New students, new president

While the opening convocation for freshmen and new transfer students is a centuries-old tradition, this year’s ceremony celebrated the uniqueness of the incoming Class of 2008 and the “newness” of entering the Duke community for both the students and the University’s ninth president.

Presenting the freshmen to President Richard Brodhead, Director of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag boasted the impressive achievements of the new Duke students, which were selected from a record-setting pool of over 16,700 applicants. As examples, Guttentag noted that one student is a three-time world equestrian champion, another already has had his math research published in two textbooks and a third student had taught himself six computer languages by the seventh grade.

“Each year this event is special to all of us,” said Guttentag, who noted that 800 high school valedictorians were denied admission to Duke. “We chose you as individuals.... Something said clearly, ‘This person has something special to offer to Duke.’”

This year’s ceremony was particularly significant, as it was the first freshman convocation over which Brodhead presided. In his convocation address, the former dean of Yale College identified with the incoming students’ challenge of adjusting to their new Duke surroundings.

“As I’m sure you have already felt, you and I have everything in common. I too spent last year deciding where to go to college; I too weighed alternatives while others were weighing alternatives to me; I too was lucky enough to have the choice of Duke; I too was clever enough to take it,” he said to a chuckling crowd of freshman in the Duke Chapel. “It may take you a day or two to settle in, but you have this on high presidential authority: You stand on the verge of a great new life.”

Brodhead also turned his attention to the parents and friends of students in the Class of 2008, who were watching the ceremony in Page Auditorium through a simulcast feed, and he insisted on justifying their remote viewing location.

“Truth to tell, your location this hour makes a kind of sense. One of the kindest humans I have ever met said this to parents on the opening day of college: ‘You’ve done so much for your sons and daughters, you’ve supported them in so many ways, now there’s one more thing you must do for them: Go home,’” Brodhead said. “Your goal as parents when your children were younger was to help them grow into splendid competent people who could carry on their own. Well, the day has come to make the test, and your hour in Page Auditorium can be thought of as a trial separation.”

Parent John Rossiter-Thornton of Toronto, whose daughter Natalia is a freshman, watched Brodhead’s convocation speech from Page and agreed with the president’s comments on the peripheral role that parents should now take in their children’s education.

“His advice to parents is good: ‘Go home,’” Rossiter-Thornton said. “It’s hard to follow, but if we don’t do that they won’t be free to make their own mistakes and successes.”

Later in his address to the students, Brodhead further highlighted the significance of entering the University community.

Appealing to the philosophy that human societies are established when members enter into a social contract, Brodhead pointed to the public signing of the Duke Community Standard after the ceremony as the founding act of membership in the University community.

“The physical act of signing doesn’t make these norms more obligatory. Nevertheless, it does give your embrace of them the quality of a deliberate, conscious, voluntary act,” the eloquent president said. “It enacts the thought that you become a member of this community by embracing certain values—an idea I much admire.”

Elaborating on the notion of the Community Standard as a compact, Brodhead continued by proposing the academic and social terms of the agreement.

Although he acknowledged the broad-ranging Curriculum 2000 matrix as a “somewhat complicated beast,” he challenged students in the Class of 2008 to tackle the curricular requirements as “instruments of aspiration” to feed their academic curiosity and exploration.

“You could construe those same requirements as your own intellectual goals, guides to mental muscle-groups an educated person would want to develop, knowledges and competences that would help you build a capable, powerful mind,” Brodhead said. “If you really can’t think what possible good being competent at writing or a foreign language or quantitative skills could ever do you, you’d better come see me almost at once.”

Socially, Brodhead encouraged the new students to reach out beyond their comfort zones and seek out people different from themselves.

“Though we all hate prejudice, superior people though we are, we are all deeply skilled in the mental sorting devices by which humans parse a world of strangers and identify, on the basis of shamefully superficial external signs, whether they are ‘my kind’ or not,” he said. “Proceeding on autopilot, you could locate the universe of those ‘like’ you on such initial measures and silently erase the rest of your classmates; or, by being a little more adventurous, you could open yourself to other types and take a deeper measure of what you might share. Which do you suppose will be more educational: a world of mutually repelling comfort zones or a world of free, spirited interaction across all real or imagined social lines?”

Freshman Claire Lauterbach of Arlington, Va., was impressed by Brodhead’s remarks. “It was nice to hear the expectations that we as students will be measured by. And at the same time, he was very reassuring,” she said.

Joel Auerbach of Brookline, Mass., father of incoming freshman Becky Auerbach, was particularly impressed by the University’s emphasis on the Community Standard. “It’s a very exciting time for Duke,” he said. “This is our third college convocation, and they’re pretty much the same, but [Brodhead] was terrific. And making the students sign the pact makes the Community Standard more tangible.”

Alex Huang of Gurnee, Ill., another freshman, found Brodhead’s speech both entertaining and insightful. “I liked that he touched on issued that freshmen would be concerned about,” he said, “like meeting new people and giving different people a chance, and also the academic aspect—taking opportunities and making something useful out of it.”


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