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University looks to change perceptions of Central

As a scientist, Dean and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Steve Nowicki knows that making progress requires experimentation and that experiments often fail.

Along with Vice President of Student Affairs Larry Moneta, Nowicki is working on a plan to not only revitalize Central Campus housing, but to shift the student perspective of the campus as well. Mill Village has provided a long awaited dining option and social gathering space, but administrators acknowledge that there is still work to be done to foster a sense of community on Central.

“It wasn’t adequate just to make a space like the Mill Village like they do in ‘Field of Dreams’ and say, ‘they will come,’” Nowicki said. “There is more work to be done than simply creating a physical state. We need to get student social activity out there. That’s where Ubuntu came in, rather conveniently, willing to start a section out there.”

In Fall 2009, Ubuntu—Duke’s civic engagement selective living group—became the first group on Central paving the way for Pi Kappa Phi fraternity and Pan-Hellenic members to acquire space.

“For a long time I think the administration just wanted the whole Central Campus issue to go away,” senior Alex Levy said. “They paid no attention to it, but finally realized with Mill Village that they have to provide for the large student population that lives on Central that is still paying tuition and a part of the Duke community.”

Nowicki was spearheading the creation of New Campus, but when the economy took a turn for the worse, his image for a new Duke was forced to change.

“Ignoring the existing Central Campus as long as we did was a bad idea,” Nowicki said. “When it became very apparent that New Campus was going to be delayed, I realized we couldn’t wait any longer and we had to push on Central.”

Moneta noted that while initially New Campus would have replaced Central as a housing option, it may be 10 years before New Campus will be completed, which is why it is important to address the basic needs of Central and its amenities.

Constructed in the early 1970s, Central was built as a desirable alternative for many students on financial aid who found cooking meals at home more economical, noted Nowicki, citing a 2009 letter to the Committee on Undergraduate Affairs.

But as the community on Central has changed, residents like Levy cannot believe the University has not taken action to address the problem.

Senior Carissa Mueller, former civic engagement chair of Ubuntu, said the unique layout of Central Campus makes it difficult to create an inviting social environment for residents because it is not as open as West and East campuses. Mueller, however, said the new housing model on Central has potential.

“I absolutely loved living on Central and I didn’t expect it to be so great,” Mueller said. “The activities are infectious too and makes it more open. Living in a selective living group on Central makes it so much better because you are always doing things with your group.”

In five years there could potentially be 10 selective living groups on Central, said Terry Lynch, Residence Life and Housing Services assistant dean of staff development and Central Campus.

He added that the University is going to identify five or so areas of improvement that can be renovated in all of the apartments on Central this summer. Apartments that need roof replacements will be addressed and 221 Alexander will receive extensive interior and exterior renovations to serve as a model for future work on Central. As groups come in and renovations are completed, Nowicki said he hopes students will choose to live on Central rather than feel like they are forced to live there.

In a effort to make Central a more desirable place to live, Lynch said the administration is working to change student perceptions regarding safety as well.

“If students don’t feel safe, they don’t feel safe. Period,” he said.

Lynch said break-ins and robberies have gone down significantly since 2005, but that there is still work to be done. The administration is scheduling a walk around Central Campus with members of Duke University Police Department, Campus Council and Residential Life and Housing Services to locate the areas that need more lighting so that fixtures can be installed in Fall 2010.

“I would never say to a young woman, or worse, her mother, not to worry about it because the statistics say that it’s safe,” Nowicki said.

Nowicki added that some simple physical renovations will do a lot to help students feel safer and allow the administration to move closer to their mission to make Central desirable.

“West as the center of Duke’s universe is going to change,” Nowicki said. “There is an inertia to the opinion of things, but to be honest, I think a positive feedback loop about Central may happen faster than we think.”

With plans to live on Central next semester, sophomore Chris Brown, vice president of athletic and campus services, said he sees perspectives of living on Central shifting as well.

“As Duke students, we have a sentimental connection to West Campus,” he said. “But the administration is putting a lot of money into Central, and I know that there are a lot of resources to take advantage of.  That’s what needs to happen to lift the Central stigma and get students excited.”

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