New strategic plan focuses on global engagement, natural sciences

Duke is in the process of implementing a new academic strategic plan that defines the University's long-term goals. 

The plan—titled “Together Duke: Advancing Excellence Through Community"—lays the groundwork to build an elite natural sciences program, give graduate and professional students more opportunities and promote global engagement locally with work on campus. It also establishes a committee to work on issues like sexual assault and to expand campus initiatives like the FOCUS Program.  

"The current plan continues to innovate with new programs but is also designed to maximally leverage and extract value from all that the previous plan put in place," Provost Sally Kornbluth said. "The current plan is focused largely on human capital, on our faculty, staff and students and on how these communities can work together to deepen our educational and research programs.”  

Kornbluth added that the new plan is based upon three themes: inquiry and discovery, the Duke opportunity and global engagement.

The goals are starkly different from those of the 2006 strategic plan, which aimed to transform Central Campus and build what is now the Brodhead Center as part of a more than half-billion dollar investment in facilities. 

Inquiry and discovery: Building up the natural sciences

Tied for No. 41 in chemistry,  No. 29 in physics, No. 42 in earth sciences and No. 25 in computer science in the U.S. News' rankings, Duke sees room for improvement in its natural science department, said Susan Lozier, chair of the steering committee for the creation of the strategic plan and Ronie-Richelle Garcia-Johnson Professor of ocean sciences.  

“To be a global, world-class university, you [need] strength in natural sciences, social sciences and humanities,” Lozier said. “For the past two decades, Duke has had a strong focus on humanities and many of the social sciences. We’re just recognizing that we need strong sciences across the board." 

The University has long been a leader in areas outside of the hard sciences, headlined by the Sanford School for Public Policy—which ranks No. 4 in the country for public policy analysis. However, Lozier said Duke has not been able to afford investing more resources into hard sciences until now. The plan says it was a "strategic choice" due to the high costs of "doubling or tripling" science faculty. 

Among the primary ways the University seeks to boost its natural science capabilities is hiring more quantitative scientists. 

Duke will target junior and senior faculty in science and math, but will also "aggressively recruit and support" minorities and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. To do so, a new initiative—titled Strategic Hiring for Faculty Excellence—will give targeted recruitment funds to deans to improve the faculty's diversity.

“We want to build an environment of inclusive excellence where all will feel welcome and are attracted to Duke so that we can attract and hire the very best,” Kornbluth said. 

For the new strategic plan, the University will have to foot a $132 million bill, “the lion’s share” of which will be directed towards faculty, Kornbluth said. In order to make Duke a hub of science research, the plan also allocates funds to modernize science and computational infrastructure, which it says is still stuck in the 20th century. 

“The desire to boost the sciences does not mean that we will neglect the other disciplines,” Kornbluth said. “It is simply that a renowned research university needs to have strength across and between the disciplines. Many of our students are interested in STEM fields and we are seeing increasing societal need for scientific solutions to pressing problems."

More funding will also be offered for experimental programs and pilot programs to help new researchers get off the ground. Due to the changing nature of academic research, Kornbluth will also charge a committee to re-evaluate the tenuring and promotion process.

Lozier said academia has changed a lot since the tenure criteria were established. There is now an increased focus in working outside of just public manuscripts, so Duke needs to adjust accordingly, she added. 

The Duke opportunity: opening doors for graduate students

In 1997, undergraduate students outnumbered graduate and professional students by more than 1,000. Now, the balance has flipped, with roughly 3,000 more graduate students than undergraduates. 

As as result, "The Duke Opportunity" aspect of the strategic plan seeks to ensure that all students, not just undergraduates, receive all of the opportunities that Duke has to offer. 

“We want to provide the best of Duke to all students, so we’ve placed a strong emphasis on innovation in undergraduate education,” Lozier said. “We want to take what’s worked, what hasn’t work, and really consolidate those. But we also want to think about making those innovative programs available to...all students.”

The University values ongoing intellectual conversation through learning communities, and hopes to expand that reach for undergraduates and graduate and professional students alike, the strategic play says. It adds that some programs like Bass Connections that came out of the previous strategic plan in 2006 have made strides in this area, but have had limited reach. 

The new plan will allocate more funding for “vertically-integrated teams of undergraduates, graduate and professional students” to engage intellectually, and to link these sorts of programs with residential life. According to the plan, this will create a stronger community by uniting people around common interests. 

The plan also aims to aid graduate students by helping them more effectively work across disciplines to cater to "an increasing array of career options." Funding has been allocated for Interdisciplinary Graduate Networks Grants that facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration and experiences. Another grant program under the plan allows students to work in the field or at internships in order to gain experience inside or outside their field of study. 

Duke will now also offer its Innovation & Entrepreneurship certificate to graduate students. Other new options being explored are expanded 4+1 programs, which give undergraduates an opportunity to graduate with a master’s degree in just five years. 

For its undergraduates, Duke has also signaled that it will expand FOCUS. The program—which allows freshmen to take two classes and eat a weekly dinner with their professors—is "one of the most effective means for engaging the intellectual interests of first-year students and for forging deep and lasting relationships among students and faculty,” the plan says.

Nonetheless, just one-third of freshmen have participated in FOCUS. Lozier said space restrictions on the  size of FOCUS have become less significant due to dining renovations, and more resources will be allocated to facilitate faculty participation in FOCUS. 

The final size of the expanded program has yet to be determined, but FOCUS director Edna Andrews is working to find new potential FOCUS clusters for next year, Kornbluth said.

“I am interested in programs that promote deep intellectual engagement of our students and FOCUS has proven to be one of those programs,” Kornbluth said.

Global engagement

In addition to building its role in the natural sciences, Duke also wants to become a leader globally. There are three global issues that the plan seeks to tackle via research at Duke: energy and water resources; race, religion and citizenship; and population health. The plan acknowledges that Duke cannot solve these major world problems alone and will need assistance from governments and other agencies. 

But given Duke's resources, the plan asserts that the University can become a "hub for global problem-solving." For example, it would employ experts from the Nicholas School of the Environment, the Duke University Energy Initiative and the Pratt School of Engineering to help solve problems of water access.

To broaden Duke's sphere of influence, the University will also create a Durham and the Triangle Working group to take stock of all current local and global projects. 

The plan also calls for the expansion of Duke in DC—which offers undergraduate and graduate classes—and aims to "connect Duke’s intellectual capital more directly to the 'thought ecology' in our nation’s capital—policy makers, foundations, think tanks and the media.”

Currently, the University tries to tackle certain issues in specific places. However, the plan calls for a broader targeting of these problem-solving initiatives to make them applicable to more situations and places. It intends to fundamentally change the way Duke thinks about solving different global problems. 

“There’s a big emphasis on connecting what we’re doing locally here in Durham with what we’re doing globally. We want to apply what we’ve learned in other places," Lozier said.

Ben Leonard profile
Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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