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$3 billion and you: a message to Duke students

When I arrived at Duke, I faced a challenge every freshman knows: I had to decorate a bare room. Luckily, I got to know the University archivist, who made copies of some great materials. Since then, the president’s office has been adorned with a photo of West Campus as a construction site, with a belching locomotive hauling in stones for the just-started buildings. I have a hand-written 1921 letter from President Few to James B. Duke, sketching out how tiny Trinity College could be transformed into a world-class research university. I also have the terse reply Mr. Duke telegraphed: “Show me the plans.”

For me, these visuals serve as daily reminders of two elemental facts. The first is that Duke has always been a work in progress, something still being constructed as it reaches to encompass bigger dreams. The second is that Duke’s remarkable trajectory has always been driven by a partnership, a collaboration between ambitious educators and supportive donors.

We don’t often stop to notice, but the most everyday Duke experiences were enabled by generous philanthropy. Funds raised in the last campaign, before I arrived at Duke, built the Bostock Library and renovated Perkins Library. Other gifts created the Nasher Museum of Art and the enlivened arts scene it helped inspire, as well as the Fitzpatrick Center and the modern world of Duke engineering. And gifts created more than new buildings. Half of the students currently at Duke receive financial support from the University. A significant share of that support flows off endowment gifts raised during the 2005-08 Financial Aid Initiative.

You will read today that Duke is embarking on a new fundraising campaign. What do I want undergraduates to understand about this effort? Principally that, as has been true throughout Duke’s history, the money is the means, not the end. The new campaign has a dollar goal—$3.25 billion—but the real goal is measured in a different currency: the currency of contributions to human knowledge and the empowering of human minds.

In this campaign, we are asking what the world needs from higher education and how Duke can use its unique strengths to deliver on those needs. We see Duke’s distinctive culture of cross-disciplinary collaboration as the key. With new help from our friends, we want to make Duke the research leader in the crucial problem areas that require the joining of disciplinary frames—fields like global health, the environment, energy use, childhood and human development, and the social meaning of our new deluge of information.

Equally important, we want to create a distinctive learning environment that will equip our students in distinctive ways. In the future, educated people will be defined less by the subjects they once studied than by active, integrative habits of mind. Advances will require minds that are engaged and agile, used to moving on to new problems, and to drawing different bodies of knowledge together to envision solutions. Our world needs people who are good at combining their creativity with the different gifts and perspectives of others, and who can understand issues in both their local and global dimensions.

The deep aim of our new campaign is to help Duke take the lead in delivering this model of education. Within student residences, we aim to create engaged communities where living together yields learning all day long. We will be renovating key social centers—most importantly, West Union and its neighborhood—so they can become spaces of collision and connection where the whole Duke community can meet and strike sparks off each other in informal settings. We will be multiplying spaces for organized activities outside of class—in the arts, athletics, entrepreneurship and more—on the understanding that the “extra-curricular” is no longer a separate zone of play but a key space for perfecting the arts of group creativity.

Within the formal curriculum, we will continue to build opportunities for cross-training and the integration of different domains of knowledge. The percentage of students doing senior honors projects has more than doubled since 2005. We will be encouraging and enabling all such active learning opportunities. One well-established Duke signature is the wealth of programs that connect classroom learning with engagement with problems in their real-world forms: DukeEngage, the Sanford internships, Pratt’s Grand Challenges program and off-site programs like Duke in New York and Duke in Silicon Valley are all examples. We aim to fund these key programs and build them into a coherent vision of Duke education, so that “coming to Duke” means finding doors opened to experiences around the world.

In sum, the campaign is not about funding the status quo. It’s about giving Duke the means to innovate and reach toward powerfully expanded educational goals. Having spent time with virtually all of Duke’s supporters, I know that we can count on them to make the campaign succeed. Creating superlative education is their idea of a really good return on investment.

But students too have a part to play, and in the end, you are just as crucial to the campaign’s success. Your part is to want this kind of enriched and engaging education, to seize the opportunities this University is creating on your behalf, to keep reaching beyond what you’ve attained in order to develop your powers and deepen your awareness of the world. When you make the best of what this place has to offer, we will never lack for donors and friends who want to make Duke better yet.

Richard Brodhead is the ninth president of Duke University.

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