No value is more American or more collegiate than skepticism.
The elegant checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution basically reflect the idea that no person, no institution—no matter how venerable—can be trusted. Likewise, as a great world university, Duke stands on a foundation of skepticism. This foundation is the freedom to propose crazy ideas and challenge canonical ones; the obligation, through persistent attempts at refutation, to either bolster or revise prevailing views.
As I reflect on this lofty role of skepticism and as I finish writing another eight pages of by-laws that will be read in full by three people (tops), I empathize with those who are skeptical of DSG. And as I walk the half-mile to my car, bloated from expensive grab-and-go, praying to not get towed, I have my gripes with Duke. The hypothesis that DSG is futile and that the administration is evil, however, also deserves a critical eye. Therefore, I rise to defend some of Duke’s and DSG’s most criticized elements: long meetings, dry procedural rules and student-administrative relations.
Wednesday night Senate meetings are, it seems, a torture for participants and a laughingstock for observers. “The question is, that the previous question be now called on the motion to lay the amendment on the table,” I call out, sounding more like a caricature of bureaucracy than a legitimate student leader. In reality, however, rules of order are a necessary burden: They are the only way to ensure that all 67 members of the Senate have a fair chance to hear multiple viewpoints, ask questions, speak up and vote on issues. Further, the length of our meetings reflects diligence, not inefficiency. We allocate a total budget of over $700,000 a year, but even small grants pre-vetted by the Student Organization Finance Committee often receive probing questions and sometimes vigorous debate. Likewise, before we pass by-laws that govern selection processes or judicial review, we want to make sure that we’ve considered all contingencies and weighed the pros and cons.
We do this because rules matter. If you apply for a student position on a trustee committee, DSG rules ensure that you get a fair interview and a Senate review of the process. If your club applies for funding, rules protect its right to a public hearing with SOFC and, if necessary, a formal appeal to the elected Senate. Of course, rules are a drag, especially when we feel we could be fair without them. Healthy American skepticism, however, requires that all authorities—from Duke Student Government to the Office of Student Conduct to the U.S. Department of Education—hold themselves to written, publicly debated and enforceable rules.
Rules are also not the primary goal of DSG. Our main job, though fulfilled in a less public forum, is to improve tangible aspects of student life. In direct response to DSG lobbying and input, administrators and faculty have (to name a few) eliminated the statute of limitations and increased the sanctions for sexual assault, moved course evaluations online and improved their content, brought lunchtime food trucks to campus, made Knock and Talks friendlier and started an entirely new academic tradition. Throughout, I’ve been struck by the sincerity and helpfulness of Duke administrators.
Don’t get me wrong: I still have many frustrations. Reforms that seemed like no-brainers have required persistent advocacy. Some adverse changes have been pushed through without adequate consultation of those affected. Nevertheless, administrators have been overwhelmingly willing to listen to student concerns, to share their own reasoning and to change policy and practice for the better when they can. Likewise, I’ve come into some meetings angry and left convinced that the current situation is better than any feasible alternative. I’ve also seen that while Duke needs to balance its budget, the tradeoff is always between valuable programs; Duke has no greedy owners or wasteful slush funds to pay off at students’ expense.
Accordingly, in an age when professional politicians are hasty to filibuster nominations and take us to the brink of default instead of negotiating, I am skeptical of scapegoating the Allen Building. Before jumping to a condemnatory conclusion, we should all subject our own ideas to real skepticism and real dialogue with the other side. That way, we can transcend polarization to move Duke forward and the level of public discourse upward.
In summary, be skeptical—of research findings, of government, of my column. At the same time, beware that true skepticism is the polar opposite of uninformed contempt and partisan intransigence.
Nikolai Doytchinov is a Trinity junior and the executive vice president of Duke Student Government. His column is the tenth installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written by members of Duke Student Government. Send Nikolai a message on Twitter @DukeStudentGov.