We need to redefine Duke right now

Duke is riddled with contradictions. In the campus culture, it’s evidenced by the rigid social hierarchy in spite of general distaste for exclusivity. It’s also seen in the suffocating notion of “effortless perfection” and the precarious facade students put on in order to conform. But in the wider institutional scheme, these incongruities are more evasive, slipping through the cracks and crevices of the administrative infrastructure. My previous article not only explored the importance of intentionality for first-years, but also alluded to just how decentralized Duke is. 

This past week, I had the opportunity to reflect on my Duke experience more deeply through Spring Breakthrough, a four-day seminar in specialized topics. By participating in this program, my perception of Duke and this institution’s place in the orbit of higher education fundamentally changed. As I attempt to to sort out this tidal wave of insight and new information, I want to disseminate these perspectives as widely as possible. 

A quick disclaimer: to re-evaluate how Duke’s complex hierarchy provides for its students, this column will make some broad strokes. Truthfully, a single column isn’t enough space to disentangle all of these components. So my goal is to ask questions about the power dynamics and encourage more discussions across all institutional levels. 

What is the role of a university? 

Capitalizing off of the intelligence and productivity of young people, universities brand themselves as places to hoist up the next generation of movers and shakers. To an extent, four-year undergraduate programs thrive off of the professional necessity of a diploma,  catering to those who see education as a gateway to financial security. 

But aside from strategic marketing, colleges, in my view, are the ultimate loci of knowledge production. This knowledge is dynamic and ever-shifting; more importantly, it is also inextricable from the world, the communities, and the people outside of academia. At Duke, the history of our institution is rich with archival materials that demonstrate the complexity of adhering to this lofty mission. 

On April 10, 1968, the Academic Council held an emergency meeting in response to student activism erupting on campus following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The activism was in part inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam war protests. But beyond the galvanizing culture of the 1960s, students used this national devastation as a charge to remedy Duke’s history of unjust treatment towards non-academic workers; thus the Silent Vigil unfolded. While this snapshot of student activism epitomizes students rallying for administrative accountability, it is also a moment of re-evaluating the function and role of the university as a whole. Now 51 years removed, I think it’s time to begin to re-evaluate again.

At that 1968 emergency meeting, the Academic Council drafted a response to these underlying issues, writing:

“A university is often defined as a community of scholars, and it must be such a community if it is to carry out its purposes in learning and research. But a university cannot carry out those purposes if it disregards justice and morality in the larger community in which it operates or in the non-academic community within its own bounds…”

Every action and every policy implemented by the university has repercussions, catalyzing a domino effect that stretches across Duke’s institutional dominion. It echoes from the privilege and power concentrated in the Allen Building; it reverberates in the dorms of over-worked, over-stressed emerging adults; it resounds within the homes and families of Duke’s workers—academic and non-academic alike. 

Even today we see these issues of “justice and morality” bubble up to the surface: soaring sexual assault statistics, rising tuition, mandating an alternating seven-day work week for housekeeping staff—the list goes on. While these problems may not be strictly academic in nature, they still impact individual lives and the day-to-day function of the university. 

So where is the central hub of Duke’s motivations? Who does Duke serve? How does Duke identify as an institution? 

What’s in Duke’s DNA? 

According to the Duke’s governing Mission Statement, James B. Duke actively charged members of the University to “provide real leadership in the educational world.” From developing this leadership, Duke’s overarching ambition is to provide a “superior liberal education” to its undergraduate students. After all, Duke is a liberal arts school, right? 

Interestingly enough, Duke’s defining mission paints an ideal of student leadership and enterprising faculty scholarship without laying out comparable standards for the institution itself. But to be a true leader among our peers, Duke needs to stop imitating other institutions and start committing to a central identity. 

How can higher education be democratized to allow for increased community input?

The previously mentioned 1968 Academic Council report also reveals inconsistencies between the goals that the institution touts and the actions that it ultimately takes: 

“...We wish for exploration of additional ways in which the University can contribute to the larger community as it carries out its unique functions as a university. It contributes much to the community in an economic sense but there are inequities within the University.”

I am just one voice on campus: one among 6,994 undergraduates, 8,898 graduate and professional students, 3,774 faculty, 39,525 staff, and looking beyond campus, an alumni network amassing 167,848 Duke graduates. So I realize that my opinion in The Chronicle is infinitesimal juxtaposed with the magnitude of these 227,039 lived experiences. 

As for what direction I believe Duke should be advancing towards, I would recommend several things: a stronger commitment to unifying the Duke community as soon as students arrive on campus, more student input in the classroom setting, fortifying networks of communication across Duke’s institutional silos, and altogether encouraging a stronger focus on undergraduate exploration. 

But I believe that we all have a responsibility to re-define Duke. So I encourage you to take a step back and be reflective. 

Re-definition can only come with a collective paradigm shift that aggregates the many ways in which we perceive ourselves as members of the Duke community. And it culminates with the stark realization that we are ultimately the enforcers of our own conformity. We have the charge and the ability to establish higher expectations. Whether or not those can be met is another question entirely, but as former President John F. Kennedy once said: “every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.” 

Catherine McMillan is a Trinity first-year. Her column usually runs on alternate Fridays. 


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