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Courage and conviction

President Richard Brodhead had his annual "conversation" with Duke Student Government and the Graduate and Professional Student Council Monday night.

Brodhead was his usual part-Yogi Bear, part-Droopy Dog self, all topped off with a mustache that would make Beetle Bailey's General Amos T. Halftrack proud. He stuttered through the evening and dropped his quirky witticisms, to which the audience responded with appreciative chuckles.

My personal favorite was his assessment of Texas in their game against Duke earlier this season: "I've seen high school teams that looked better than that."

But unlike every other time I've heard Brodhead speak, when I'd been left with a warm and fuzzy feeling inside, I departed Monday's conversation feeling, more than anything, empty.

It was obvious that the members of GPSC were much more prepared throughout the meeting, firing tough questions at Brodhead. The GPSC representatives asked about very difficult issues, and it was clear that Brodhead didn't have an answer ready for everything. But he is a consummate presenter and spoke on every issue, even if he didn't give direct answers.

The DSG members, on the other hand, were content to ask the president to expand on his discussion of the long-range plan, inquire how DSG could help with the Financial Aid Initiative, get President Brodhead's opinion on how DSG should operate and, after much prompting from Brodhead, ask for his views on ARAMARK in the form of, "So, what do you think about dining?" Hardly an inspiring showing.

Two members of DSG, however, were impressive, as they have been in DSG meetings all year. Sophomore Tina Hoang brought up issues that concern the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community at Duke, citing that these groups are now thought to make up 10 percent of the population of this country. She asked about the possibility of non-gender-specific bathrooms in the plans for Central Campus and another option to check on forms besides male or female.

Senior Jamie Campbell expressed the frustration students feel over parking services, especially when it comes to the excessive number and cost of fines (see the four facebook groups against Duke parking). Brodhead responded by rejoicing in the fact that the "great plains" of North Carolina were much more fertile ground for parking than the cities in which he spent his life prior to Duke.

He said the Blue Zone looked like "God made it for parking," adding that his spot (in the West Campus circle) was so good that he didn't really feel too strongly about parking. While his remarks got laughs, Brodhead never really answered Campbell's question.

Now, a university president should not make parking his first priority. Nor should he make LGBT issues his sole concern. But he should realize both issues are very important to students and be more prepared to answer questions about them rather than cracking jokes or talking around the issue.

DSG, which is by definition composed of students who go to Duke for four years (in most cases), is most concerned with student life issues. Athletics and Campus Services and Student Affairs are the two most visible and active committees in DSG because students can effect changes in student life in the short amount of time that they attend Duke.

In some sense, we as students expect Brodhead and other administrators to take care of academics without our help. Duke was a great institution when we applied, and we have faith that it will continue be. This is not to suggest students should not care at all about professorships, but rather to say that a student government can call for and create more change in issues of student life and services than in the classroom.

By asking about the long-range plan, financial aid initiative and professor retention, the student representatives were asking Brodhead to talk about things he already knows a lot and feels strongly about. Those who asked about maternity leave for graduate students and the absence of black faculty members in pre-med classes were challenging him, and it was obvious he didn't have answers ready.

President Brodhead called for more boldness Monday night, for people at Duke to speak out with the "courage of their convictions," stressing the courage more than convictions. Senators Hoang and Campbell are the only two members of DSG who have displayed that courage with any regularity this year. If most of our student leaders can't have that courage, or any discernible convictions, we need to find some who do.

Elizabeth Rudisill is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Thursday.

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