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Commentary: How to improve undergraduate life

With the ushering in of Yalie Richard Brodhead as our next president, Duke is at a crucial juncture in its development as an institution of higher learning. On the heels of the fifth largest university fundraising campaign in American history and Nan's initiative to explore the quality of life for women in the community, Duke has renewed its commitment to both excellence and equality in higher education.


   But, as always, we have a long way to go. And in order to improve life at Duke, President-Elect Brodhead must be sure to focus on three areas of particular interest to undergraduates.


   1) Intellectual life:


   The virulent cult of pre-professionalism at Duke must come to an end. It is antithetical to a liberal arts education, discourages intellectual risk-taking and hinders the development of talents that generally go unrewarded by the market for goods and services. Nothing against those who genuinely find their passions in preprof-dom, but Duke has lost a whole generation of aspiring writers, biologists, teachers, musicians, comedians and others to the more lucrative ranks of medicine, law and business. Duke must work harder to nurture those undergraduates with nascent interests that don't necessarily fit a pre-packaged mold. A good place to start would be financial aid, perhaps following in the footsteps of Princeton University, which has begun to offer grants instead of loans to students with demonstrated need. Princeton has thus reaffirmed its mission to support all post-college endeavors, not just those that can pay the bills.


   By supporting the renovated Career Center and the fresh initiatives of its new leadership, by promoting alternatives to the pre-professional programs offered during orientation, and by creating a new model for undergraduate mentorship that draws on the wealth of experiences in the Duke community, Brodhead can change the pre-professional mentality so ingrained in Duke undergraduate life. His status as a world-renowned English scholar will serve him well, as a renewed emphasis on the humanities both inside and outside the classroom will be essential for the development of intellectualism at Duke, and for the blurring of boundaries between working and playing hard.


   2) Development of community:


   In many ways, community development at Duke goes hand-in-hand with intellectual life. Nurturing alternative paths for life after Duke will go far in supporting alternative lifestyles on campus, which are often suppressed by the excessively greek, exclusionary system of selective organizations that receive University-sponsored housing perks. I would prefer secret societies any day to this administratively encouraged method of marginalization that can severely prescribe social norms for women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities. To some extent already under way, a full dismantling of the greek/selective culture at this University will help Duke students form meaningful, long-term relationships across culture and difference--relationships that are informed by, but go far beyond, the multicultural shows and centers. In this manner we can move from simply espousing diversity as an ambiguous statistic to actually realizing the benefits of the different human experiences within our reach. Not forming these relationships outside the comfort zone is perhaps the greatest failure of our Duke educations.


   Building on the highly praised freshman East Campus experience, Brodhead should draw on his experiences with the Yale residential college system, in which students are randomly assigned to their equally priced four-year living quarters, to inform decisions about Duke's residential life. A direct result of this process would be to create a housing system where financial need and race do not factor so heavily into our decision-making. Many students will decry this restriction of their autonomy in deciding where to live, but the phenomena of wealth and race segregation are problems of individual choice that plague America to this day; thus there seems to be an outstanding moral impetus for greater administrative jurisdiction in the housing arena at Duke, a supposed haven for our most prized social ideals.


   3) Maintenance of what is quintessentially Duke:


   At the same time, Brodhead must always remember, however, that Duke is not his lifelong New Haven home. While the Yale trademark conjures images of deeply rooted power and prestige, Duke is a relative upstart--new money in a field of bluebloods. The average Duke student is not a Phillips Andover graduate, our University will be forever shaped by its southern upbringing, we don't take ourselves too seriously and Duke has a strong legacy of institutional fluidity that responds to student needs and concerns. (You need look no further than Program II or the multitude of double majors on campus, both rarities among the Ivies.)


   The Chronicle recently reported that, in 2001, blacks made up less than three percent and women just slightly more than a quarter of the Yale faculty. Notwithstanding these disturbing statistics, several Yalies familiar with faculty affairs have commented on the unwillingness of administrative personnel--particularly Brodhead--to be upfront about their stance on these issues. Bringing this attitude to Duke would be disastrous for our future president, especially considering the tremendous strides our university has made towards equality in the last few decades.


   Brodhead's documented dislike of conflict and his hesitancy to comment on contentious issues suggests a leader without a clear idea of the positive change a university can bring about in the world. While his caution in using the bully pulpit should be lauded, the president-elect must reaffirm Duke's dedication to equality by continuing the smooth execution of the Women's Initiative, the President's Council on Black Affairs, and our historic student influence in all administrative decisions, including those of the Board of Trustees.


   If our future president pledges himself wholeheartedly to reforming undergraduate life in these ways, we will all be able to say, with certainty,


   Joy to Nannerl, Richard Brodhead's come!


   Philip Kurian is a Trinity junior. His column appears every other Monday.


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