Robert K. Durkee ’69 is retiring June 30 after a record 47 years in Nassau Hall, including four decades as the University’s chief spokesman and overseer of alumni relations. Joining the administration in April 1972 as assistant to the president, Durkee has served as vice president for public affairs and — since 2004 — as vice president and secretary. He begins a new project July 1: updating A Princeton Companion, the venerable guide to University life and lore. PAW talked with Durkee in early May.
What’s it been like to speak for Princeton for so many years?
For 40 years I had the vice president for public affairs role, and even before that, when I was in the president’s office, a lot of what I was doing was that same kind of representing the University or interpreting the University to multiple audiences. An important audience is on campus — it really matters that those who are closest to the University have a clear understanding of what it is aiming to do.
Secondly, it’s been absolutely critical to communicate with alumni. In the early years of the Bowen administration, there was a lot of curiosity and concern on the part of alumni about what was happening on campus, and it was my responsibility not only to figure out how to communicate about what was happening, but to help others communicate about what was happening. As vice president for public affairs I was overseeing the alumni office, which I don’t think any of my counterparts at other universities were doing — yet here, communication with alumni was such an important part of the role.
How did you handle especially difficult issues?
You’re always trying to get ahead of the story so that you can shape as much of the narrative as possible. And then you just have to be persistent. There are lots of issues that last a day or two, a week or two, but some have gone on for a very long time — the moving of the Dinky is one example. It’s important to listen to what the objections are so that you can try to help people see that maybe the objections aren’t well placed. We want to make sure people understand what our motives are, what we’re trying to accomplish. They may at the end of the day not agree, but at least they’ll appreciate that you’ve been as candid with them as you can.
What are common misconceptions about the University?
There is still a perception of Princeton that doesn’t appreciate how diverse the campus is and the student body is on multiple levels, and the affordability of Princeton is still not appreciated as widely as we would like it to be. There are still people who perceive Princeton as essentially male, who perceive it as almost entirely white and wealthy — and we have a very different student body than that.
I think there are still parts of the population who think of Princeton essentially as an undergraduate college and fail to appreciate just how strong a research university it is. We’ve tried to increase recognition of the role of graduate alumni, and to encourage the engagement of graduate alumni in the life of the University.
How have you dealt with student journalists?
In a way it’s the same answer — treat them seriously and with respect. If you invest the time and work with them, you will end up in a better place than if you try to either ignore the question or circumvent the issue.
How have students changed during your years here?
Princeton students have always been very smart; that doesn’t change. Most of them have a real determination to make a difference in the world, and I think that hasn’t changed.
One thing that is different is the amount of time that students now spend talking to their parents. Now, I come from a time when, unless you forgot, once a week you might check in with your parents. This is a generation — because of cellphones and social media — that remains very connected to their families when they come to the campus.
Has the level of student activism changed?
This is another example of perception and reality not exactly aligning. I think Princeton students have been activists. Done in the right way, it’s an important part of the college experience. You see that now with students all the time who are creating nonprofit organizations and NGOs of various kinds. They’re engaging in their communities. They’re engaging in social entrepreneurship. They want to see if they can really effect change and not just talk about it, and I think that’s a very Princeton way to do it.
How have alumni relations changed?
The biggest change is the affinity conferences. They have been very effective in bringing back to Princeton alumni who may not have had the best of experiences, who left Princeton feeling somewhat alienated or at least not ready to be engaged. Whether it’s black alumni, Asian American alumni, Latino alumni, LGBT alumni, graduate alumni, women, Jewish alumni — these have been really moving experiences to see people come back who hadn’t felt fully validated when they were here as students, and now they had a chance to come back and share their experiences with others.
Nobody does Reunions like Princeton. Almost nobody does Reunions where every class comes back every year. I know we have major-reunion classes, but every class comes back every year, and they come back while the seniors are still here. So seniors get to see this, and the alumni get to meet with the seniors. Nobody tries to do it that way. Reunions are a unique experience and have evolved over time, to the point where there’s more educational content. They’re more family-friendly. The fireworks have been a wonderful addition. So Reunions are really quite remarkable.
On the other hand, Reunions tend to bring people back who spend time with their classes. The affinity conferences don’t bring people back by class numeral, and so you come back and you interact with a whole different set of people across the full sweep of Princeton generations.
What are some of the special projects you’ve taken on?
One of the great joys for me has been the variety of things I’ve gotten to do that didn’t narrowly fall under my job descriptions. One example is our response after 9/11. What was Princeton going to do in response to the attacks of 9/11? I was asked to think about that, and we created a program called “Arts Alive” that was designed to engage our students with middle- and high school-age students in communities that had been particularly affected by 9/11 – to spend time with those students and then go to some kind of cultural event with them, mostly Broadway plays, but also museums and concerts. It was seen as a way to both engage those students in something that would be very meaningful for them in the aftermath of a traumatic experience, and also to put some more people back into the theaters and cultural institutions of New York at a time when people were understandably hesitant about doing that. We also created a very interesting program at John Jay College in New York. You know, Princeton lost 14 alumni on 9/11. John Jay lost a number in the 60s, because a lot of their alumni were first responders. And so we created a special scholarship program for undergraduates that allowed some of their very best students to engage in the kind of research that normally a student at that school would not be able to do.
What’s been your involvement with the Fair Labor Association?
I’ve been involved now for 20 years on the board of the Fair Labor Association; I represent Princeton on the board. This is an anti-sweatshop initiative that grew out of student activism on this campus and others in the late ’90s. Students were very legitimately concerned about the working conditions and the treatment of workers in places that were producing material with Princeton’s name on it. They were asking, “Is there something we at Princeton can do to make sure that those materials are being manufactured in places that are adhering to appropriate standards?” I was asked to try to figure out what we can do about that. We ended up playing a major role in bringing colleges and universities into this fledgling organization.
Any other examples?
The other thing I would point to, and this was in Shirley Tilghman’s administration, is that I was asked to take on a number of task forces: one on health and well-being, one on the eating clubs, and one on social and residential life. Those were really interesting, and I think important, assignments. The health and well-being task force made a number of recommendations that were carried out and are still being carried out. The same thing with the eating-club task force, and with social and residential life. The social and residential life task force opened the door to the decision a year or two later to restrict engagement with fraternities and sororities in the freshman year.
What moments stand out for you?
The night we got final approval to go ahead with the [Lewis] arts complex would be one of many moments. But I remember in my earliest years here a conversation with Bill Bowen. We had been trying to get something accomplished, and we hadn’t succeeded. I went in feeling bad about this, and Bill said to me, “Did you do the best you could?” And I said, “Yes, I did.” “And did you do everything you could think of to do?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “In that case, put it behind you, let bygones be bygones, and turn to the next issue.” I remember that because what I have tried to do over the years is meet that standard.
Interview conducted and condensed by W.R.O.
This is an expanded version of a story from the June 5, 2019, issue.