints were deemed inappropriate. Eventually, 10 figures from Protestant, Methodist and American Southern history were selected.

They included Lee, who was stationed in stone alongside the country’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, and a Southern poet and musician who died in North Carolina, Sidney Lanier.

A new level of controversy swirled around the Lee statue after white nationalists rallied around a Confederate monument to Lee in Charlottesville earlier this month. On Aug. 14, a crowd toppled a Confederate statue in Durham, N.C., just a few miles from Duke’s campus. Then between Aug. 16 and Aug. 17, someone vandalized the statue of Lee at Duke Chapel.

Price only learned that the statue had raised issues at Duke in the past after the events in Charlottesville, he said. He started a historical review of the circumstances under which it was placed at the chapel and began reaching out to university constituencies. Those activities had already started when the statue was vandalized.

The vandalism gave the issue more urgency. Price decided to take the statue down. It will be preserved so students can study Duke’s past.

The events stoked mixed feelings about a number of issues, even among Duke leaders.

The chapel’s defacing was a disappointment, Duke Chapel Dean Luke Powery told The Herald-Sun of Durham, N.C. Powery called it “unfortunate” that the defacing happened rather than a conversation that could still have led to the statue being removed. But it happened, and now he believes it makes sense to look at other carvings and statues on campus.

“I looked at the empty space, and a couple of things came to mind,” Powery said, according to the newspaper. “I saw it as a hole, or a void. But it is a hole that in many ways represents a hole in the heart of the United States and the ongoing struggles of racism, hatred and bigotry -- all the things we’re seeing in our streets. We haven’t come as far as perhaps we thought we had come as a nation.”

Price also decided to create a commission of faculty, students, staff, alumni trustees and members of the Durham community to look at future steps related to the university's history. It’s tasked with examining how Duke memorializes individuals and recommending principles to guide the university through future questions. In addition, the university plans an exhibition in its library, a campus conversation about injustice in Duke’s history and a forum to explore freedom of speech and academic freedom.

“I have every hope that the statue, far from being the end of things, will be the beginning of things,” Price said. “We have to have a clear and unvarnished understanding of where we’ve been to understand where we are today and, most importantly, where we want to go in the future.”

Considering History, Constituents and the Future

The fact that Price is new to the Duke presidency made the decision harder in some ways and easier in others, he said. It made it more difficult to identify thoughtful advisers, because he didn’t have a long history with anyone. Yet it also gave him cause to find such advisers quickly. He also credited a transition process that had brought him up to speed on Duke even before he took over.

Duke is no stranger to controversies wrapped up in matters of race. Perhaps most infamously, its previous president, Richard H. Brodhead, found himself in the middle of a storm of issues surrounding race, gender and athletics just two years into his tenure when a woman accused three members of the university’s lacrosse team of raping her in 2006.

The woman, who was black, had been hired to perform as a dancer at an off-campus party and alleged she was raped by white lacrosse players. Brodhead canceled Duke’s lacrosse season, and the university suspended two of the accused players who had not yet graduated. But prosecutors eventually dropped charges in the matter, and the university eventually settled a lawsuit filed by the former lacrosse players. Some campus groups pushed Brodhead hard to be tough on alleged wrongdoing by athletes, but many alumni accused him of acting too quickly, especially as the case against the athletes unraveled.

That case was, of course, very different from the one surrounding a statue of a Confederate general. Price did not mention it during his interview Monday. But the two situations show how college and university presidents face a wide, unpredictable range of highly charged issues.

The search that led to Price’s hiring was concerned about issues of race and identity, said Peter Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke who was a member of the search committee that selected Price.

Before starting at Duke, Price had been the provost at the University of Pennsylvania since 2009. At Penn, he was also a professor of communication and political science.

“He had lived it as provost,” Feaver said. “He was very much in the inner circle with the president of Penn. My sense was he was ready on day one.”

In Feaver’s opinion, Price’s handling of the statue issue proves he was ready. Duke might have found itself in a crisis if it were still wrestling with whether to leave the Lee statue standing outside the chapel a month into the semester, Feaver said.

Feaver also pointed out that Price was willing to take advantage of work started by his predecessor. Duke had already begun some processes that were relevant to the statue under its former president, Brodhead. Those included a task force on hate and bias, of which Feaver is a member.

“It’s something for President Price to build on,” Feaver said. “That’s something a less confident leader might have flailed about for a while, and maybe an overconfident leader wouldn’t have taken advantage of the work that’s been done.”

University presidents face an unbelievably complex landscape, according to Dennis Barden, senior partner at the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. Universities’ different constituencies are diverse, and in some cases, a president will leave someone unhappy no matter what they decide.

“I know out there in the body politic there is a tendency to think of colleges and universities as being peopled by only one side of a particular academic debate, but believe me, they’re not,” Barden said. “There are people who are passionate on every side.”

Duke’s Facebook page is a reflection of that. Reactions to the president’s decision included angry posts from those who said they were alumni who would withhold donations and others who said they approved of the move.

Price acknowledged that alumni and donors were among those he reached out to about the issue of the statue. He also said he knows he will not please every constituency with every decision he makes.

Many different campus constituencies will give a new president good and bad advice in a situation like the one Duke faced, said John Lombardi, former president of the University of Florida and the Louisiana State University System, in an email. Yet sometimes presidents face a very limited number of choices.

That’s true even if new presidents have fresh stores of political capital to draw upon with the trustees whose support they need to do their jobs.

“Duke has had conversations about these issues before, so taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee in this moment of time at Duke in the South is clearly not something that provided a wide range of options,” Lombardi said. “A new president will surely have lots of support because he won't have used up any of his credit in previous controversies, and the trustees and faculty, and at least some significant proportion of vocal students, will also give him the benefit of doing the appropriate thing in this context and this time.”

Duke is hardly alone in grappling with issues of race and monuments that harken to the country’s troubled past. Just this weekend, the University of Texas at Austin removed statues of Lee and other Confederate leaders. Bowdoin College relocated a plaque honoring Jefferson Davis and its alumni who had fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy from a wall in its Memorial Hall to a library display case.

To many, the removal of such public displays is an important step. Yet the issues underneath are unlikely to fall with the statues.

“I’ve been around a long time,” said Schexnider, the former Winston-Salem State chancellor. “In my experience, racism, anti-Semitism, any kind of chauvinism, oftentimes are just beneath the surface. We can remove the monuments, but what else lies ahead?”

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