Professor Bruce Payne was the founding director of the Hart Leadership Program. A few years ago we asked him to write a narrative about HLP’s formation, and we affectionately call the story “Bruce’s Early History.”

“In the fall of 1985, Mitch Hart came into my office after a number of conversations with Terry Sanford and Joel Fleishman. Mitch, a notable corporate executive and a longtime leader of the Young Presidents’ Organization (probably the best corporate leadership organization then in existence), had an idea for a national leadership program for students and had offered support for basing it at Duke…

Mitch admired Terry, both as a visionary university president at Duke and in his earlier career as a courageous southern progressive Democratic governor – the only one in the South during the early sixties who stood up to the Klan and who had defended the civil rights of African-Americans. Mitch and his family had determined that Duke would be a good place to send his kids, and in the process of learning about Duke, Mitch had become a good friend of Joel Fleishman.

Terry and Joel had for almost fifteen years been focused on strengthening undergraduate programs at Duke and on raising Duke’s national visibility. The Institute of Policy Sciences and Public Affairs, [which became] the Sanford Institute, was distinguished among the emerging public policy programs in the country by having a solid and well-planned undergraduate major; and Sanford was known for supporting good teaching and innovative programs for undergraduates. In addition to heading the public policy program, Joel was serving as the university’s principal long term planner.

Both were necessarily and profoundly concerned with bringing strong supporters to Duke. Although the university’s position had been strengthened during Sanford’s tenure, there was no hope of finding adequate money for Duke’s future plans among the alumni or from the great foundations. Money needed to come from corporate leaders and philanthropists, not great foundations, and the money needed to come from corporate leaders and philanthropists not already attached to Duke.

Nevertheless, Joel and Terry turned down the plan for Leadership America based at Duke. The decision to turn down the national leadership program was consistent with their belief that Duke students should be the prime focus of every new initiative. Independent research institutes in many scientific and other fields were being accepted at many major universities in those years, but at Duke the critical question was always whether proposed programs had direct connections with what Duke students would be learning. A national program involving students from fifty or more campuses every summer might be a good idea, but in their view, not for us. So they asked Mitch to think instead about helping them make leadership central to the curriculum at Duke. (Mitch pursued his national idea in Dallas, funding and supporting a Leadership America [program] for five years, fostering some excellent leadership development, but never fully realizing his dream.)

Birth

I had been in occasional conversations with Mitch about leadership and politics since the spring of 1984—we shared an interest in presidential politics and we enjoyed arguing about a range of domestic and international activities. But it was only in the early fall of 1985 that it became clear to me that Mitch had decided to support an undergraduate leadership program at Duke, and only that summer did I learn by the grapevine that he was eager for me to be its first head.

So one September afternoon he walked down the hall from Joel’s office and posed this question: “What would you do if you were asked to head a program in leadership that I would fund initially with an endowment?” I said I would ask for a week or so to think about it, and Mitch laughed and said that I could think all I wanted, but that he would like to have my first answer there and then.

He added that he admired my ethics and policy course (PPS 116, “Policy Choice as Value Conflict,”) and that he thought it was a leadership course. He also thought, he said, that my civil rights interests, my passionate concerns about inadequate national political leadership, and my involvements with documentary work and community service gave me at least some of what I would need to run a leadership program.

I was in fact ready with an answer, but it wasn’t one I was sure would persuade him. I said that we ought to help students learn about leadership through well-taught courses, courses that focused on stories, especially on history, rather than management skills or the kinds of leadership techniques advocated in the business schools. Beyond that, I said, we ought to combine serious and thoughtful learning with experience, and more particularly with experience that involved taking on responsibility.

I said that if I had access to the kind of money about which he was talking, I would use it to create classes that would be the kind of “thinking” wing of the emerging student community service movement. There was no doubt, I said, that leadership experience was in principle available in business or governmental organizations, but most internships and entry-level jobs in such organizations didn’t give students much responsibility. Hard pressed social service and environmental organizations and agencies, on the other hand, put students to work making decisions because they were chronically understaffed. They needed help, and bright students who worked hard could quickly play important roles. They could learn about leadership by doing it.

I finished by saying that leadership studies based in the humanities, in history and literature and political theory, were a perfect foil for experiential learning in the small non-profits and hard-pressed local social service agencies. Mitch said simply: “That sounds right. I want you to do it. Put it in writing; get the approvals you need at Duke, and come see me in Dallas.”

The next couple of months were a blur of planning, writing, and negotiating, but by the second week in December we had a plan ready for Mitch, and I flew to Dallas with it.

The spring of 1986 was partly taken up with some difficult negotiations with Duke’s President and deans about the terms of the gift. But my main activity during those months was nevertheless teaching a seminar for some of Duke’s ablest students that was aimed at designing a leadership program along the lines I had described. By the end of April we had forged a plan.”