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Durkee ’69 to retire after decades of shaping U. policy

Durkee in his office
Durkee in his office

After nearly half a century of serving the Princeton community, Vice President and Secretary of the University Robert K. Durkee ’69 will retire in June 2019.

Durkee has been a member of the campus community since 1965, when he arrived at the University to study public and international affairs. For decades, he has influenced the University’s communications and response to national affairs, and the broader landscape of higher education policy.

As an undergraduate, Durkee wrote for The Daily Princetonian and served as editor-in-chief.

“A lot of my life has been associated with the ‘Prince,’” Durkee said.

As a news writer, Durkee broke the story that the University was going co-ed, reported on the student anti-war movement, and helped keep students and alumni alike up to date on what was going on around campus, a skill he said later served him well when he began working in Nassau Hall.

In addition to serving as editor-in-chief of the ‘Prince,’ Durkee wrote for the on-campus column of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. At a time when U.S. college campuses were at the center of the anti-war movement and undergoing significant cultural shifts, Durkee’s columns helped alumni understand what students were doing and why.

“I think if there was an underlying message it was that Princeton may be going through a time of turmoil, a time of passion, but Princeton is still the same terrific institution it was when you were here,” Durkee explained.

“Students are still serious about their work, they’re serious about making the world a better place. So in a way, you ought to respect what’s going on on campus. These are students who are trying to serve the same value you served during your time at Princeton.”

Durkee said that his experience communicating with alumni through PAW and with students through the ‘Prince’ helped prepare him to make the transition from assistant to the president to vice president for public affairs in 1978, less than a decade after he graduated.

“A lot of what it was was doing what I had done as an undergraduate,” Durkee said.

While working in Nassau Hall, Durkee found himself in the position of trying to explain University decisions and policies to ‘Prince’ reporters trying to get a scoop, just as he had been doing only a few years before.

“One of the editors and reporters I worked with very early in my days in Nassau Hall, and we both have very good memories of those conversations, is Joyce Rechtschaffen, who now is the head of our Washington office,” Durkee said.

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“Joyce and I occasionally will reminisce about how I first knew her when she was a reporter and then an editor. She was a good, hard-working reporter and it was interesting to discover that we’d be working together again in a different way.”

Joyce Rechtschaffen ’75 recalled that she had been excited but also nervous when she found out she’d be working with Durkee, but that working with him had been a positive experience.

“I have worked with Bob Durkee for 12 years and he’s been a guide and a mentor on every issue,” Rechtschaffen said.

“I had been pretty tough as a reporter covering the administration. Watergate had just happened and we all thought we were Watergate reporters back then,” she explained.

“[Durkee’s] one of the most respected people in the higher education community,” she said, “And may I just say there was no one who was a more masterful writer and editor than Bob was. I’ve been so lucky to have him as my mentor.”

Before becoming vice president for public affairs, Durkee spent a year in Washington, D.C., working at the Association of American Universities, an organization that was becoming a major advocacy group for higher education. During this year, Durkee gained firsthand experience of the inner workings on Capitol Hill and forged important relationships that would help him advocate for higher education throughout his career.

“There were a lot of questions in those days about what the government should be doing about financial aid,” said Durkee, “And I was on the front lines.”

Durkee wrote handbooks and brochures for Congress explaining how endowments work and their role in financial aid in an effort to convince representatives against taxing them. He was disappointed about the recent tax imposed on endowments, but he noted that “this battle” had been going on since his earliest days in Nassau Hall.

One of the proudest moments of Durkee’s career came early in his time as vice president for public affairs, when he met with Sen. Claiborne Pell ’40 at the opening of the James Madison Library in Washington, D.C., to speak about the lack of support for graduate students in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Durkee initially suggested funding a survey to assess the need for this kind of funding, but Sen. Pell wanted to do even more.

“He said, ‘You know, could someone draft me a piece of legislation that I could introduce?’ And that’s what I did. I drafted the piece of legislation that became the Javits Fellowship Program, which supported graduate students in the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences,” Durkee said.

“The basic story is that I was sitting in my in my office upstairs on a manual typewriter, drafting this legislation, which ended up getting approved almost as we drafted it. So this was an early opportunity to work on an important topic,” Durkee recalled.

For Durkee, the creation of the Javits Fellowship Program also shows how much has changed in Washington since he started working for the University.

“It was inspired by Sen. Pell, who was a Democrat, and it was really his idea to name it for Sen. Javits, who was a Republican,” he explained. “It reveals how different the times were, that there was this potential for bipartisan collaboration.”

Durkee also spent a great deal of time in Washington, D.C., arguing for immigration rights and trying to explain the importance of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

“Financial aid, research support, tax policy, immigration issues. That was my agenda in 1978, it’s been my agenda all the way through my public affairs role, and it’s still my agenda now,” Durkee said.

Over 20 years later, the University was deciding how to respond to 9/11 in addition to creating the Memorial Garden to honor the 14 alumni who lost their lives and providing students with counseling. The Board of Trustees allocated $1 million and Durkee was asked to take on responsibility to find out how best to spend it.

Half of the $1 million was allocated to Arts Alive, which sent student volunteers to middle schools and high schools that had been disproportionately affected by 9/11 to help them work through their trauma using the arts and eventually take students to see a show on Broadway.

Another quarter of a million dollars was donated to John Jay College in New York City, which prepares students for police, fire, and first responder jobs, and had lost more than 60 alumni in the attack. The money was used to fund a scholarship in memory of these alumni, and it lasted for over a decade.

“They were so appreciative that someone had recognized their loss, and that they had this opportunity to help their students. It was a wonderful opportunity, and it didn’t fit within my narrow job description, but I greatly appreciated the chance to think about how we as an institution might respond and to be able to do some things that were really meaningful,” Durkee reflected.

Durkee has also worked on other challenging issues during his time at the University, including arranging childcare for faculty and graduate students, the University’s relationship with the eating clubs and, most recently, the question of the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879.

“These weren’t always assignments that fit narrowly within the duties of my office, but they gave me opportunities to do interesting things,” he explained.

Mr. Durkee will be succeeded by Hilary A. Parker ’01, who is currently serving as the assistant to the vice president and chief of staff in the Office of the President. 

In an email, Parker expressed gratitude for Durkee’s contributions to the University.

“For 50 years, Princeton has benefited from Bob’s leadership, institutional knowledge, extraordinary writing talent, and commitment to this University’s mission,” Parker wrote. “I’ve been fortunate to work with Bob on a wide range of matters throughout my career at the University, and I look forward to continuing to work with him throughout this academic year as we prepare for the transition ahead.”

Durkee, who expressed his full confidence in Parker, isn’t going far after he retires in June.

“It’s a little early to know exactly what I will do,” Durkee said. “I have nine months to think about it, and right now, there’s still a lot to be done in this office.”

“I’m not moving,” he said. “You know, I might even audit a course.”