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What is a university?

A curious thing happened a few days ago. While walking across the Chapel loop during the last quiet days of summer, I stopped and read the imprinted metal plaque that sits midway along that path, directly in front of the Chapel. I had never read it before and was surprised to find that it says the following:

"The aims of Duke University are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teaching and character of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; to advance learning in all things of truth; to defend scholarship against all false notions and ideals; to develop a Christian love of freedom and truth; to promote a sincere spirit of tolerance: to discourage all partisan and sectarian strife, and to render the largest permanent service to the state, the nation, and the church. Unto these ends shall the efforts of this university always be administered."

Having reflected much in the last three years about my own dissatisfaction with this "University"--the fractured incoherence of most program of study, the shallowness of student life, the mediocrity of student interests, the mendacity of our administrative officials, the triteness of our campus controversies and politically correct bulls--t wherever you look--the words on the plaque astounded me, because they provided the first conclusive evidence I have found that, in addition to being a failure by my standards, this "University" actually fails by those standards it has set for itself. If the passage above indeed describes how the efforts of Duke University are to be administered, it seems abundantly clear that we can no longer call ourselves Duke University. What I seriously propose, then, is that we change our name. This proposal should stand regardless of whether one likes Jesus, truth, the state, unity or even tobacco. Duke University should change its name simply and honestly because we no longer deserve it.

Some will insist that I am overreacting. They may argue, and it is at least initially plausible, that we do indeed have the fragments lying around to construct an adequate semblance of a university. We can leave the Christian stuff to the Divinity School, exempt the Literature Program from the "truth clause," claim that identity politics unify all in the long run, and pretend that public policy is a real discipline. That the undergraduate curriculum "matrix" and advising system leave most students with an education that appears to be assembled by a random number generator is not a serious problem, because the resources to achieve a satisfactory education are there for anyone who already understands what a satisfactory education would entail. Thankfully, a decent social life is not required by the above passage, so no one need be encumbered with the task of explaining why we don't have one. We can borrow the unity and truth from the hard sciences, have the Orwellian Office of Institutional Equity provide all the enlightened tolerance we need, and the Christian love of freedom--well, as long as we mean freedom of expression, we're okay. However, this is a project, which, despite my most charitable attempt of parodying it, just doesn't work. We are not Duke University, and even the title "University" is dubious.

What, then, are we? What sort of new name should we adopt? Here are a few suggestions: Since most students are primarily here to be trained for a decent job upon graduation, we can drop the whole "liberal arts" and "forming-great-minds-by-the-best-that-has-been-thought-and-said" shams and admit that we are a glorified vocational technical institute. The vo-tech approach is probably the most honest and will render creative names like "Duke-Tech," "Blue Devil Employment Agency," or "DVTI." The career counseling center can move to the Allen Building, engineers will finally be given the respect they deserve, and we can cease wasting resources on the distracting non-productive liberal arts. But we all know that Duke really isn't about students making money. No, it is about Duke making money, which is why corporate sponsorship is probably the next, best way to go.

Given our Melinda Gates connection and her husband's market cap, Microsoft is in an excellent position to buy naming rights and reap the benefits of a franchise that raised $2 billion in the last five years of its capital campaign. Alumni have been donating to Duke for years without a clue about what actually happens here. As long as we keep basketball and the nifty Blue Devil logo, they likely won't care if the name changes to "Southeastern Regional Cash Bank, Microsoft Inc." Education is a profitable enterprise, and with someone paying better attention to the bottom line, even more departments could flourish in which rich students seeking a four-year vacation from the real world could feel at home (or the sociology department could just expand).

As a last resort, we may opt to recognize the colonial oppressiveness of naming and characterizing, and establish as the "Institution formerly known as Duke." Since diversity is the answer to any and all challenges this institution faces, graduates will leave with a collage rather than a degree, and all pretensions of giving a larger account of who we are can be abandoned all together.

There is, however, an alternative to dropping the Duke University name. We might begin to think seriously about what a university should be and, even if we do not arrive back at the words on the Chapel loop plaque, realize what some of the conditions of credibility are for holding this title. Such an examination might begin with the acknowledgement that for more than a few students, getting admitted is the most challenging part of their Duke career. The first profound discovery that our freshmen will make this semester is that our elite University really isn't that elite at all. The second discovery some will make is that students who are serious and do aspire to the highest ideals of a university education are not well supported by the "University" they attend.

Bill English is a Trinity senior. His column appears every other Monday.


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