As students pour onto campus for the first day of classes, they will find themselves in the middle of a massive effort to rebuild and reconfigure the University. They will confront administrators, professors and students hard at work dismantling old structures, retooling existing ones and creating a set of novel institutions and policies that promise to dramatically reshape the physical, intellectual and social character of the school. Although projects like the West Union renovations stand out, many of Duke’s structural changes are less conspicuous, stemming not from changes in official policy but from shifts in our intellectual and social culture.
Over the summer alone, there were 57 renovation and construction projects underway. Perhaps the most significant among them is the West Union building—now circumscribed by a faux-stone fence. The building will undergo a major transformation in the next several years. In the interim, the epicenter of campus will likely shift to the newly constructed Events Pavilion, putting a greater demand on the eateries there and centralizing social activity in a way that might encourage greater cohesion and sense of community.
Duke is also building a campus in China—Duke Kunshan University. The project has been fraught with delays, questions about academic integrity and budget constraints. Although administrators are optimistic that the campus will open in Fall 2014, as Duke continues to spend more on renovations to its Durham campus, DKU’s timeline should come under more scrutiny.
As online universities proliferate, many people have also questioned the financial sustainability of the traditional model of higher education. In response to this concern, Duke has shifted its focus onto interdisciplinary education models, rolling out new initiatives like Bass Connections and the Duke STEAM challenge. We feel it is important for the University to develop high standards for their interdisciplinary programs. In the past, we have expressed fear that placing too much emphasis on interdisciplinary learning models hinders students’ ability to gain deep knowledge in a single discipline. Effective cross-discipline collaboration requires a detailed understanding of fields on their own terms, and administrators should not prioritize interdisciplinarity over traditional scholarship.
During his appearance on the Colbert Report last week, President Brodhead articulated well the role the humanities now play in the changing landscape of higher education. Humanistic inquiry, he reminded us, is critically important, but we now have to decide whether it is vital in and of itself or as a means to other ends. Debates about the role of the humanities, particularly within the context of online education, will become increasingly important this year.
In addition to physical and curricular changes, Duke is undergoing major shifts in its culture. The administration has attempted to create a safer orientation week each year, and we support changes in cultural norms that make non-alcoholic events fun substitutes for the raucous parties that once characterized the beginning of school. Students are now more civically engaged than they have been in the past, and, given the sweeping policy changes made by the North Carolina legislature over the summer, this year promises to be an eventful one for activism on and off campus.
We are excited about Duke’s efforts to rebuild, and, in the coming months, we hope to have vigorous and insightful conversations about these and other issues with everyone in the Duke community.