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No Robertson scholars in Class of 2024, other scholarship weekends go virtual as campus closes

For Duke’s current merit scholarship finalists and prospective incoming first-years, the COVID-19 pandemic has heavily shaken up some planning and logistics.

Finalists for the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program received an email in March informing them that the program had been canceled for the Class of 2024. Although finalists were notified first, screenshots of the email sent by Julian Robertson, founder of the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program (RSLP), caused stress and confusion as they circulated amongst current scholars.

Duke’s selection process of other merit scholarships from the Office of University Scholars and Fellows will continue, but finalist campus visits will be hosted virtually, with everything from the campus tour to the “host” scholar to the interviews taking place online.

‘Fate’ cancels the Robertson program for Class of 2024

Before the program for the Class of 2024 was canceled, the RSLP decided March 9 to cancel this year’s Robertson finalist weekend, according to an email sent to current scholars.

The spread of the coronavirus was cited as the reason why the finalist weekend was canceled, Allen Chan, executive director of the RSLP, wrote in the March 17 email to current scholars obtained by The Chronicle. Although it was a difficult decision to cancel the weekend, Chan wrote that he was certain it was “the right move.”

Chan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Class of 2024 Robertson finalists were notified of the decision to cancel the program entirely in an email sent by Julian Robertson March 13, which cited “fate” as an intervening factor.

“Unfortunately, however, fate has intervened to cancel our program for this year,” Robertson wrote. “We have decided against adding a class of scholars for the 2024 graduating year. We apologize to you for the decision and any dislocation it has caused you. It is, however, the best solution for the program.”

The decision to cancel the program altogether was in order to ensure a level of fairness and lack of bias that may not be present in a virtual selection process.

“While the RSLP team began organizing ways to replicate the Finalist Weekend selection process virtually, Mr. Robertson (along with his advisors) made the decision to cancel this year’s selection process altogether,” Chan wrote in the March 17 email.

The interview process is a “very big deal” for the program, Robertson told The Chronicle. Keeping it, he said, would be dangerous for both the finalists and the interviewers, who are mostly older individuals to whom COVID-19 presents a great danger. 

He emphasized that the decision to cancel this year’s program was “substantiated” in both Duke’s and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s decisions to cancel in-person classes for the remaining semester. 

Senior Ralph Lawton, a Robertson scholar, wrote in a message that the decision was “disappointing on several fronts.” He wrote that the program has been a life-changing opportunity which gave him close friends and the ability to do more with his Duke experience than he could have ever imagined coming in.

“I think it’s incredibly disappointing to the students applying that several dozen won’t get to experience this opportunity,” Lawton wrote.

He added that students and staff have worked hard to build community and mentorship within the scholarship program. For years following the Class of 2024, he wrote that there would be a “gaping hole” in the program community and future scholars would lose out on the chance to learn from the experiences of that class.

Although he could not speculate on the reasoning behind the decision, he noted that it was frustrating to everyone in the program “how suddenly this decision was made, without consulting the on-campus community.” This is especially pertinent, he emphasized, given the gaps this may leave in that community going forward and the potential ramifications for the campus experience.

In his email, Chan apologized that the current scholars only heard of the news March 17 and acknowledged the stress and confusion it caused some in the community. He emphasized that while Robertson’s email discussed the cancellation of this year’s selection process, it “did not express a desire to cancel the program altogether.”

He wrote that the program’s first priority in communications was to notify the candidates as they deserved to hear about the news from the program first. The candidates also needed to hear “sooner rather than later” to aid them in making spring break plans and college decisions, he wrote.

Robertson added that because the decision was in line with and followed both universities' actions, he didn’t choose to heavily publicize it.

“As a team, the staff is now starting to better understand and adapt to this new reality—one amidst this health crisis and without a first-year class for next year,” Chan wrote. “Please know that we are working hard to ensure that RSLP continues to present programs that add to our Scholars’ leadership development.”

All other merit scholarship programs go virtual

While the RSLP runs independently, merit scholarship programs under OUSF will still be running—but they will be hosting their respective finalist campus visits virtually, according to OUSF Executive Director Karen Weber. 

Weber wrote in an email that all finalists will be given a virtual tour of Duke, which would give them the opportunity to view the Chapel, Perkins Library, the Wellness Center, East Campus Quad and other campus landmarks.

She added that, for the selection process, the office is planning individual virtual interviews with faculty and staff as well as forums to connect finalists with scholarship directors and current merit scholars. Finalists will also be provided videos on learning and living at Duke.

Senior Nikhil Ravi, an A.B. Duke scholar co-organizing the virtual campus visit for A.B. Duke scholar finalists, wrote in a message that co-organizers are trying to remain as helpful and flexible as possible given the rapidly changing situation.

“We can’t assume the circumstances of any of the finalists, so we want to make sure that the virtual FCV works for them and their schedules,” he wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “Our aim is to try and translate the most important parts of the FCV—either over the Internet or by phone.”

He mentioned that the finalist campus visit traditionally consists of finalists exploring campus, learning about Duke programs, meeting current scholars—including one who serves as their host—and formally interviewing with Duke faculty. He hopes to ensure that all these opportunities will remain in the virtual setting, where each finalist is paired with a “virtual” host, will have the opportunity to talk to current scholars and will have a formal interview.

“The specifics will depend on the circumstances of all the parties involved,” Ravi wrote. “We are utilizing the online resources Duke and OUSF already have, as well as adding additional content in the coming weeks.”

Sophomore Dev Seth, a University scholar, wrote in a message that the silver lining in all of this is that it will improve the finalist weekend experience down the line for international students. As an international student, Seth noted that his finalist weekend experience was just a Skype interview.

“Whatever materials, processes, programs are developed for online finalist weekend can be used as is every year from now on to facilitate an improved experience for international students (who aren’t invited to campus),” Seth wrote.

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