Duke students survived the return of Quetzalcoatl over the winter break but, if last semester is any indication, the coming year will confront the University with challenges that are just as earth-shaking, at least in a less literal sense.
Any close reader of higher education journalism and University press releases knows that so-called liberal arts institutions have come into a state of sea change and flux. The world supposedly grows increasingly less hospitable to the quaint liberal arts picture of students discussing aloof books under well-manicured (and well funded!) oak trees. This inhospitality takes the form of a battery of challenges—the globalization of higher education, its innervated financial structure and its anachronistic curriculum—which are supposed to demand from liberal arts institutions that they reinvent themselves to survive, even if survival means becoming quite different.
This picture fits Duke to a T—here the rhetoric of development is the rhetoric of reinvention. Duke Kunshan University is hoisted up as a response to the opportunities and challenges posed by China as a world player: DKU is a “new model” for Chinese international education and universities more generally. The University’s commitments to online education, primarily through the third-party provider Coursera, are supposed to provide a way forward even in a future where classroom-based education appears backward, and perhaps make some money to boot. And the always lauded “interdisciplinary” of the Duke curriculum, it is said, is a response to complex problems of the modern world that exceed the dogmatic clutching of old-fashioned disciplines.
This is not to mention upcoming financial challenges. Modifications to Medicare, Medicaid and national research spending invite a response from the Duke University Health System. And the persistently discouraging economic climate has significant implications for how the University operates more generally. Already, Wesleyan University has given up a previous commitment to need-blind undergraduate admissions because of the stress it placed on its budget.
At Duke, financial aid represents a large slice of endowment spending every year, even as the endowment struggles to catch up to its pre-recession growth rates. This, of course, while students across the U.S. are saddled with debt—it is no wonder that a culture of “credentialism” exists at Duke, nor that the investment banking, consulting and law remain alluring to Duke students.
The University’s dynamism and adaptability have been given pride of place in the current fundraising campaign, and justly so: If the liberal arts idea faces an existential threat, donors ought to be convinced that Duke can weather it and weather it well. But the challenge this year, just as it was last year, is not to ask how can Duke change, survive and thrive. It is to ask how the University can survive, thrive and, in the same breath, sustain what is essential without compromise.
By our lights, the liberal arts don’t yet need saving. But as the liberal arts continue to evolve at Duke and elsewhere, it is important to remember that their chief virtue is not that they teach us how to answer questions—they teach us how to ask them. And it is just that that the reinvented Duke needs to sustain.