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Reimagining the enterprise

When future generations look back upon this time in Duke history, their main observation will likely be the overwhelming pace of our physical development. Right now, we are about two-thirds of the way through a virtually unprecedented Construction Era. Not since West Campus was erected in the 1920s have we seen such a sustained flurry of building, nor will we see one for quite some time following the completion of the Central Campus renovation in 20 years or so.

The costs have been astronomical. We have been able to pay our way so far thanks in part to prudent management, a recent $2.36 billion capital campaign and our meager endowment.

But the burden of paying for the Construction Era is shared by everyone—in subtle, painful and sometimes unfortunate ways. Arts and Sciences, the heart of the University, is in the red and has had to reduce the size of its faculty by a once-unthinkable 20 positions. Departments have had to take smaller and smaller graduate classes, with history nearly having no graduate class a few years back. Undergraduate tuition, already higher at Duke than at our Ivy counterparts, is now rising at a higher rate than it did several years ago. And the administration is forced to nickel-and-dime its faculty, staff, students and guests with higher parking fines than at any of our peer schools.

We’re not destitute by any means, but nor do we have the endowment of a Harvard or Princeton. Our Campaign for Duke just ended, making it tough to shake down wealthy alums again anytime soon. We can’t raise tuition too high or we will price ourselves out of academic excellence. We must find creative solutions to this challenge of rising costs.

The best idea I have yet heard was alluded to by former President Nan Keohane in her farewell speech to the faculty. She exhorted the University to “reimagine the enterprise” and cut costs through more effective use of cross-institutional collaboration.

The great advantage of this strategy is that it exploits an unrealized opportunity and increases everyone’s welfare at minimal cost. To use an economics metaphor, cross-institutional collaboration is free trade—with the same likely gains for Duke that countries enjoy when they open their economies. And if we can move quickly, we can also gain the benefits of the entrepreneur who strikes while others slumber.

The Duke of the future is a sleeker, more efficient model of university that can pursue grand projects while keeping its costs within reason. We need not sacrifice the quality of our educational program or any of our independence. Core departments should not be eliminated wholesale.

But come hiring season, for example, Duke might choose not to expend funds for a new Southern history faculty member. The history department could instead send students to UNC for an outstanding Southern history course. The money saved—$100,000 for the faculty member search, perhaps $100,000 per annum for the salary—could be allocated to slow tuition hikes, ensure the continued viability of key academic programs or fund trailblazing new research. In addition, collaboration preserves and probably improves the students’ educational experience, since UNC’s Southern history faculty is one of the best in the country.

Cross-institutional collaboration also provides ancillary benefits to Duke, our partners and the broader region. Shared opportunities at UNC or N.C. State will encourage members of those universities’ communities to learn more about Duke and perhaps obtain a more balanced perspective about our institution. Duke is not an elitist or arrogant place, but it is often viewed as such from outside our walls. Through cooperation with other universities, Duke has an opportunity to better integrate into the Triangle and convey its commitment to academic and cultural leadership of the entire region.

We have come a long way with the traditional university model, but going forward, the status quo will not suffice. We must think as creatively and ambitiously on the revenue side as we have on the expenditure side. Cross-institutional collaboration is the key.

Andrew Collins is a Trinity senior and a former University Editor for The Chronicle. His column appears Tuesdays.

 

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