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Brodhead and the ownership society

President Richard Brodhead wants to create an ownership society here at Duke. In his much-hyped “discussion” of undergraduate life last Tuesday, he presented an undeniably conservative vision of personal choice and entrepreneurship.

It’s bold and maybe brilliant. Instead of sitting on our laurels waiting for research opportunities, Brodhead exhorts us to go out and create them. He acknowledges that students are going to congregate in fraternity-like groups no matter what and that responsibility for healthy drinking habits ultimately lies with us. He defined Duke less as a summer camp than as a library ripe to be explored, stressing that our undergraduate experience will be as rich or as impoverished as we make it.

With this conservative vision firmly on the table, Brodhead’s next task is to roll back some of the paternalistic policies that belie his faith in the undergraduate. The administration’s heavy hand looms most oppressively over social life, so Brodhead would be well advised to start there in transforming his rhetoric into reality.

Here is a proposal: Brodhead could give students a large social space on the new Central Campus and appoint a committee of students to determine its uses. Let us do what we want with it and perhaps his vision of a more responsible, self-empowered student body will come to fruition.

Maybe we’ll turn it into a Shooters-style club. Maybe we’ll make it a more sophisticated bar/lounge area. Maybe we’ll hold those whiffleball games and cooking competitions that Eddie Hull has been talking about. Whatever we do, it will be more legitimate and therefore more popular than anything the administration could package as artificially “cool.”

If Brodhead is not interested in providing students with real ownership of their own social activities, I am confused about his message. Emphasizing student initiative means more than telling us to search for grants on the Arts and Sciences website. It means having faith that we will hold up our end of the bargain on the Community Standard, the law and the standards of Duke. It means giving us the power to take initiative on things that really matter.

Some people say that “college students” only want to get black-out drunk and destroy themselves and others. Brodhead evidently disagrees, and so do I. Both of us believe that if individual students want to cut out the harmful behavior, they can; more importantly, both of us believe that a fundamental shift in the culture of this place can be effected through nothing more than the collective will of the undergraduates themselves.

What would really happen if Brodhead gave us the keys to a new social facility? My guess is that the next generation’s Pashas and Vitarellis would join with other student leaders and fraternity presidents to develop plans for a kick-ass, undergraduate-friendly bar where students could go drink, watch games and hear some great music on a Friday night. In short, it would be a college bar—that species found in nearly every other college town but ours—and it would be within walking distance, just like it should be. There’d be less grandstanding from disgruntled Trinity Park residents; more importantly, there’d be less drunk driving.

Yes, a Duke student died from alcohol overconsumption six years ago. We should do everything we can to discourage the behavior that leads to this kind of tragedy. But let’s not get confused here—the correlation between sports bars and death is just about nil. Permitting a real on-campus bar might cause a public relations problem, but it would assuredly not make students more likely to binge and die. If anything, the fact that it would be a public establishment and its location on the new mature-and-sophisticated Central would encourage moderation.

A sports bar is only one of many possibilities. I would like to see what students can do when given the opportunity to be accountable and really develop their entrepreneurial skills. We don’t need a babysitter-cum-dean preaching the virtues of three-legged races and turning aghast when students touch the devil’s juice.

Brodhead has talked a big game and seems to have a real understanding of what students are and what they can be. He has shown some faith in us, and I’m impressed. Now I’d like to see him stand and deliver.

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

 

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