Almost four years ago, I was sitting in my Duke alumni interview being told that Duke may not be in my future. My interviewer didn’t really putter around the point of my denial from Duke, obviously frustrated with my answer to her question, “Why Duke?” Apparently, my being drawn to the University because of its basketball tradition, beautiful campus and student culture wasn’t an adequate answer. Much like what President Brodhead and the Board of Trustees seem to be focusing on with their “new Duke” campaign, my particular interviewer was probably hoping to hear that I was considering Duke because of its academic rigor, interdisciplinary research opportunities and the popularity of its partially Gates Foundation-funded DukeEngage programs. Now, just one semester from leaving the school in the midst of this transition, I’m beginning to feel that there may not be room for a student like me in Duke’s future.
Duke University, like any other educational institution, is a business. And like all businesses, Duke has competition—top Ivy League schools being among the most formidable. With an ambitious $3.25 billion fundraising goal aimed at “enriching the Duke experience,” “activating Duke’s power for the world” and “sustaining Duke’s momentum,” President Brodhead has entered an academic Cold War with our competitors that at the very best Duke can only hope to match, and certainly not foreseeably win. To clarify, in 2011 Duke only boasted a $5.7 billion endowment, significantly less than endowments at Harvard ($27.6 billion), Stanford ($13.9 billion), Yale ($16.7 billion) and Princeton ($14.4 billion). Programs like DukeEngage are things that schools with four times our endowment can easily replicate. However, the same is not true of the more intangible qualities of a unique campus culture, such as our unique love for Duke basketball, that Brodhead referred to as “foolish” and “disheartening.”
In a market of highly substitutable goods, like top tier education, it is critical to accentuate uniqueness, not take it for granted. I argue that the pursuit for improved academic excellence and the fostering of a vibrant and unique student culture are not and should not be mutually exclusive aims. DukeEngage isn’t a secret to our competition, and our immersive approach to volunteering abroad can be matched and surpassed at other universities, even if “StanfordEngage” doesn’t have quite the same ring. Although my inspiring alumna interviewer attempted to downplay the unique aspects of Duke culture that drew me to the school, claiming they were available elsewhere, this simply isn’t true. The combination of our campus’ Southern charm, our students’ “work hard, play hard” attitude and our abounding basketball addiction is not easily replicated elsewhere, no matter an institution’s endowment. There is only one Coach K.
This isn’t to say that I completely disagree with the “new Duke” agenda. In 2011, a College Board report found that the growth rate of tuition is double that of inflation. As the tuitions of Duke and other top tier private institutions become more and more expensive, the heightened cost of a “college experience” will be less justifiable to paying parents. Applicants will be shelling out the big bucks for the value of the diploma, not intangibles available for cheaper elsewhere. This is where I side with Brodhead; some day college athletics and student life may be a distant afterthought to academic rankings. And just as Brodhead appears to have taken our unique student culture for granted, our student body has taken Coach K’s era for granted. The man won’t be around forever and there is no guarantee Duke will find a Roy Williams to our Mike Krzyzewski. In these terms, focusing on academics seems to be the safer bet.
My caution to Brodhead is that there is nothing beneficial about pitting the ideals of sustaining Duke’s momentum against preserving and fostering its existing culture; future presidents and new politics may reverse the trend of tuition increases. If that is the case it would be a tragedy to have lost what has set Duke apart for so many years. When I applied to colleges, I was unsure of what I wanted in life, and I don’t think this is uncommon. This uncertainty led me to pursue a handful of academically competitive liberal arts colleges, between which I ultimately decided based on aspects of the entire college experience. So as I move forward and soon away from the place that has been my second home for the last few years, I hope that there is a place for a student like me in Duke’s future.
Travis Smith is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Thursday. You can follow Travis on Twitter @jtsmith317.