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A deal with the Blue Devil

senior column

Imagine that the Blue Devil himself came to you and offered a deal. You could decide whether someone at Duke made a Nobel Prize winning discovery next year. If you wished it, a Duke scientist would make a groundbreaking discovery and win one of science's most prestigious awards.

But there would be a price. In exchange for the Nobel you would have to sell a piece of Duke's soul. The University would be forced to give up its 2015 men's basketball championship and shut down its basketball program for a year. There would be no tenting, no bench burning and no tournament victory. Duke would be laughed at by all those who love to hate Duke Basketball, Coach K would languish in humiliating unemployment. The athletic establishment would deflate. 

Would you take the bargain?

One might think the choice would be clear. Research which leads to a Nobel Prize deepens our understanding of the universe and advances the lives of people around the world. It also fulfills the mission of knowledge and research upon which this school is built. And yet, how many here would take that deal? How many here would decide that the advancement of science is more important than a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the athletic legacy of this school?

After all, Duke already does more for the cause of research and for the betterment of humanity than almost any other school in the country. Research will go on here, Nobel or not. Why should we give up our tournament victory? Sports, and basketball especially, are key components of the student experience. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford can all win Nobel Prizes. But Duke is the only school in its class that can cut down the net, so why not do what makes us special?

We took an informal look at this question in 2015 and found, rather disappointingly, that many Duke students would have a hard time making this choice. That's not because they're bad people or unconcerned about the world around them (these are, after all, the same people who do internships at NGOs and participate in DukeEngage programs). Rather, it's because of what our school and our society has taught us to prioritize. Basketball is critically important to us, and especially to us at this school.

The priority we give basketball shows in the choices we make as an institution. We have people at this place who are curing cancer, who influence policy making at the highest levels and who are sharing their decades of wisdom with hundreds of students each semester. And yet the highest paid person on campus in 2015 was the basketball coach. We are supposed to be primarily a research institution, but we spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars on athletic facilities and stadiums. Our allocation of resources says something about our priorities.

There's nothing wrong with enjoying a game of basketball or taking pride in our athletic legacy. Those things do contribute to the experience here, and there is no absolute tradeoff between athletics and anything else. But we should be mindful of our priorities. What we value is determined by how spend our time, money, enthusiasm, and commitment, which in turn determine our priorities. And priorities are about what we would keep over everything else. Even when we don’t have to make hard choices between competing priorities, those priorities nevertheless determine who we are and what direction we go in. We have to ask ourselves, with regards to basketball and everything else, do we really believe that our priorities match up with what we value?

We should be sure that we really would like to raise $250 million for athletics in our fundraising campaigns, rather than raising that money to support priorities such as financial aid. We should ask ourselves whether we really take the same pride in the amazing work done on this campus as we do in the fact that no one else has anything quite like K-Ville. And we should be sure that we would really like to skip afternoon classes on LDOC to enjoy a concert. And we should think about why we have a renovated student union but not a new engineering building.

Whether we realize it or not, what we prioritize has an impact. It changes the experience for all of us here and shows everyone else what we really think is important. Rather than just taking what we are excited about an interested in for granted, we should take a close look at our priorities and figure out if they represent who we really want to be.

Gautam Hathi is a Trinity senior. He served as digital content director of The Chronicle’s 111th volume and co-Towerview editor of its 112th. He would like to thank all the members of The Chronicle’s staff over the past four years for making The Chronicle so worthwhile, the business staff for trusting their livelihoods to student-journalists and the mastheads of v111 and v112 for their indulgence of his rants on everything from the irrelevance of literary analysis to the universal importance of Star Wars. He would also like to particularly thank Rachel Chason for making Towerview a wonderful adventure that produced some memorable end products and Amrith Ramkumar for doing whatever needed to be done with the greatest care and dedication even when the rest of us couldn’t quite do it.

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