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Find a steady course

The Robertson Scholars Program recently sparked questions by announcing the resignation of Executive Director Woody Coley. Coley stepped down earlier this month after only a year in the position. This decision follows the resignation of several other staff members.

The program was created in 2000 by longtime benefactor Julian Robertson, who sought to increase collaboration between Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The recent turmoil within the program has called into question its direction and vision. It is not clear where the fault lies in Coley’s resignation, but the program deserves more stability. When selecting for the next executive director, Robertson and remaining administrators need to select a leader who will not only represent the program’s values but also be in the position for the long haul.

In recent years, the scholarship has distanced itself from the two universities. The Universities Coordinating Committees—a group comprised of administrators from Duke and UNC—has had significantly less input in the program’s development. Robertson has a significant influence on his initiative compared to the founders of other merit scholarships at the University: all employees of the program are hired by and work directly for him, rather than coming under the umbrella of Duke’s Office of Undergraduate Scholars and Fellows, which has no counterpart in Chapel Hill. The program’s governance structure also shifted to greater independence from the respective universities when it adopted a separate board of directors. In touching back with its initial mission, the program should work to foster more connection and oversight from the two campuses.

This past admissions cycle, the program saw a record number of students accept their offers, but, in the long run, turnover in the administrative staff will have on the very core of the program, its students. Although more than $200,000 over four years is a huge asset when selecting colleges, prospective students are signing up for more than just the monetary value. The program should be an empowering opportunity for students to make their own education, rather just a monetary award. As Duke’s acceptance rate approaches single digits, it enters a new battlefield with highly competitive institutions, including the Ivy League. The program must maintain its prestige and reputation if it hopes to attract the applicants who may have also been offered other options with equally hefty financial packages.

The impact of the recent fallout on students and applicants is still unclear. The scholarship just went through its most successful recruitment year—attributed in part to the efforts of Coley—but if the program fails to act, such inaction will impact the reputation, and in turn, the yield of the program. A scholarship program keen on nurturing leaders currently has no permanent leader. In other words, it currently does not have an individual to lead the charge in fostering the program’s long-term development and growth, a fact that will push away students eager to find an institution in line with their hopes for their future.

Despite the lack of an immediate impact on yield of offers, program administrators need to re-evaluate its direction and values and align them with its original goal and mission to maintain the program’s reputation.

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