Nannerl Overholser Keohane

views updated

Nannerl Overholser Keohane

Nannerl Overholser Keohane (born 1940), a professor of political science, is the first woman to become the president of both a U.S. women's college, Wellesley, and a major research university, Duke.

Dr. Nannerl Overholser Keohane has broken the glass ceiling in the academic world by becoming the first contemporary woman to become the president of both a women's college, Wellesley, and a major research university, Duke. In 1992, when she was named Duke's eighth president, she became the second woman ever in the United States, after Hannah Gray of the University of Chicago, to take the helm of a prominent research university. She has not, however, rested on her laurels, as she continues to work to improve educational opportunities not only for the students at Duke, but also for women and minorities throughout the country.

Early Influences

Keohane was born in Blytheville, Arkansas, the daughter of James Olverholser, a Presbyterian minister, and Grace Olverholser White, a high school and college English teacher. The family later moved to Texas and then to South Carolina. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with honors in political science from Wellesley College in 1961, where she had been a Durant Scholar. During the two years following her graduation, Keohane was awarded a Marshall scholarship to travel to England and attend St. Anne's College at Oxford University. There she earned a B.A.-M.A. degree with first class honors in philosophy, politics, and economics. Returning to the United States, she completed her Ph.D. at Yale University on a Sterling fellowship in 1967, earning her doctorate in political science.

After completing her education, Keohane was appointed a lecturer and assistant professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania from 1967-73. Between 1970 and 1972 she was also a visiting lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. She left Swarthmore in 1973 to become a professor at Stanford University. During her tenure there, she was chair of the faculty senate and won the Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching. While at Stanford, Keohane served as associate editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, an interdisciplinary journal that publishes articles about feminism and women's studies. In 1970, while at Swarthmore, Keohane married a fellow political science professor, Robert Owen Keohane. The marriage was her second, and the couple went on to have four children. Robert Keohane would eventually become the James B. Duke Professor of political science and professor in the Nicholas School of Environment at Duke University.

Keohane left Stanford University in 1981 to serve both as president of Wellesley College and as a professor of political science, positions she held until 1993 when she assumed her responsibilities as the president of Duke University. In her inaugural address after taking the helm at Duke, Keohane spoke optimistically of the responsibilities of a research university. "It is surely not beyond our powers, " she said "to rebuild an intellectual community where scholars of all ages share in the partnership of learning, and feel a responsibility to one another in doing so."

Accolades along the Way

Keohane has been recognized for her numerous contribution to the educational sphere over her three decades of service. She has received honorary degrees from over ten schools, including Harvard University, Dartmouth College, and Smith College. She has been a fellow for the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and won Yale University's Wilbur Cross Medal. In 1995 she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame, a national membership organization founded in 1969 that honors and celebrates the achievement of American women. The organization cited Keohane's distinction of being the first contemporary woman as president of Wellesley College and Duke University, as well as her contributions to increasing minority student enrollment and improving faculty diversity at Duke as their reasons for honoring her.


Keohane is the author Philosophy and the State in France: The Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Princeton University Press, 1980) and the co-author of Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideology (University of Chicago Press, 1982). Her articles have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Political Theory, Journal of Politics, and College Board Review, as well as in several other books. Several of her speeches were compiled and published in book form as A Community Worthy of the Name (1995).

Promoting Educational Equity

In an article that Keohane wrote for Duke University's Community Service Center Newsletter, she stated that "beyond self-interest, we have the obligation to contribute to the larger community in which we reside." As an educator, she has lived by those words, consistently striving to make the United States a more equitable place for all of its citizens, especially when it comes to educational opportunities. Likewise, as president of Duke University, Keohane has taken a strong stance on improving race relations on the campus. In the spring of 1997, Duke found itself embroiled in racial controversy. First there had been two student publications which had published stories that many people considered racist. And not long after that, Duke police arrested a male African American student who was mistakenly identified as a burglar. In August of 1997, after surveying 56, 000 students, the Princeton Review ranked Duke ninth worst among universities in interaction between students of diverse backgrounds. Keohane immediately sought a remedy to the problem, and in fact, personally apologized to the young man who had been unjustly arrested.

As she addressed the incoming freshmen that fall, Keohane challenged the new students to consider race on a day-to-day basis. "you have chosen a university in the American South, with a legacy of slavery followed by decades of rigid segregation…. So race is relevant here in ways that it may not have seemed relevant in the societies from which some of you have come….And one of the ways it is relevant is in daily interactions and experiences in the lives of everyone of you." She went on to tell her audience that this was good news, "because race is so clearly a powerful factor in this historically Southern region, it is harder to ignore it than it is in some other places. This makes it, paradoxically, perhaps easier to do something significant about making connections among people of different races and ethnic backgrounds."

Columnist William Raspberry applauded Keohane's efforts to address racial issues, but, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, concluded that "it will take a good deal more than freshmen being nice to each other, even trying hard to make friends across racial lines. I think it will take a critical mass of students and faculty who believe inclusive community is worth the effort it takes to create-and who will get busy creating it."

In November 1997, Keohane was one of seven educators to address the seven-member Commission on Race appointed by President Clinton to advise him about racial and ethnic issues. The group of educators, led by Keohane, took exception with the current trends to cut back affirmative action programs. While opposing quotas or set-asides, the group, instead, stressed the need for college admission policies to take ethnicity, race, and gender into account. Said Keohane, "As an educator, I assert unequivocally that diversity is a powerful force for education. We, as educators, are best qualified to select those students-from among many qualified applicants-who will best enable our institutions to fulfill their broad educational purposes."

Keohane has not limited the issue of educational equity to just women and minorities. She also believes that income should not be a hinderance for those students who are ready to apply themselves. "The principle of accessibility to a Duke education is both a moral and prudential commitment, " she told the Faculty Forum at Duke in January of 1997. "If we believe that the best education is one that includes diverse companions to open the mind and enrich the spirit of all students, it is important that we not people Duke University only with the children of the well to do.

Keohane has also been concerned that waning government support for higher education would be harmful to our country. She was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying that, "Scaling back our nation's investment in science and research runs counter to our very purpose of balancing the budget: strengthening the economy and ensuring a prosperous future for our country." Yet, she has remained optimistic about higher education's ability to help all students. Writer Robert Cole, in George magazine, listed her as one of the "20 most fascinating women in politics." He wrote that "With universities now subject to brutal government budget cuts, many believe the American academy's golden era is over. Keohane is one of the few college presidents who refuses to bow to such pessimism."

Service to the Community

Besides working tirelessly for equity in education, Keohane has also served on the board of directors of IBM Corporation and on the boards of trustees of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Center for the Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences, the National Humanities Center, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. She has served on the editorial boards of both Ethics and American Political Science Review, and was a member of the executive editorial committee for Political Theory. A member of the Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities and the American Political Science Association, Keohane also served as vice president of the latter association.

More recently, she has served on the boards of the North Carolina Progress Board and the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina. In November 1997, she was named "City of Medicine Ambassador" by Durham Mayor Sylvia Kerckhoff. The honor is given to distinguished citizens who have made significant contributions in their professional and community endeavors.

Creating diversity among the students and faculty at Duke will continue to be an important endeavor for Keohane, as will her commitment to opening the doors to educational opportunities for all citizens of the United States. Certainly, her role at Duke as well as her longstanding support and work with other organizations will allow her numerous opportunities to continue her mission.

Further Reading

George, September 1996.

Duke University Chronicle, August 30, 1996.

Duke University Community Service Center Newsletter, fall, 1996.

Philadelphia Inquirer, September 12, 1997.

Wall Street Journal, January 20, 1997.

"A Brief Biography of Nannerl Overholser Keohane, " Duke President's Home Page, (July 9, 1997).

Convocation Speech to Incoming Freshmen, August 28, 1997, (March, 1998).

Nando Times Delegation Notes, (March, 1998).

"Nannerl O. Keohane, " National Women's Hall of Fame. (March, 1998).

"Teaching in the Research University, " Duke University Inaugural Address, (October 23, 1993).

"University Research in the News, " Tulane University Research,∼aau/ures1.18-24.97.html (January 18-24, 1997).