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Crisis of creativity

Something strange is happening at Duke. A few months into the New Era, and we seem to be mired in a malaise.

Where things should be fresh, they are stale. Where ideas should be plentiful, they are absent. Where we should be optimistic, we are pessimistic. Where the mood on campus should be hungry, it is strangely complacent.

After years of brashly and unabashedly striving to improve its academic reputation, undergraduate program and faculty recruitment, Duke now sits at a treacherous crossroads. Administrators, students and faculty must not indulge their sense of satisfaction about Duke’s newly achieved position in the pantheon of elite universities—we must continue the undignified, sweaty push for greatness that has made us envied and hated but nonetheless respected.

We are not the stewards of Duke University. We are its motors. If we aim to merely hold steady, we will fall behind.

Duke’s new president, Richard Brodhead, has not yet demonstrated that he is as visionary as Nan Keohane. So far, we have heard that he wants to continue cross-disciplinary initiatives, strengthen relations with Durham, recruit great teachers and researchers, improve the undergraduate experience and step up financial aid. All of those policies are sound, of course, but they are mere continuations of conventional wisdom. Tell us something new, like when President Keohane asked us to “reimagine the enterprise” by reducing the University’s offerings in favor of cross-institutional collaboration or when she inspired alumni, friends and others to give over $2 billion in the Campaign for Duke.

For now, stories about Brodhead’s impish good humor are far more abundant than any discussion of his revolutionary and inspiring ideas. He is universally beloved—fair enough. But his phenomenal popularity in this early phase of his presidency seems all the more reason for him to strike while the iron is hot.

Meanwhile, over in Residence Life and Housing Services, creativity has fallen into a coma with the unimaginative and grievously ill-advised effort to shut down campus social life. Duke police officers now wander the halls of completely quiet West Campus residence halls, demanding to see and scan the identifications of 21-year-old students (myself included) who have shown no evidence of drinking. Officers need not provide any justification for their infringement on residents’ privacy and trust, and the residence hall police state is thoroughly supported by RLHS officials.

This is just the latest in a series of oft-discussed policy shifts that have sucked the social life out of West Campus. I was once skeptical that the administration seriously wanted to get rid of all fraternities and drive all parties off campus. Now, there can be no doubt of RLHS intentions. Its aggressive anti-party, looking-for-trouble attitude has already had the effect of suffocating the campus on weekend nights. What RLHS officials don’t realize—yet—is that the vaunted “community spirit” they seek is mortally undermined by their intransigence on parties. There are surely better ways to deal with underage drinking than to smother spirit and overpolice; why can’t we get any creativity from RLHS?

Administrators are not alone in their complacency. The Chronicle has lost the dreamer’s spirit that it had under former Editor Alex Garinger and has become a journal of naysaying. In recent weeks it has argued against forming a new sorority, against funding a student-organized Kerry-Edwards rally and even—astonishingly—against making the campus more bike-friendly. The shrill refrains of “unnecessary” and “violating regulations” echo more and more in staff editorials, to the dismay of those of us who remember when The Chronicle was a creative force for fresh ideas and cared little for business as usual.

Even more disheartening is evidence that The Chronicle has bought into the pessimistic anti-Greek rhetoric that certain quarters of the administration have been spouting for years. The Chronicle’s Sept. 27 staff editorial against bringing Zeta Tau Alpha to campus argues that allowing the sorority would create additional racial and class segregation. Oh—like Delta Tau Delta, the other new addition to the Greek scene and also one of the most diverse fraternities at Duke? The Chronicle goes on to claim that the “core four” sororities would become more elitist with fewer members, apparently not considering that those would-be TriDelts or Kappas might now join Alpha Phi or ADPi, thereby making the sorority world less elitist. Again, the pessimism is ill-conceived and unnecessary.

Ironically, Duke Student Government seems revitalized in comparison to past years. This is relative, of course—it had formerly been a self-absorbed, incompetent, do-nothing congress—but its proposal to fund kegs was inspired and DSG President Pasha Majdi has been as student-friendly as advertised. That said, when DSG is your bright spot for fresh ideas and coherent action, you know your university is stuck in a rut.

Let’s not lose sight of our idealism—the soft spot for bike trails, big ideas and a good frat throwdown on a Saturday night. Please. Our path to success has been paved with bold, imperfect dreams and a reverence for effortful creativity. Now, certainly, is not the time to stop dreaming.

 

 

Andrew Collins is a Trinity senior and former University Editor of The Chronicle.

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