The Education of Duke’s Eric Greitens

In college, Eric Greitens might have seemed too good to be true. 

He was a founding member of Duke University’s Honor Council who designed his own major to study ethics; worked with refugees and poor people in several countries; took up boxing under the tutelage of a crusty Army veteran; was named one of the top 20 students in the country by USA Today; earned a Harry S. Truman Scholarship for public service; and was on his way to Oxford University with a Rhodes Scholarship. 

In the summer of 1995, after his junior year at Duke, Greitens accompanied one of his professors to Rwanda to work with refugees. The country in east-central Africa had been devastated by genocide, with as many as 800,000 people killed, mostly of the Tutsi minority. 

Greitens traveled with U.N. workers as they visited humanitarian projects and refugee camps across the country, and took photographs and notes. “These women had suffered more than I could imagine,” he wrote later about a group of refugees at a health-care clinic, “and still they welcomed me, told me their stories.”

The professor who took him to Rwanda, Neil Boothby, said young Greitens was thoughtful, collaborative, and morally concerned.

“Eric was attempting to put together a set of experiences that would provide him with the knowledge and the experience to do something significant,” Boothby told The Assembly. “The Eric that I knew was character building.” 

Now, as Greitens seeks a U.S. Senate seat in Missouri amid personal scandal and political reinvention, Boothby and others who knew him at Duke are re-evaluating what they thought they knew about him. Boothby, who nominated Greitens for the USA Today honor, said he “has dishonored himself.”

After leaving Oxford, Greitens became a Navy SEAL, served in Iraq, started a nonprofit that helps veterans find new opportunities for service, and wrote three books about courage, character, and integrity. 

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Top: A photograph of a page in an Eric Greitens book shows him with children in Bolivia. Bottom: Another photo shows him, on the right, during training in California.

Twenty years after he left Duke, Greitens ran for governor in his home state as a Republican and was elected in his first run for office. A year into his four-year term, his political career blew up nearly as quickly as it started. 

A news report revealed that Greitens had an affair with his hairdresser in 2015, prompting a legislative investigation. The woman told legislators that during one encounter, Greitens took a photograph of her partially unclothed, coerced her into having oral sex, and threatened her if she talked about it. 

Greitens said the relationship was consensual and denied blackmailing her, but he resigned in June 2018 before he could be impeached. A prosecutor dropped charges related to the incident. 

His second wife filed for divorce in 2020 and accused him of physically abusing her and their children. She fled Greitens shortly after he resigned as governor because she said she didn’t know if he had access to a gun and feared he would kill himself or their family, the Missouri Independent reported. 

Greitens has denied that he was abusive toward his wife or children.

Now he is jockeying for a political comeback in the August 2 primary by appealing to hard-right voters. “Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell: You are disgusting cowards. And we are coming for you,” Greitens’s website says. 

Greitens, 48, has drawn fierce criticism from traditional Republicans in Missouri and across the country. They’ve condemned his ad featuring Greitens busting down the door of a house with a shotgun, calling on voters to hunt RINOs—“Republicans In Name Only”—even as Americans reel from successive mass shootings.

“It’s one of a variety of reasons Greitens is not qualified to be a U.S. senator,” Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, told The Assembly. “He resigned the governorship in shame. I do follow the ads that are going on over there [in the Missouri senate race]. I’m not about these all-about-me people, and he’s one of them.” 

The Dispatch, a conservative website that is critical of Donald Trump, said Greitens is “running a totally shameless campaign.”

Greitens has been at or near the top of polls, although some now show him fading after a barrage of ads critical of his personal life. The crowded field includes state Attorney General Eric Schmitt and U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler. There will be no runoff. 

The Assembly tried to get comment from Greitens for this article multiple times, including emailing questions to his campaign, but did not receive a response. 

Interviews and correspondence with more than a dozen people who crossed paths with Greitens at Duke project a kaleidoscopic character. 

Some university mentors describe an intentional, motivated, and earnest student who interrogated how he could better the world and pursue humanitarian ideals. Other people suspected an opportunist who was untethered to specific principles or ideology, willing to change with the tides in order to gain power, build prestige, and feed his ambitions. Plenty don’t recognize the Greitens they see today. 

“I never saw anything in my experience with Eric at Duke, or post-Duke, that would in any way make me think that he would end up taking some of the stances that he’s taken,” Boothby said. “Both the domestic [abuse] stuff, but also the political stuff to me is just not explainable based on the person I knew.”

‘Ambition on Feet’

When Eric Greitens arrived at Duke in the fall of 1992, he was like an Ikea package—all the parts were there, ready to be assembled.

The son of a teacher and a government accountant, Greitens attended a public high school in Maryland Heights, a suburb of St. Louis. He earned impeccable grades, captained the soccer team, ran marathons, and even won first-place in a free-speech essay contest, writing about censorship in school libraries. ​​(“The thunderstorm of repression is beating down,” Greitens, just 17 at the time, wrote in his essay. “We need bravery to confront the insanity ravaging today’s schools.”)

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Eric Greitens in picture book given to members of the Duke class of 1996.

As a senior in high school, he was a finalist for the A.B. Duke Scholarship, a prestigious full-ride to Duke designed, in part, to compete for students who might otherwise attend universities like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. Less than 1 percent of applicants to Duke were chosen as finalists.

During the selection process, a professor who’d interviewed Greitens argued for him to be awarded the scholarship: “Four years from now, this guy is going to be a Rhodes Scholar.” The selection committee heeded her advice.

Greitens arrived at Duke that fall intending to study public policy. But his first days at the university proved to be disappointing.

“After just a few weeks, I felt that I’d been lied to,” Greitens wrote in his best-selling 2011 book, The Heart and the Fist. He recalled attending an introduction to public policy class, where a professor drew a graph on the chalkboard to quantify outcomes and probabilities in order to determine a policy decision. 

“This was public policy?” Greitens wrote. “Great decisions about the fate of the world made by multiplication? Where was the romance, the energy, the great causes? When were we going to talk about how to live well, how to lead, what to fight for?”

He began searching elsewhere for the college experience he hoped for: He scheduled countless meetings with professors who he hoped might provide a more fulfilling academic experience. 

That led him to the classroom of Bruce Payne, a lecturer in public policy. The class, Policy Choice as Value Conflict, had a reputation for being challenging yet popular.

Payne had been a civil rights activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, working in Mississippi under the threat of violence by the Ku Klux Klan. He pushed his students to watch films, read short stories and novels, and engage in stories with ethical dilemmas.

Greitens stood out. “What was striking about Eric was how good of a student he was, and how articulate and persuasive he was in answering questions in class,” Payne told The Assembly. “Eric really liked to argue. He also really liked to win arguments. But he was not unfair. And he was pretty good at knowing what the disagreement was about.”

Payne also added that Greitens seemed unafraid to take controversial positions. 

“He was ideologically something of a chauvinist, except that it was more concerned with boosting manliness [than] putting down women,” Payne said.

Payne and Greitens grew close. Greitens regularly attended office hours: They discussed the ethical dilemmas from class, as well as their shared work on the university’s Honor Council. Greitens consulted Payne on his self-designed major in ethics. Payne wrote him letters of recommendation for scholarships. 

After meeting Greitens, Payne’s partner called him “ambition on feet.” “All of us knew that about Eric,” Payne said. “If you talk with anybody about Eric, the subject of him being one of the most ambitious people in town was always there.”

Classmates remember Greitens as both cerebral and striking. 

“He was just an incredibly polished and impressive presence,” said a student who took Payne’s class with Greitens. The classmate, like several others interviewed by The Assembly, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. 

Greitens regularly attended class donning business-casual, button-down shirts, noticeably distinct from the prevailing T-shirts and shorts. And he never appeared hungover, despite attending a university with a work-hard, play-hard reputation. 

“I picture him interacting with professors, not students,” the classmate said. “That was the kind of level he was on. I felt like a little kid and he was a professor who for some reason was taking these classes with me.” 

Greitens made an impression outside the classroom too. “I don’t remember anyone else from the Honor Council, but I remember Eric,” said a fellow council member who asked not to be named. 

She admitted that part of it was his looks: Greitens had an athletic build, short-cropped hair, and powerful blue eyes. But she said it wasn’t just his appearance. It was also the way he assumed leadership of the group, becoming chair of the council as a sophomore.

“He was very self-assured,” she said. “He was not at all cowed that he was one of the younger people on the council.”

Greitens told the student newspaper in 1993: “We’re trying to educate students and help them realize that ethics and honor and moral dilemmas are things they are going to have to deal with their whole lives.”

Another member of the Honor Council told The Assembly: “This is one of the few guys that actually truly impressed me. I thought, ‘This guy could be president one day.’”

Humanitarian Aspirations

Greitens began to aspire toward humanitarian work, starting through his relationship with Boothby, who was fast becoming a trusted voice in the international development world for his work on armed conflict’s impact on children. At Duke, he taught a course on refugees, which is where he met Greitens.

“Eric wasn’t the smartest student I ever had,” Boothby told The Assembly. “But he was the most serious or intentional about his own life and where it was headed.”

Boothby said that Greitens visited his office frequently, where they had numerous conversations about refugee law, as well as the plight of people who have to flee their homeland, especially children.  

The summer after Greitens’s sophomore year, Boothby invited him and a small group of Duke students to work with children impacted by the Bosnian conflict. The students were split up and sent to work at various refugee camps around Europe. Afterward, they came back together in Zagreb to draft a report on their work.

Boothby said he and Greitens would regularly sit down at the end of the day and talk over beers at a local cafe. Greitens reflected on the people he had met, meditating on each of their specific stories.  

“When I would be writing these letters of recommendation, I would find myself going out of my way to say this guy really has a moral compass,” Boothby said. The Greitens he knew at Duke was “willing to put himself in situations that the average Duke student wouldn’t.” 

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Eric Greitens is the author of The Warrior’s Heart, The Heart and the Fist, and Resilience.

Today, Boothby and others wonder whether Greitens’s willingness to go into difficult scenarios was the consequence of his moral curiosity and sincerity, or more of an innate itch for physical and emotional intensity. 

“That was something unusual for someone that age to actually want to go and work in a post-genocide context,” Boothby said. Neither Croatia nor Rwanda were easy places to visit at that time, especially for undergraduates with little experience in international aid. But he questions whether Greitens was drawn to “extreme” situations, in part to challenge and develop himself. 

“It’s almost like your classic Greek preparation,” said Boothby. “This idea that there are lots of experiences and kinds of knowledge you have to have in order to be a great leader.”

The Fist

During his sophomore year, Greitens began commuting off-campus to pursue a new passion: boxing. In The Heart and The Fist, Greitens wrote that he wanted to test himself at Duke. “Those who boxed and those who brawl—all seemed to have a sure sense of how to walk in the world,” Greitens wrote. 

“He was an intense guy,” said Bob Korstad, who was a professor of public policy when Greitens was a student. “He started getting really into boxing, which seemed kind of strange at the time given his involvement in peace work and human rights. Even then, I wondered what was going on in his head.”

Greitens signed up to compete in a Golden Gloves tournament in Charlotte. (He won his division by default when no other competitors showed up.) His coach, Ariel Blair, wrote him a letter of recommendation for the Rhodes scholarship. Blair told the Duke alumni magazine, “He’s like a crab: When he grabs hold of something, he will not let it loose.”

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A photograph in one of Eric Greitens's books shows him, right, in a boxing match.

At Oxford, Greitens joined the university’s boxing team. 

“When I heard that he was in England and that he signed up to do boxing, I thought, ‘Oh yeah, of course,’” Payne said. “I have students who ended up on the rowing team, which is a very collegial kind of activity. But boxing is kind of an individual path to triumph.”

Greitens’s interest in boxing may have been due, in part, to a desire to challenge himself, “to live through something hard and real to become better,” as he wrote. But it also may have stemmed from an attempt to address an underlying temper—one that Greitens acknowledges in his book Resilience. He had set his high school’s record for yellow cards, given to soccer players for flagrant penalties or unsportsmanlike conduct. 

“When I was growing up, my mom used to say she was worried that I’d end up in jail,” he wrote. 

“I always had this joke that there was something dark underneath it all,” one Duke classmate said of Greitens. “Two-thirds of that was a joke, just me kind of laughing about how perfect he was. But one-third was like, there’s something there. No undergrad can be like this. He was almost like a robot.”

Duke’s Prodigal Son 

When it comes to polarizing political figures, Duke has a fairly high batting average: Richard Nixon, who attended law school at Duke. Justin Fairfax, the former lieutenant governor of Virginia, who was accused of sexual assault (he denied the allegations). Trump speechwriter and provocateur Stephen Miller. Now, Eric Greitens. 

“Greitens’s level of ambition is not unfamiliar to many of us,” the student editorial board of the Duke Chronicle wrote in 2018, after allegations of sexual misconduct emerged. “Greitens’s fall from grace illuminates our perceptions of power and the reckless decisions we tacitly accept as means to an end.”

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Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens addresses the media on the steps of the Civil Court building on Monday, May 14, 2018, after the case against him was dismissed. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

Before he defined himself as a conservative Republican, Greitens had been a media darling. Tom Brokaw highlighted him in his series “American Character.” Joe Klein lauded his work at length in his book Charlie Mike. And Jon Stewart invited him onto The Daily Show. “What you’re doing is incredibly remarkable,” Stewart said. “I cannot tell you how inspiring it is for me to see.”

Greitens attended the Democratic National Convention in 2008, when Barack Obama was nominated, and Democrats eventually courted him to run for office. 

But no Democratic campaign ever materialized. Instead, in 2015, Greitens penned an opinion piece for Fox News titled “Why I Am No Longer a Democrat.”  “I became a conservative because I believe that caring for people means more than just spending taxpayer money,” Greitens wrote. 

He didn’t mention that the faithfully Democratic state of his childhood had now turned reliably Republican. 

When Greitens ran for governor, he advertised himself as a political outsider who pledged to fight political corruption, but otherwise stood by traditional Republican principles like supporting businesses and defending law enforcement. He showcased his Navy SEAL bona fides and sold “ISIS hunting permits” as part of his campaign. 

Today, his Senate campaign leans on slogans popularized by Trump, like “Make America Great Again” and “Drain the Swamp.” He’s backed Trump’s false claims about election fraud. He has replaced his feigned hunt for ISIS with “RINOs.” On his campaign website, he shares videos alleging that political insiders attempted to take him down in 2018.   

As his personal problems have mounted and his politics have morphed, the questions for those who knew Greitens at Duke increasingly are difficult to answer: Who was he, actually? Has he changed, or is this the man he’s always been? What is the end that he’s been chasing?

“Eric, I know you must be in a dark place to think what you're doing is worth it,” said Ken Harbaugh, a Duke classmate and friend of Greitens, in a video posted to Twitter this month. “What you are doing now is not honorable. And it is not a reflection of the Eric I knew.”

Political analysts may cite the rightward turn in Missouri and the rise of Trumpism as responsible for Greitens’s shift from moderate golden boy to gun-toting conservative. 

Cynics may say that he hasn’t changed at all, that the man hunting RINOs in a TV ad today is motivated by the same inner force as the young man lacing up his boxing gloves or fashioning himself a Rhodes scholar—sheer ambition. 

Jeff Smith, executive director of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, met Greitens in high school in St. Louis when their schools competed against each other in soccer. They also attended Boys State, a kind of mock government experience. Smith recalls Greitens campaigning at the bus stop before they even boarded to depart.  

“I felt like he had already figured out the game, done the research, how to network, what to run for, who to talk to,” said Smith, who attended UNC-Chapel Hill when Greitens was at Duke.

Greitens’s professors saw a different young man. “The willingness in politics to let nothing stand in the way is one of the possibilities that might be in the cards for somebody like that, but I didn't see it coming,” said Payne. 

If Duke is uneasy about producing a graduate like Greitens, he is not disenchanted with the university–at least he wasn’t when he wrote his books. He said Duke made him stronger and more able to live “an examined life.” 

“Whether by luck or a fortunate set of choices, I came in contact with professors who rejoiced in living a full life, and whether they would have articulated it this way or not, they believed in the need for citizens in a democracy to be able to think independently,” he wrote. 

So when he stood under the sun in Durham at graduation in May 1996, he believed he’d been given the greatest gift an education can provide. “I had a better idea of what it meant to live a good life,” Greitens wrote, “and what it meant to be a good person.” 

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Katie Jane Fernelius, a graduate of Duke, is a journalist and radio producer based in New Orleans. 

Carly Stern, a graduate of Duke, is a journalist based in San Francisco. 

Jim Morrill, who covered politics for The Charlotte Observer for 37 years, contributed to this article.

Top image: Eric Greitens reads from a prepared statement as he announces his resignation as Missouri governor during a news conference at the state Capitol on May 29, 2018. (Julie Smith/The Jefferson City News-Tribune via AP)