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Victims of their own success

This is a University of two Dukes. For the first, the letter with "congratulations" at the top and the signature of Dean of Admissions Christoph Guttentag on the bottom is a means to an end. In just more than four years, they will be sailing out of Duke, stopping to pick up a second important piece of paper-a diploma-as they finally let out a giant sigh of relief and fling their mortarboards into the air.

This Duke is a means from one piece of paper to the next in an environment where many academic risks are not worth taking.

This Duke is constrained by the pressure to succeed. When the path to life as a doctor, lawyer, businessman or engineer is so defined and so simple, the costs of deviating greatly from that proven course are just not worth it.

This Duke experience is about not messing up, about the little things that that make the difference between the A's and A-'s. Most of all, it's about three letters-GPA-that more than anything else will define their Duke.

Then there's another Duke. It's a University of students whose experience are bookended by those same two pieces of paper but have a very different mentality while they're here. These students run through Duke without restrictions, able to embrace a more diverse experience. They're the ones who stop by office hours to have real conversations. They know that grades don't correlate to innovative ideas.

This breed of student will have a much better opportunity to unlock the intellectual doors of this University. This second student will also squeeze more out of Duke, more likely not just to succeed, but also to be a mover, a shaker and a leader when they leave.

here are certainly deep social and institutional currents that push students to be the first type of Duke. Among them are the values that are propped up on this campus because far more students lean toward the first group than the second.

Sure, most students are engaged in something-whether that be the arts, student government, the robotics club or simply partying-that lets them slip outside the cruxes of Duke's narrowly defined mold of success. But far too often, the pressures that lead them to this Duke in the first place are kicking them back in line.

Provost Peter Lange, who I met one afternoon in his Allen Building office, is aware of these tensions and believes Duke is constantly tweaking its programs to encourage students to take more intellectual adventures. With staples like Curriculum 2000 and FOCUS and more initiatives that will be incorporated into the new strategic plan due out in May, he believes the University is doing a better job pushing its students beyond their comfort zones. There are clear signs that Duke students are engaged in more out-of-the-box pursuits, but he recognizes that it's easy to fall into the pre-professional track.

"Many of our students have in mind what they are going to do when they leave Duke when they structure their educational experience. I think there are massive social forces pressing in that direction," Lange says.

"I think many Duke students will structure the mix of courses they take in a way that may not be most engaging of their intellects and may not be most appealing to them because they are fearful sometimes that taking certain courses will hurt their GPA."

Lange hesitates to estimate what percentage of students fit into each of these molds, but he expressed confidence that the more successful students will be the ones that truly take advantage of a liberal arts education and learn the diverse skill sets he says an increasingly global world is demanding.

"More today than when I went to college, and more tomorrow than today, students who have a really good liberal arts education and who do not become narrowly defined in their intellectual development are going to be stronger, are going to live not only better lives but also more successful lives," he says.

Emma Rasiel also knows this struggle, having come to Duke from Wall Street, picking up a Ph.D. from Duke's Fuqua School of Business along the way. The director of undergraduate studies in economics, Duke's most popular major, can still sympathize with students who let GPA and employment factors trump other pursuits. Students begin to grasp that they will have to be financially independent from their parents somewhere between the ages of 18 and 22, she says, and when these realities set in students tend to make decisions in the context of these constraints.

Albert Eldridge, assistant professor of political science, says the apathy on Duke's campus has certainly decreased over the years, but the risk-averse attitude remains. Eldridge, now back to teaching full-time after wearing a bevy of hats in the administration since the late 1970s, sees a rift between the expectations of the administration and the realities of being a faculty member as part of the problem. The administration is increasingly asking faculty members to take a more active and personalized role in nurturing undergraduates' intellectual curiosity. But Duke does not plan to alter the tenure structure to reward such engagement, he says.

"There is an ideal world that the administration wants the faculty to embrace," Eldridge says of the environment that he believes would help divert many students from the GPA, long-term success-centric path. "There is now a profound realization of the inconsistency of the proposed ideal and the availability of current resources."

Only when Duke adequately supports a culture in which values such as intellectualism are rewarded more than those that lead to a high grade point average will the school be able to make the transition that is implied in President Brodhead's "culture of initiative."

"I personally don't think we can make very significant changes in our promotions and tenure criteria and be the type of institution we want to be," Lange said when I asked him whether he thought a redirection of faculty resources was a possible solution.

met junior Buki Samuel sprawled out in a Bostock chair with a binder of reading in front of her. It was 2:37 in the morning, she reminded me at one point during our conversation, and said her sleep and ability to socialize with her friends are frequently limited by the amount of academic work on her plate.

She didn't hesitate to say that her concern for maintaining a high GPA was one of the things that motivated her through these long days, mainly because she knew how competitive jobs and business school would be down the road.

The same shackles of success that Lange, Rasiel and Eldridge identify, Samuel says she and the vast majority of her friends feel. Entering Duke on the popular pre-med track, Samuel soon did an about-face, setting her sights on business school but never abandoning the perspective of what life after graduation would entail.

"Pre-med, pre-business, pre-law and engineering are all safety fields," says Samuel, now a public policy major. "It's a guarantee that coming out of Duke you will be successful in those fields. It's a guarantee in one shot. With other areas you have to know people and know where you have to look."

The forces at work within the student body itself are as big a part of the pre-carved path as any. It's a group that puts more emphasis on whether you landed at a top-10 law school than your ability to have a dinner conversation about something other than Duke. Less about showing off effortless perfection and more about debating Kant. One Duke thinks there are less than a dozen viable majors; the other sees something noble in majoring in anthropology and physics.

It's not a surprise, then, when registration time rolls around some of the easy classes are the first ones filled. Nor is it surprising that some students look for athletes-famously informed about some of Duke's less rigorous courses-when the first day of classes rolls around.

"One still gets the sense that one doesn't see public displays of students being proud of being intellectual," says Eldridge.

ill this place ever look more like the place Brodhead and Lange envision? Will the majority of students let themselves experience the labyrinth of intellectual and personal growth that they may get glimpses of at points in their Duke career but only a special select group of students is really familiar with?

Guttentag brings in a freshman class each year that tops the previous, but that only brings another group of students to find themselves stuck in an all too familiar track. Lange keeps tweaking the programs, hoping the prevailing mentality of Duke will embrace intellectualism without reprioritizing the faculty.

Rasiel also plans to continue to adjust, likely ditching the econ A.B., which has become the major for students who wished they could major in business.

Eldridge will continue to teach his senior American foreign policy seminar, trying to lead students on a final semester-long intellectual journey before the real world begins.

But until students like Samuel understand the real world soon forgets the number that they have let dominate their college experience, Duke will remain dominated by people who are victims of their own success.


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