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Officials: Planned academic initiatives on track

With the Board of Trustees undertaking a review of the strategic plan this weekend, many top officials believe the University is rapidly progressing toward its goals and that the document, entitled "Building on Excellence," has been comprehensive and useful.

"I do indeed feel that the plan has been very successful in 'keeping our eye on the ball' in terms of where we invest our resources of time, energy and creative thinking," President Nan Keohane wrote in an e-mail. "It has helped us be more strategic in every sense of the word, and the impact on the campus... has been visible and very positive."

The plan, approved Feb. 23, 2001, outlines nine broad goals for the University. It also recommends specific actions in addressing these aims, a feature that some say distinguishes Building on Excellence from previous strategic plans.

"The plan is real," said Dean of Natural Sciences Berndt Mueller. "It really has defined the agenda."

Some also credit the plan's success to a high level of faculty support and input.

"What this particular plan has done is, instead of the administration responding on an ad hoc basis to whatever comes along, there was a systematic effort to collect ideas," said Vice Provost for International Affairs Gilbert Merkx.

Most deans said they are pleased with the progress made in the first two years of the plan. William Chafe, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, said Arts and Sciences is "right on target," citing developments in the study of genomics and improvement in female and minority faculty recruitment as early successes.

One area that has made tremendous strides under Building on Excellence is natural sciences, reported Mueller.

"All our science departments are much stronger now than they were four years ago," he said, adding that grant activity has increased by 30 percent in natural sciences, enrollment is up and many departments have improved their standing in national rankings.

Nanoscience and material science development are progressing more slowly, Mueller said, although that should change with the anticipated construction of new facilities, including the Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering Medical and Applied Sciences research building and the French Science Center.

The plan has also encouraged the development of internationalization by including that aim as one of the nine core goals, which Merkx said was "enormously helpful."

The number of international undergraduate students has increased from 1.5 percent to 6 percent since the plan went into effect, he said. In addition, some financial aid is being offered for international students, a departure from past policy that now allows the University to diversify its foreign contingent.

In the remaining years before 2005, when Building on Excellence is set to expire, Merkx hopes to step up efforts by encouraging directors of undergraduate studies to incorporate an international component in their departments.

If global reach and influence have always been there for the taking, other areas - such as the University's integration of information technology - are limited by the rate of developments in the field.

However, the Office of Information Technology can point to a considerable number of successes under the strategic plan, including the proliferation of wireless networking, special student pricing for laptop computers and the implementation of Blackboard, which is now used by one-fourth of courses.

Mike Pickett, deputy chief information officer for OIT, said his office is now starting to review the role of distance learning, approaching the idea less as an enemy than as a potential asset.

"There are situations where making distance learning available could be a good supplement to the classroom experience," Pickett said, citing study abroad students who are having difficulty with Curriculum 2000 requirements or students at the Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C., as potential beneficiaries of such a system.

Another goal under the strategic plan will be integrating video into the classroom, such as videoconferencing technology that would "bring experts into classes without them having to travel to Durham," Pickett said.

Though pleased with the progress under the strategic plan so far, Keohane called for some degree of restraint.

"The main challenges have been in making sure that people keep our focus and not move too quickly to try to do lots of other new things as well, until we get at least the main parts of the plan in place," Keohane wrote.

"And yet we don't ever want to dampen the creative spirit of this place, so realistically, more new ideas arise all the time, and some of them can be fitted in with where we are going without deviating from our basic plan."


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