The independent news organization of Duke University

Fundraising by the bootstraps

Universities are like Renaissance masterpieces—they both cost a lot of money, and each one has its own unique personality. But unlike Renaissance masterpieces, which exist in timeless stasis, universities can autonomously raise money and change their personalities. Duke’s latest capital campaign, Duke Forward, is about personality. It is as much about asking how to spend our money as it is about raking money in, and to answer that question we must immediately ask another: What should Duke be, now and in the future?

Duke Forward has already committed itself to answering this question, and has done an impressive job so far. For example, President Richard Brodhead’s Oct. 1 guest column in The Chronicle—a welcome effort to communicate with undergraduates—effectively put Duke’s “distinctive culture of cross-disciplinary collaboration” front and center in the campaign’s fundraising goals. The Founder’s Day address by Trustee David Rubenstein, Trinity ’70, a lengthy but elegant outline of a committed Duke graduate’s vision for the University’s future, is worth viewing for any member of the Duke community.

The central point of both addresses is essentially the same: The key to Duke’s continued vibrancy lies in enhancing the spirit of collaboration that pervades the campus, which makes the University well suited to producing unconventional knowledge in unconventional ways and allows it to so ably deploy that knowledge in solving real problems in the world.

Truer words about Duke cannot be spoken, but they are also liable to bore undergraduates. Interdisciplinarity, collaboration and putting knowledge in service of society echo like tired mantras, nothing but a flamboyant rehearsal of obvious values shared across higher education.

These ideas bore undergraduates for the same reason that water bores fish: We do not know anything else. For a college campus to be empty of dogmatism and full of curiosity seems like the status quo only because most of us have little experience with other universities. In fact, it is only because of Duke’s odd history that it came to possess these qualities and is so well-positioned to embrace and build upon them.

We often forget that the University, at 88 years old, is younger than most of our great-grandparents. Its history is the story of a place that had the gumption to bust its way into the oligopolistic world of elite higher education but whose aspirations always outran its available resources. To become what it is, Duke had to act differently.

This difference is still working for us: Duke’s Global Health Institute started with a budget significantly less than the same institute at Harvard, but has become an example of successful cross-disciplinary collaboration. It is this dogged openness that enables Duke to address practical problems so readily, and that brings to programs we treasure, like DukeEngage, to students’ daily grind. To borrow from Rubenstein’s address, we already have what everyone else wants: a collaborative spirit.

We endorse Duke Forward’s vision of the future, but cautiously. There are lingering questions—about whether emphasizing collaboration is dangerously exclusionary, and about what role this value has in undergraduate life—that we will address in the next two days’ editorials.

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