To understand what Elizabeth Duffy has tried to do during her tenure as headmaster of the Lawrenceville School, take a look at the tables in the classrooms.

Like many private schools, the Lawrenceville School uses the Harkness Method to teach academic subjects. The Harkness Method was popularized in the 1930s as an alternative to the rote memorization common in classrooms at the time. “The popular method of teaching was recitation,” Duffy says. “The teacher stood up front of students in rows of desks that were usually anchored to the floor. He would say something, and the students would recite it back. They would do homework by memorizing what was in a textbook.”

Industrialist Edward Harkness thought this method was boring and failed to prepare students for the real world. Working with the faculty of the Exeter School in New Hampshire, Harkness invented a system that was more challenging and engaging for the students: instead of sitting at fixed desks, everyone, including the teacher, would sit around a table. The teacher was there not to lecture, but to facilitate discussion.

At first the tables were rectangular, but Harkness noticed that some students were hiding from the discussion by sitting in the corners. Round tables worked better, but large round tables were hard to fit through classroom doors and were also harder to clean. As a compromise he used an oval table, and the shape has been a hallmark of the Harkness method ever since.

At least it was until the present day. Duffy has for the first time made major changes to the structure of the classic Harkness tables. In the early 2000s the tables were “wired” to accommodate ethernet ports so students could plug portable computers into them. This innovation was made obsolete by wi-fi.

Today the school is putting modular Harkness tables into its classrooms. When attached the modular tables form the classic oval shape, but they can be easily broken up so that students can form small discussion or work groups. They were first placed in the school’s language arts building in 2013.

“It’s stayed true to itself, but evolved over time,” Duffy says. “I have tried throughout my time here to build on Lawrenceville’s strengths, but at the same time make sure that they’re relevant for today. I like to talk about Lawrenceville as a place of dichotomies: it’s thoroughly traditional, but also thoroughly modern.”

Duffy became headmaster of the Lawrenceville School in 2003 and will do the job until the end of this school year. This summer she will begin a new job as president of International Schools Services, the Roszel Road-based nonprofit group dedicated to assisting international schools.

Duffy’s is the first woman in the 205-year history of the school to hold the job of headmaster. Her tenure is a lesson in how to bring change to a deeply traditional institution.

The Lawrenceville School was founded in 1810. Its leafy 700-acre campus, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, lies along Route 206 about halfway between Princeton and Trenton. It has always been an elite prep school, attracting students with Ivy League ambitions from all over the world. Today it is the most expensive high school in the country, with tuition for a boarding student running $55,000 a year.

Lawrenceville admitted its first black students 50 years ago. As a woman Duffy never had the chance to attend the school — she was already in college at Princeton by the time Lawrenceville became co-ed in 1987. Since then, and especially since Duffy took office, the school has become far more diverse in its ethnic makeup.

By 2014 55 percent of the students at the school were white, with Asians making up 21 percent and international students another 14 percent.

The school has made efforts to increase its economic as well as ethnic diversity. Duffy says Lawrenceville has increased financial aid dramatically during her tenure. She says a current fundraising campaign is aimed at subsidizing the non-academic needs of students who receive financial aid. “We try to make sure that when we have students from different backgrounds come here that they are fully able to participate in the Lawrenceville experience,” she says. For qualifying students the school pays for not only tuition but for international trips, books, and computers.

Duffy says the increasing multi-culturalism of the school has been rewarding, but also challenging. She made several decisions in her last year in office that angered some students and alumni. “What makes one group happy is going to make another group not so happy,” Duffy says. “That’s one of the things I’ve learned here.”

The school’s decision to cancel inter-house tackle football — a tradition going back to the 19th century — and replace it with flag football was one such flashpoint. Another came when the administration asked for the student body president — a black lesbian — to resign for making social media posts that made fun of Lawrenceville’s white male students.

Adding to all this was the fact that Duffy was the school’s first female headmaster. “I think my gender at times worked for me and at times worked against me,” she says. “It allowed me to look at things from a slightly different perspective, and there were probably times when I got less pushback because I was a female. Obviously, other times, people made assumptions about me that weren’t true. One is that a female doesn’t care that much about sports when in fact I was a triple-sport athlete in high school and played sports in college. Another was that some people thought anything I did to support the arts was because I was a female, but actually it was because it was the right thing to do.”

Because of the nature of the classrooms, the increasing diversity of the school brings students from different backgrounds face-to-face with one another. Duffy says that for the students, this is good preparation for working in a globalized economy.

“How do we create an environment in which you can recognize that everybody is different while at the same time celebrating our commonalities? There is a fine line to being an inclusive community in which you have that balance where everybody feels part of a whole but that everybody feels like they can be who they are. It’s one thing to have a student from Singapore on campus. It’s another to have their experience be a reality for the other pupils’ experience, and for people to be genuinely interested in that different perspective.”

Sometimes those perspectives clash. In March a black student resigned as class president after igniting a controversy on social media. Maya Peterson, the school’s first black female class president, posted a photo of herself on Instagram dressed in a Yale sweatshirt holding a hockey stick and tagged it “#confederate,” “#romney2016,” and “#peakedinhighschool,” then followed the picture with the comment: “Yes, I am making a mockery of the right-wing, confederate-flag hanging, openly misogynistic Lawrentians.” The story made national news, and Peterson told reporters that the administration had given her the choice of resigning or facing disciplinary action.

Duffy has tried to give students forums to express their perspectives, including on national topics. In November, after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, acquitted a white police officer of shooting an unarmed black teenager, protests erupted all around the nation. Lawrenceville was no exception. “We had a protest outside of a school meeting by students who wanted to make a statement,” Duffy says. In December some students staged a “die-in” protest, dressing in black and lying down on an auditorium stage.

“Some thought the Ferguson jury made the wrong decision and spoke to profiling in the justice system, and other students felt like the police were getting a bad rap. And that’s because they came from different perspectives and different backgrounds. How do you recognize and honor those different perspectives and at the same time create a strong sense of community where you have real differences of opinion and perspectives?”

Duffy’s answer was to organize a series of programs meant to foster discussion. “We had a judge come in and talk about the justice system,” she says. The program of a previously planned community day was modified to include discussions of the Ferguson events.

The Ferguson protests came in the wake of a happier occasion in Lawrenceville’s race relations. On the weekend of September 26, the school hosted a celebration of 50 years of black students. Out of about 500 black alumni, around 300 returned to the school, including the first black students, Darrell Fitzgerald and Lyals Battle.

Also returning to campus last fall was another black student, Marcus Mabry, who is now editor-at-large for the New York Times and a trustee of Lawrenceville along with Fitzgerald. He discussed his book, “White Bucks and Black-Eyed Peas,” and his experience as a black person studying and working in mostly white environments.

But it wasn’t Instagram or Ferguson anything to do with race relations that led to the biggest backlash against Duffy: it was football.

Among Lawrenceville’s many unique traditions is a “house system” for boarding students. As the students get older and show more responsibility, they gain more autonomy and transfer to different residence halls called houses. Since the late 1800s, the houses have long played games of tackle football against one another.

In 2013 the school announced that for safety reasons, and because fewer students were interested in the sport, it would be changed to flag football. The sport had been declining in popularity, with only three of the six house teams being able to field enough players for tackle football. The school’s interscholastic team was unaffected.

Because of this seemingly minor change, the normally quiet campus made national news. To some alumni the administration’s decision to end tackle house football was like canceling quidditch matches at Hogwarts — an unthinkable breach of tradition. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh even said the decision contributed to “the wussification of America.” Alumni who remembered the traditional football games fondly used every venue available to complain.

An anonymous group calling itself “Concerned Lawrenceville Alumni” wrote a 3,000-word open letter to the school.

“During the 11-year tenure of Headmaster Liz Duffy, Lawrenceville has increasingly forsaken the traditional core values that have sustained it for over two centuries, substituting values influenced by ideology and money. Of particular note, we found an engineered change in the demographics of the student body, a bloated and expensive administrative structure, and the demise of House sports which raises grave concerns about the viability of the House system as we have historically known it. We believe these changes have transformed and diminished the School from its standing as one of the preeminent American boarding schools, and the School’s basic philosophy has been remade without any meaningful notice to or input from its alumni. Some might describe Lawrenceville today as `PC Gone Wild,’” the letter said.

Board president Tom Carter, CEO of Houston-based oil company Black Stone Minerals, responded to the anonymous letter with a signed letter of his own. He defended Duffy and the school’s increasing diversity. In a statement echoing Duffy’s own views, Carter said the school’s increasing multi-culturalism was preparing students to live and work in a globalized world.

As for the tackle football, the school decided to bring it back, but with six-man teams as a concession to the lower interest from students.

Board member Leita Hamill, a retired Lawrenceville teacher, says she was impressed with how Duffy handled the crises and the personal criticism that came along with them. “She has incredible grace under pressure,” Hamill says. “She has this extraordinary ability to rise above personal attacks and do the right thing for the institution. She seems to care more about the school than she does herself.”

Lawrenceville, like most private schools, relies on an endowment and Duffy put much of her efforts into fundraising. When she took office the endowment was at about $189 million, and doubled to $380 million as of this year despite enduring the financial crisis of 2008.

The school built a 32-acre solar power field, which today is the largest of any school at the secondary level. Duffy also accomplished the less glamorous task of fixing the 100-year-old steam pipes, a $19 million project that was part of a $25 million effort to catch up with deferred maintenance.

Hamill credited Duffy with making good strategic decisions throughout her tenure. “She has a cosmic view that allows her to see many different aspects of things at the same time, and she manages them all, and the people who run them.” Hamill said Duffy’s leadership style was one of “leading from behind” — appointing strong senior staff to key positions, and then managing them, rather than taking a top-down approach.

Duffy grew up in Massachusetts, a sixth-generation resident of the town where her family lived. Her computer programmer mother and lawyer father encouraged Duffy’s interest in science, and when the time came to go to college, she selected Princeton for its robust lab programs. She majored in molecular biology and joined a student volunteer program that did community service.

To Duffy’s surprise, she says, she discovered she enjoyed volunteering more than being in the lab. She ended up becoming Princeton’s first administrator of student volunteers as her first job after college. She managed 800 students and placed them with nonprofits. She then moved on to Stanford, where she earned master’s degrees in business and education.

She then began a career in the nonprofit world, working at high levels for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and lastly the Ball Foundation before starting at Lawrenceville at age 36.

She met her husband, John Gutman, when they were both in their early 30s at a dinner party of a mutual friend. Gutman, a 1979 graduate of Lawrenceville who also went to Princeton, Class of 1983, has an MBA and worked in marketing, corporate strategy, and corporate real estate, and taught at Rutgers business school and the University of Illinois in Chicago. He gave up teaching after the birth of the couple’s eldest child, Lucy, now 14. Their second child, Teddy, is 12.

“He has been a full-time parent ever since, which has been great for our children, and made it much easier for me to have the jobs I’ve had too,” Duffy says.

As Duffy prepares to enter her next role at International Schools Services, she takes with her the interest in globalization that she brought to the Lawrenceville school. At Lawrenceville she increased the proportion of foreign students. At ISS she will react to a transformation in the world of international schools. When the group was founded in the 1950s international schools were mostly English-speaking, American institutions in foreign lands where the children of overseas expatriates could get an American-style education. Increasingly, however, the emphasis is on educating international students rather than just Americans.

“What core features make a school international beyond it having English as one of the languages spoken there?” Duffy says. It’s one of the problems she will have to tackle at her next job. Replacing Duffy at Lawrenceville will be Stephen Murray, currently headmaster of the University School in Shaker Heights and Hunting Valley, Ohio.

Hamill says Duffy will be missed. “It’s for me personally, and for the school in general, very hard to see her leave,” she says. “But she’s done a wonderful job.”

International Schools Services, 15 Roszel Road, Box 5910, Princeton 08543; 609-452-0990; fax, 609-452-2690. Roger Hove, president.

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