A student's relationship with a top-10, private university normally goes something like this:
Student pays about $35,000 a year in tuition (less financial aid) for the right to attend four or five courses per semester along with approximately 30 other students; each of those courses is taught by a single faculty member, who likely makes herself available outside of class to all of her students at once during office hours.
But at Duke, at least for several hundred seniors given the opportunity to pursue graduation with distinction, that relationship has been turned on its head.
Many of us are being paid to work one-on-one with a professor, studying something that we want to study. The experience of writing a thesis is an extraordinarily stimulating one that can also serve as a valuable academic qualification; it is an unprecedented opportunity, and it easily tops any internship.
If only I could find the time to sit down and actually finish mine...
Duke is unique in that multiple departments offer such financial support to undergraduates, and in that faculty are given incentives to mentor such research projects. And thankfully, increasing numbers of students are able to take advantage of Duke's status as a major research university.
Recent efforts to bolster financial support and faculty mentorship have more than tripled the number of undergraduates who are graduating with distinction in their majors or engaging in other forms of mentored research.
Much of this is thanks to the efforts of longtime Dean of Trinity College Robert Thompson, who announced his retirement last week following an 11-year tenure as dean of undergraduate affairs and then dean of Trinity College.
His retirement, effective in August, comes on the heels of the administrative restructuring associated with the newly created position of dean of undergraduate education. Whether there is a causal relationship between them is something that the Allen Building will never discuss publicly-and something that is ultimately irrelevant.
Eleven years is a long time to be dean, and Thompson has a lot to show for his efforts.
He has spent more time in the trenches expanding the academic opportunities available to undergraduates than perhaps any other administrator in recent memory. In conjunction with Provost Peter Lange, former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William Chafe and his successor, George McLendon, Thompson promoted a wide array of renovations, programs and support structures that many of us take for granted.
Lange described Thompson as the "driving administrative force" behind several programs that provide crucial academic support for undergraduates. One of them, the Peer Tutoring Program, allows undergraduates to receive free tutoring in core subjects, a service formerly granted only to athletes. Another is the Writing Studio, where students can meet with graduate and postgraduate tutors to get feedback on their papers and projects.
In conjunction with the Community Service Center, various academic departments and community leaders, Thompson helped generate a wide array of opportunities integrating community service and academic coursework. Chafe pointed to the development of such opportunities as one of Thompson's biggest accomplishments, setting the stage for the recent launch of the $30-million DukeEngage program.
In 2005, amidst bickering on the Arts and Sciences Council on the issue of student access to course evaluations, Thompson and McLendon funded a student-run course evaluation system that is still operating today.
And next year, students will have access to the Teaching and Learning Center, currently under construction in Perkins Library.
"It's a classroom complex that's very well equipped. While it allows more traditional forms of teaching, it's also extremely well equipped to enable more informed and advanced forms of teaching," Lange said. He added that the project was largely due to the "enormous attention [Thompson has] given to teaching, to independent study, to team research."
In summarizing his tenure, Chafe said, "What Bob did was to bring together a superb group of people to elevate the quality of Duke's undergraduate education to the point where it became one of the best and most recognized experiences in the country."
Thompson and I have not always agreed on everything. As a member of the Campus Culture Initiative Steering Committee, which Thompson cochaired with Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta, I was strongly opposed to several of the committee's key recommendations. As a student in Trinity, which implemented Curriculum 2000 in 1999, I was not pleased (to say the least) to have to sit through three semesters of Latin.
But in the end, it all comes back to my thesis.
Elliott Wolf is a Trinity senior. His column runs every Thursday.
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