Vincent Price has been on the job as Duke University’s president for a little more than a month now. The former University of Pennsylvania Provost has been a leader in digital learning and building interdisciplinary opportunities.
Price sat down with WUNC Managing Editor Dave DeWitt to discuss town-gown relations, making college accessible, and the future of the university. The transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.
Q: I hope this isn’t unfair to ask, as you’ve officially lived here only a month or so, but what are your impressions of Durham? How are you handling the heat?
Price: (Laughs) It has been a little humid, but I love it. This is how a summer is supposed to feel, in my book. Durham is a vibrant community. It’s a wonderful place. I’ve been impressed by the diversity and the vitality of the community. We’ve been downtown. You see people on the streets having dinner. The farmer’s market is wonderful, particularly if you can get there early in the morning (laughs). So just innumerable aspects of the experience so far that have impressed me. It’s a new home for me. It’s not just a move to Duke University; it’s a move to Durham. I have found the community warm, friendly. I’ve loved every minute of it.
Q: Duke has a unique and hugely important role in the community, as the largest single private employer in Durham and the Triangle, in bringing scholars and students from around the world here. It’s also a town-gown relationship that has had its ups and downs over the years, although the relationship seems really good right now. What’s your vision for how the university fits into the community, and vice versa?
Price: Well, I share your view that they seem solid right now and that’s testimony to the great work of President [Richard] Brodhead and his team. During the transition, I had the chance to meet with the mayor and city manager and was delighted to hear their eagerness to see those relationships maintained and deepened and that’s every bit my intention going forward.
There’s a lot Duke University gains from this community. When students and faculty, staff - myself included - come to Duke University, they are coming here because they want to live here. As you just pointed out, there’s a lot of benefit provided to the community by Duke University. The Neighborhood Partnership program that’s been launched is a great example of how we can pursue those partnerships. The Healthy Durham Initiative is another. I want to see those programs deepened and strengthened over time.
Q: Reputations are vital to any university. Was there an aspect of Duke’s reputation that you gleaned from afar - from colleagues or others before you became president here - that you have come to find is not a true representation of the university?
Price: Mainly my transitional experience has confirmed what I have learned about Duke, from a distance. I have admired this institution from afar for many years. It is a scholarly community that is not only one of the strongest in the world – and I’m speaking here of both its student body and its faculty – but a community that has been able to take experimental steps, embrace changes, in ways that other universities are somewhat more reluctant to undertake. It’s a university that does interdisciplinary work very well.
I was impressed by the geography of the campus. The fact that the medical center and the medical school stand cheek-by-jowl with the rest of the campus. That’s part of the success in terms of building personal relationships that help that interdisciplinary project go forward. I would say I’ve been surprised by little, but my appreciation for the quality of the institution from top to bottom has been deepened.
Q: Duke’s endowment is around $7 billion dollars. Annual cost of attendance is around $70,000 dollars. There has been talk in Congress and elsewhere about student accessibility. How do you see using the endowment – if at all – in a way to increase student opportunity here, to increase (the number of) low-income and middle-income students who can attend Duke?
Price: In our fundraising - and this will continue going forward - student support, by way of financial aid, is one of our top priorities. And this will continue. Accessibility to a top-notch education is a value that we should pursue as a nation and it’s something that Duke University is committed to. Endowment resources are the very best resources for supporting students, because they are given in perpetuity for that purpose.
Many people don’t recognize that even the full posted price of tuition at a university like Duke University is heavily subsidized, and then financial aid further subsidizes. Notwithstanding that fact, it is expensive. The proposition is expensive to maintain the kinds of classrooms and laboratories, to build the kind of quality experience that we have. And so that means we have to be very, very vigorous in our pursuit of a resource base that makes that possible. So diversity, accessibility, inclusion, access... these are things that are not one and dones. It’s not as though we dedicate a campaign to that; these are core to the mission of the university and you will see them continuing.
Q: You’ve been involved with (the online learning program) Coursera. Duke has also been involved with Coursera. The University of Pennsylvania and Duke University have opened campuses abroad. Those are two ways both universities have set themselves up for the future. Both of those developments here at Duke came with healthy debate, as I am sure they have elsewhere. You seem to be supportive of those two initiatives. How do you make the case to people who may still be skeptical that those are good ways forward – digital learning and opening campuses abroad?
Price: I approach this from the perspective, number one: anticipating that advances in technology create opportunities for us. The globalization of economies require us to be thinking globally and that pervades all aspects of the university’s activities. So we are more global in terms of what we do with students right here in Durham and we gain from engagement across the world, as necessary. With respect to doubts and concerns that are raised, my view is: I would rather make informed decisions. I would rather make decisions based on experience. And we can debate endlessly about the what-ifs or what might happen.
Without the willingness to experiment, and without the willingness to say ‘Okay, this might or might not work’, but it is in our interests to learn as much as we possibly can, and as scholars, as administrators, and as students, to learn from that experience. That’s my perspective. And one of the attractions of coming to Duke is my clear impression is that this community has demonstrated time and again that that is how it behaves. It engages in healthy debate - it is willing to take some adventurous steps - because it can see the value proposition downstream.