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Jack Bovender, Trinity ’67 and Graduate School ’69, is the new chair of the Board of Trustees, replacing David Rubenstein, Trinity ‘70, who served for as chair since 2013. Bovender served as chair of the presidential search committee and a former member of Duke Divinity School Board of Visitors. He was also previously the chairman and chief executive officer of Hospital Corporation of America, a health care facility operator, from 2002 to 2009. The Chronicle sat down with Bovender to discuss his goals for the position and the changing landscape of Duke. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Chronicle: What are you most looking forward to in your new role as chair of the Board of Trustees?
Jack Bovender: I’ve been involved in a lot of different things at Duke before I came on the Board. And so I think this is just a kind of continuation of a journey i started a long time ago.
Different committees I was involved with, different situations along the way, and then the big one was being asked to chair the search committee for a new president, which consumed the latter part of my summer and all Fall, as you can imagine if you’ve reviewed how intense that search was. So, I look at this as a natural continuation of what I’ve been doing, but I’m following what I think has been a superb chairman in David Rubenstein—a very thoughtful and engaging person.
As in any transition like this, it’s a new challenge, and there’s no one that you can turn to and say “ok, it’s your responsibility,” because it’s now your responsibility.
It’s a different situation because you’ve got a new president coming in at the same time as a new chairman, and so I think we’ll be a very engaged team together. [President Vincent Price] did so well during the interview process, and I think he’s gonna be a great president. He’s very dedicated to students and students’ life experience, and it will be very visible around campus. So, I think it’s just a matter of getting his feet on the ground. I’ve got a little advantage over him because I’ve been here a long time, and so I think it’ll be a lot of fun.
TC: What are the biggest areas of focus for the Board of Trustees this year?
JB: We need to make some big investments in science and STEM. We believe and we know that the health system, as far as that basic science side, has a lot to contribute. So you match that up with engineering, particularly with biomedical engineering and engineering in general, as well as what Valerie Ashby is doing in [Trinity College of Arts and Sciences] on that and other parts of the university, to come up with a coherent plan of where we need to make investments.
That undoubtedly means that we’re going to need to do in the very near future another campaign—not another $3.4 or $3.8 billion campaign—but a significant campaign, and find people who are interested in making investments in STEM. We’ve made huge bets in the humanities in the last 20 years. You can tell that. We need to do the same thing in the sciences, particularly in the basic sciences: physics and chemistry, and others.
The second thing is student housing. Where we are is improving them and we’re starting new. I hope we get a new name for The Hollows. We’ve got to get out of Central Campus. As you well know, we need to move out of there somehow. So, improving that student housing is an important, important thing. Making the commitments to make the time that students are here as pleasant and intellectually stimulating as possible.
TC: What does it take to become a member of the Board?
JB: What does it take? It’s, for the most part, a demonstration over some years that you have really shown your continuing interest in Duke. You don’t go out and just pick graduates at random. You ask, ‘have they been involved?’ Let’s say it’s 20 years out. What have they done relative to their resources? Are they contributing to Duke financially? Are they contributing to the general fund? We don’t make decisions based upon financial capabilities. We make decisions based upon involvement essentially. And so I think that’s that’s what it really takes, to care enough about Duke that you come down here and put in some time in a board of visitors, or the Annual Fund, the Alumni Association, or whatever your particular interest is.
You look at skill set, you look at talents, you look at commitment to the university and you look at collegiality. Can they work together in teams like in committees, and can they work together as a board? We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve got some really dedicated people that put Duke on the first rung of what’s important to them in their lives.
TC: You’ve been extremely involved since graduating from Duke. What keeps you returning? Not everybody does.
JB: I owe a large degree of what I am to Duke. I get to attribute a lot to my early upbringing—what my parents taught me and and how they how they raised me. But, Duke was a milestone for me and how I started to look at the world. It certainly prepared me—particularly at the graduate level but also at the undergraduate level—for the successful career I had, and the opportunities that I had relative to that.
But, it also prepared me to see life in a much bigger context than just going to work and making money and so forth. It widened my horizons. Duke made me take courses I didn’t see the benefit in because I was kind of career directed. So, I had to take courses in the humanities and the arts that I didn’t quite appreciate at the time. But later in life, I came back to it and saw it in a different way. So if you go to the museum, you go to Florence and so forth, all of a sudden the richness of your life that started at Duke, when you really didn’t appreciate it so much became greater. That’s why I say Duke was life changing for me.
So the way you show your appreciation for that, is you commit yourself to be willing since it’s important in your life. Duke is important in your life, to give back time to maybe pay back what you’ve gotten from Duke… And then the great compliment and honor of being asked to come on to the Board of Trustees. I’ve told everybody, along the way, that it’s obvious that when Duke picks trustees, they don’t go back and look at your grade point average. So that’s been very enriching, and gave given me the opportunity to give more back.
Duke means a lot to me, it’s not just basketball and football and so forth. It is the university itself and what it stands for and what it is—but also to give money back. I’ve been very blessed along the way financially and to give some of that back is very important. And I think it’s very important for alums even when they’re young alums at least to start along that path to try to do that.
TC: You’re from King, N.C. That’s quite a journey from King, N.C. to Duke. What was that transition like?
JB: I came to Duke and it didn’t take me more than a week or two to figure out that I was no longer the smartest person in the room. This was the early 60s—I came from a small rural high school, segregated, as they all were at that time. I had never met a Jewish person in my life, never met a Roman Catholic in my life. It was just this little rural tobacco-growing area, and so Duke taught me to live in a diverse community. My freshman class had the first five African Americans in it that were ever undergraduates at Duke. It was just a different world—all these guys with Northern accents, calling people like me that talked like me “grits.” So it was a wonderful experience.
TC: What are your thoughts on the increasing cost of attending the University?
JB: Well, the increasing cost is problematic. It obviously is. I think it’s more problematic for schools that are not at the same level as the top 10 school—private research universities—that you see in U.S. News and World Report for different reasons.
First of all, they have the resources. Even though the cost of tuition is going up, they have resources to provide financial aid, so that this doesn’t end up being a rich person’s school, which sometimes it’s been accused of being, along with a lot of others in that top 10.
I came here on financial aid, and David Rubinstein came here on financial aid, too. It’s by no means that kind of school, because we do say that if you get accepted here, we’ll put a package together that will get you through school…
But it is an issue because first of all, there’s a lot of pressure on a lot of institutions, particularly smaller liberal arts schools. Some of the better ones in the country are having financial difficulties, and the tuition keeps rising. Part of it is that you’ve got highly educated faculty that need to be paid appropriately for what they’re doing, and the cost of other things—compliance to federal rules and regulation, just the cost of providing the basic parts of what you need to have as far as materials. It’s a more costly process than it was…
I think what we’ve got to strive to do is to make sure that the resources of the university are being used in the most careful way possible—that we’re saving money where it can be saved. I call it, ‘saving money in the back office,’ so that you can provide what you need at the highest level when it comes to teaching and research. But at the same time, making sure that we don’t dilute what we’re doing here.
TC: How is Duke’s endowment, the fund to support various programs and opportunities on campus?
JB: The returns were not very good last year, but they were not good for anybody. I think DUMAC is one of the absolute best at managing university endowments in the country. We’ve had a very good first five months of the year. And you know, you had this so-called ‘Trump rally’ that started after the election where that’s going to go [I don’t know], but the stock market has gone wild. The expected returns that DUMAC told us about toward the end of last year have turned out to be very much more conservative than where we are now. So the returns have been good, which speaks well for some of the things that we’re going to need to do.
The question is can we hold it or has this been a bubble. And a lot of that is going to be what happens in Washington: do you actually get the tax changes that have been talked about?
I tend to be more on the optimistic side and I think we’re obviously going to do better than we thought we were back in the winter when we were looking at the the performance of the long term portfolio.
TC: How would you like to get the student perspective?
JB: Well, I’m hoping I’ll get the opportunity—and of course that’s up to students to a large degree—to meet with student groups along the way. I totally understand the difference between being chairman of the Board of Trustees, which is a governance issue, versus the position [Price is] in, which is the day-to-day leadership of the university. But I think it’s important for trustees, and not just me, to meet students, get their perspective. Some of it can be done in social occasions.
But, in some cases, I think it’s good to put me or other trustees to be in front of student groups who can ask the questions they’re most concerned about, and give feedback about the kinds of things that most concern them. This is a very dynamic and changing environment, not just in education, but God knows in the country and in the world, so there are a lot of issues that affect, either directly or indirectly, students. Not only their experience of what they’re going through now, but what they’re going to be doing and what they need to be prepared for.