For most seniors, this Valentine’s Day signals the end of a passionate love affair with the University. For one, however, this week will mark the beginning of a new chapter in an enduring romance with Duke: He will begin his post-graduate journey as our next Young Trustee.
What is the Young Trustee? The highest honor Duke can bestow upon an undergraduate, the role of Young Trustee is a privilege given to the student body. In his 1977 memorandum, former Duke President Terry Sanford outlined the rationale behind selecting a Young Trustee: “The reason for including students on the Board of Trustees was quite different from representation. The desire was to get younger members on the Board… whose viewpoint, close to the students, would be a valuable addition.”
Like anyone in a trust position, the Young Trustee cannot be a representative of the student body or any other constituency, but rather—in the interests of the entire institution—s/he would be a gate-keeper whose close-to-college perspective could add new dimension to the Board’s deliberations.
Why all this fuss about it? Most student governance bodies at Duke have little direct influence on the direction of university policymaking. While these organizations play a significant role in student lives, they make recommendations that are often accepted, but not required to be heeded, by the administration.
The Young Trustee is entirely different. Duke entrusts in this position the power to serve on the Board of Trustees for a three-year term-alongside the likes of Peter Nicholas, David Gergen and Dan Blue. The Young Trustee has thus been given a tremendously influential role at the highest level of decision-making in the University.
How is the Young Trustee selected? Chaired by DSG Vice-President for Community Interaction Joel Kliksberg, the Young Trustee Nominating Committee had the unenviable job of narrowing the field of initial applicants (including myself) down to eight semifinalists, and then after a round of interviews whittling the elite eight to three.
The YTNC consists of the Honor Council chair, the Student Organizations Finance Committee chair, a Community Service Center co-director, and the presidents of East Campus Council, BSA, ASA, Mi Gente, Diya, MSA, Freeman Center/Hillel, Duke University Union, Campus Council, IFC, Panhel, NPHC and AQUADuke. A student representative to a Board of Trustees committee is also invited to serve on the YTNC.
At the DSG meeting this Wednesday, the Senate and the YTNC will choose one finalist via secret ballot to be our next Young Trustee.
What are the finalists like? When I think of the Young Trustee, I think of the very best that Duke has to offer, its unparalleled commitment to undergraduates, and a passion for truth that motivates the entire educational enterprise. Anthony Vitarelli, Jonathan Bigelow and Andrew Wisnewski are all exemplars of these virtues—and people I have the privilege to call friends.
While Kliksberg describes the candidates as equally “charismatic, intelligent student leaders with a wide breadth of knowledge about how Duke works and similar access to high-level university officials,” there exist important differences. Vitarelli is the consummate policymaker whose love for Duke and passion for residential life shine through his glasses and quirky persona.
“Duke has been the most formative experience of my life,” he said. “I want to give back and make a difference.” Vitarelli’s strength lies in his broad perspective—putting Duke in context with national university trends—and in his keen understanding that “function follows form” when it comes to academic and residential spaces.
If Vitarelli is the politician of the group, then Bigelow is the artist. Bigelow, a self-described “glass half-empty kind of person,” quietly revolutionized the Duke University Union during his tenure as president. His focus-on-the-weaknesses leadership style has transferred beyond the Union’s programming to all sectors of the University, noting gaps in his own Duke experience.
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“I was significantly impaired entering my Duke education. That’s not anyone’s fault, but we don’t do a good enough job of differentiation [in advising],” he said. “I started taking risks, but you can’t make students take risks.” While Bigelow stresses the importance of nurturing less sexy academic pursuits like Germanic and classical studies, he understands the “huge potential” of the Central Campus renovation and the Medical Center for our larger communities.
Wisnewski’s approach is more colloquial than his counterparts. While he cites his “aggressive enthusiasm” as his most outstanding quality, Duke has helped him grow “competent in [his] confidence.” With strong faith in the University’s mission and fearlessness in asking questions, Wisnewski believes his experience as YTNC chair, in DSG, and in the community makes him distinctly qualified for the position.
“Duke is unique in its success as a young institution in the South,” he said, “but we must take a more proactive role in everything we do.”
Who should receive the honor? As a North Carolina citizen from rural Lumberton, Jonathan “Deuce” Bigelow is uniquely suited for the role of Young Trustee. His first interaction with Duke brought him to the Medical Center, where he familiarized himself with its structure and challenges as a patient. While not as good off-the-cuff as Vitarelli or Wisnewski, Bigelow brings a rare thoughtfulness to the table. He listens well, speaks only when necessary, and does not couch his comments in vague generalities. Furthermore, he is unapologetic about directing constructive criticism toward the University he loves. These traits will serve him well in the high-powered environment of the Board of Trustees.
“We have a lot of maturing to do as a university,” he said. And with the great power of the Young Trustee’s post, Vitarelli, Bigelow or Wisnewski will have a lot of maturing to do in responsibility.
Philip Kurian is a Trinity senior. His column appears Mondays.