In the end, senior year may be remembered for the last two months. Still, before the pandemic—before Zoom classes and empty quads and a postponed commencement—the year saw student activism, construction and basketball games for the ages.
It was a busy year when it came to student life. First-years were barred from O-Week parties, and fraternity rush sobered up. Electric scooters rolled onto campus, though the University placed restrictions on their use. Elections took place, with junior Tommy Hessel elected Duke Student Government president and senior Ibrahim Butt elected undergraduate Young Trustee.
Senior year also saw its share of controversy. Over the summer, Duke agreed to pay $54.5 million to settle a class action antitrust lawsuit. The Department of Education sent a letter criticizing the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies, after which President Vincent Price and Provost Sally Kornbluth reaffirmed the University’s commitment to academic freedom.
Two fraternities faced disciplinary action: Duke’s Delta Sigma Phi chapter was closed in September, and the University suspended its Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter in November and required members to move out of their housing section.
Students made their voices heard throughout the year, protesting tech company Palantir and a talk by former national security advisor John Bolton. During a weeklong global climate strike in September, students also held a rally on the Bryan Center plaza.
The year also saw alumni, students and faculty win prestigious awards. William Kaelin Jr., Trinity ‘79, School of Medicine ‘83 and a member of the Board of Trustees, shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his research on how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability. Senior Gabriella Deich was named Duke’s 50th Rhodes Scholar, and Jenny Tung, Trinity '03, Graduate School '10 and an associate professor in evolutionary anthropology, won a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant.
Demolition, construction and renovations changed the face of Duke. Construction crews began tearing down Central Campus, and students moved into Hollows Quad for the first time. Ahead of the Spring semester, popular eatery Pitchfork’s also got a new look.
Meanwhile, some familiar faces announced their departure. Richard Riddell announced Oct. 1 that he was stepping down as senior vice president and secretary to the Board of Trustees in June, and Duke announced Executive Vice President Tallman Trask’s retirement two weeks later. Mary Pat McMahon became vice president and vice provost for student affairs, succeeding Larry Moneta, and Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek—or Dean Sue—announced that she would move into a new advisory role during the 2020-21 academic year.
The last two months of the academic year were anything but ordinary. The first hint of the coming storm came Jan. 25, when Duke Kunshan University announced that classes would be suspended until mid-February. DKU courses moved entirely online Feb. 24.
Back in Durham, life went on, but Duke banned University-funded travel to China and eventually announced that students who traveled to areas with a high risk of COVID-19 exposure would have to self-quarantine before returning to campus.
On the athletic front, the baseball and softball teams had breakout seasons. Bryce Jarvis pitched the first nine-inning perfect game in the baseball program’s history, and it seemed possible that the team would make it to Omaha for the College World Series. The softball team finished 23-4 and was ranked 25th in the last ESPN/USA Softball poll after a nine-game win streak, their first time being ranked in a major poll.
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Duke football had a lackluster season, finishing with five wins and missing a bowl game for the first time since 2016. The women’s basketball team got off to a rocky start but ended the regular season third in the ACC.
The men’s basketball team posted a pair of dazzling wins over rival North Carolina. After a comeback for the history books in Chapel Hill, Dean Sue sat atop a bench to stop students from burning it. The pyromaniacally inclined got their chance a month later, after a second win that featured a spectacular senior night from Justin Robinson.
But neither of the basketball teams got the chance to prove itself in the postseason. Three days after Robinson’s shining moment in Cameron, and midway through spring break, the emails about Duke’s response to the coronavirus started coming: Classes moved online. Athletic activities were suspended. Students were told not to return to Durham to collect their belongings. By the end of a tumultuous extended spring break, the pandemic had upended the final semester of senior year.
Students and professors adapted to holding classes on Zoom, and undergraduate classes became satisfactory/unsatisfactory by default. Research labs adjusted to restrictions. Durham Mayor Steve Schewel issued a stay-at-home order and local businesses closed. Only 400 students remained on campus, and seniors processed an abrupt farewell.
Yet amidst the hardship, the Duke community came together. Within days of the announcement that classes would move online, the Duke Mutual Aid Facebook group had formed to help members of the Duke community impacted by the pandemic. The University created three relief funds with seed funding of $9 million, and Duke researchers turned their attention to creating a vaccine for the virus.
Now, during an unprecedented time in Duke’s history, the future remains uncertain. International students don’t know when they will be able to go home, and seniors’ post-graduation plans have been disrupted. The University has frozen hiring and halted construction to head off the financial impact of the pandemic. Committees are working to guide Duke’s short- and long-term plans, including whether students will be able to return to campus in the fall.
Still, life has gone on. Students celebrated the last day of classes with a Zoom concert. Commencement is postponed, but a virtual celebration called Marking the Moment will commemorate seniors’ graduation.
And on a quiet campus, the bells of the Duke Chapel continue to ring.