During a meeting about the West Union remodel, Larry Moneta told the assembled crowd that Duke is a “campus of niches,” and small meeting spaces. I remember this as something of an epiphany. Somehow, I spent four years on this campus without realizing that between orientation and graduation, apart from the frenzied ritual of Cameron, I never physically came together with my classmates. I suppose part of this was of my own doing. I allowed myself to fall so quickly into a handful of niches that I was never even aware of the group experience I was missing out on. I found my own places: the locker room for my sports team and the twists and turns of The Chronicle office. I never noticed that the physical outlay of this campus was limiting until eight months ago when Dr. Moneta pointed it out.
The two largest (non-athletic) spaces on campus, West Union and the Bryan Center, are themselves warren-like in construction with no single large space for gathering. Not even Baldwin and Page are large enough to hold the collected student body. Gatherings happen in small, tucked away spaces. Our gathering spaces are small and spread to the furthest corners of campus. These limitations (and perhaps a heavy dash of pragmatism) mean that the administration doesn’t bring us together when important issues face the school. A letter in this newspaper or an email to the student body is their means of reaching all of campus.
I think back to the moments when the world shook beneath me in the last four years: when we lost Drew and Matt, when the economy crashed, when we mourned the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11. My classmates and I felt the shockwaves of these events together but we lived them apart, separated by stone walls and locked doors … the physical limitations of campus. I think back to the issues that dominated campus dialogue: a handful of scandals, the occupy movement, the two presidential elections. Again, though we felt the ripples of these issues as one, we never physically came together to talk about them as a community. The administration emailed us about each of these things, but somehow that never felt very significant. When the same method of communication used to remind students to register for class or to clean up after tenting is used for truly important events, the important communications never seem that important.
The substantive discussion of these events and issues didn’t happen in the emails from Dr. Moneta or President Brodhead, but in the pages of The Chronicle. The paper was the only thing that both reached every member of the Duke community and allowed for individual members to voice their thoughts in a broad public forum. At these times, I remember picking up a copy of the paper and turning to the two pages nestled in the back and reading the thoughts and opinions of faculty, administrators, alumni and students and feeling more connected with the people around me. The opinion pages of this paper were the place I turned to when I sought connection with my peers or wanted to understand campus debate on Duke’s issues. Sometimes I was moved or validated and other times angered and frustrated by the opinions that appeared here, but every time I felt more a part of the Duke community.
For me, and I think many of you as well, this section of this newspaper is the common ground for the University. Any member of the Duke community can take a few words, a few square inches of space and bring their thoughts, concerns and experiences to the rest of the community. This is where we come together to discuss the issues that impact Duke. More discussions about race and inequality, the mission of this school abroad, the success of courses and teams and students and faculty occur here and on the message boards of The Chronicle’s website than any other place on campus.
Because of the unique role these pages serve, we have to protect them. In tough times for journalism worldwide, institutions like The Chronicle are not immune and smaller sections, like opinion, are always the first lost to budget cuts. In order to preserve this section for this community, you as a reader have to commit to maintaining them. Elevate what appears in these pages. Take advantage of the opportunity they present. Take the hour that it requires to write and submit something that you believe is worth attention and discussion by the community. And most importantly, keep reading them.
I guess in the end what I am asking is for you to take a few minutes to reflect on how you substantively engage with the other people on campus. If you see the same limitations that I do, then think of the value that this paper holds. I understand that this paper is not the same as a physical space where we can all come together, but it is the next best thing and the only one available to us at Duke. As a community we need to protect this paper and protect these pages; we need to protect our ability to come together to discuss life at Duke.
Meredith Jewitt is a first-year law student and the former editorial page editor of The Chronicle. Her column runs every other Monday. You can follow Meredith on Twitter @mljewitt.