Change is coming to Duke. After meeting with President Richard Brodhead, we are more convinced than ever that the nature of undergraduate life at our institution—from the students to the curricular design—is in the process of a fundamental shift. Often under the banner of interdisciplinarity, the administration is changing the University’s priorities and hallmarks—perhaps at the expense of older ones. We anticipate these changes permeating admissions, campus culture and academics offerings.
Duke’s growing academic prominence will alter the types of students Duke admits each year as well as the types that matriculate. The administration proudly cites the fact that prospective students now mention Duke Engage more frequently than basketball as a reason for attending Duke. When speaking with us, Brodhead put the matter bluntly, calling basketball a “foolish” and “disheartening” reason to pick Duke. There is a broad effort to distinguish Duke through its academics—especially via interdisciplinarity emphasis—instead of Duke’s frequently touted basketball program or vibrant social life. Duke’s changing values will be reflected in its changing student body.
Campus culture will also continue changing. Administrative decisions concerning the house model, tailgating, orientation week or similar issues should not be viewed in a vacuum but as part of a larger shift in institutional priorities. After the cancellation of Tailgate in Fall 2010, Brodhead told The Chronicle that “no administration has ever changed the student culture, but students have changed their own culture.” This is only partially true; the administration is redefining its priorities and hoping its students do the same.
Expansions of programs like Duke Engage, Winter Forum and the FOCUS program attempt to cast strong interdisciplinary academic programs as Duke’s selling point, not athletics or “work hard, play hard” culture as in years past. Student initiatives like the Intellectual Climate Committee indicate that students are tuned in too.
This trend will continue. Duke’s new capital campaign Duke Forward focuses largely on interdisciplinary academic activities at Duke. Departments, programs and professors looking to bolster discipline-specific initiatives will likely take a back seat—in terms of funding, at least—to those looking to collaborate. Students will follow suit, letting the interdisciplinary feel of the University seep into how they conduct their academic lives. Duke also expects that their academic lives will not only be richer but also larger, branching into their extracurricular and social lives as well. Duke hopes to produce a new kind of student, someone who doesn’t compartmentalize academics but sees them as fluid and interdependent—permeating their entire Duke experience.
This is a no trivial shift. Ask the Duke applicant of 10 or 15 years ago and they would be far more likely to pick school spirit or “work hard, play hard” as a reason for coming to Duke. It may not be superior interdisciplinary academic programs now, but maybe it will be in the future. This potential change should generate a spirited campus debate about what Duke is and what it should be.
It is incumbent on anyone who has even the slightest interest in the future of this school to take an active role in this discussion. Now is the time to decide who we really are.