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Q&A: President Vincent Price on leading Duke through a pandemic, University's anti-racist mission

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Vincent Price took office in 2017 as Duke’s 10th president. Less than three years into his tenure, it fell to him to lead the University through a global pandemic. Under Price’s leadership, the school moved classes online in the spring and brought students back this fall, all while navigating COVID-19’s economic fallout and launching expansive new anti-racism initiatives. 

In The Chronicle’s most extensive interview with Price since the pandemic began, Editor-in-Chief Matthew Griffin asked the University’s president about leading Duke in a crisis, Duke’s anti-racist mission, community concerns, the upcoming spring semester and more. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: What has it been like to be Duke’s president during a pandemic? 

Vincent Price: None of us anticipated the global pandemic. It's been illuminating in many respects, though. For me as president, it has left me feeling deep gratitude for the leadership of the strategy teams I put together last spring, especially Vice President for Administration Kyle Cavanaugh and Executive Vice Provost Jennifer Francis and then the hundreds, if not thousands, of people they have been working with to devise a program that would allow us to meet face to face. 

The other thing is tremendous pride in the teamwork I've seen across campus. This comes from students, from faculty and staff. People have been creative and adaptive in figuring out how to work around the challenges presented by the coronavirus. And I've been very impressed by the flexibility and responsibility of our students as well. There was so much rhetoric, as you may recall, in late summer, about how, in some respects, people argued it was fundamentally irresponsible to bring students back to campuses, because in no way could they avoid the temptations of large parties and all the things attendant with that. And you know, we had confidence in our students, and I absolutely feel pride. There's a deep sense of pride in the way everyone's responded. 

But I would say most generally, this experience for me is just a vivid reminder that any institution, at the end of the day, is only as strong as its people. And it has illuminated my role in the sense that it's given me confidence that our strategic framework for our second century, and the five general foci of that framework, it's the right framework for carrying us forward. COVID has, I think, accelerated our planning and thinking in a number of respects, but that framework itself begins and ends with people. It's focused on better resourcing our faculty and our students, adapting our teaching and learning to the 21st century, mobilizing all the resources we have to build community and strengthen community in a holistic sense, partnering with Durham and the region, and then activating our global network of Duke alumni so that we really give truth to this sort of vision of lifelong education. And COVID has leaned on each of these in different ways and given, in my mind, powerful focus—because of the twin pandemics, not just the viral pandemic, but the social pandemic, in some sense, that it has exposed. 

Then the final thing I'll say is that we worked over the last couple years to refine and articulate our core values of respect, trust, inclusion, discovery and excellence. And those values have guided our strategy all the way through, and I think they've been responsible for our success. So the reason why I think our student community has stepped up, our faculty and staff have stepped up, is because we do actually share those core values. And if you apply those values to the current situation, I think you'd end up with a community doing essentially what Duke has been doing. 

Those are my general reflections. As I said, I certainly didn't anticipate this. No sane person would wish a global pandemic upon any community. But it has, I think, allowed us as an institution to meet a variety of challenges with a thoughtful, firm strategy that I think at the end of the day has allowed us to perform well, and we should be proud of ourselves.

TC: Has leading Duke through a crisis and confronting those twin pandemics changed or affected your view of your role as president, or your relationship or duty to the community?

VP: It hasn't changed it in a fundamental way. Because it's challenged for everybody our ability to get together face to face, it's highlighted for me just how palpable that loss of community is and how honestly painful it is. And I'm of the firm view that, for me to succeed as president, that kind of visibility and presence to each of our constituent communities—faculty, students, staff and alumni—is just so important. And I've done what I can through the pandemic, I think pretty successfully, to stay in touch. 

But it has highlighted in my mind, just how critical that role of a president is. The other piece that it's highlighted is the power of appropriate shared governance and delegation. So I've been meeting with Provost Sally Kornbluth and Francis going back through the spring. We meet regularly with our faculty leadership and leadership at the Academic Council. We stayed in very close contact throughout the summer and had a lot of difficult conversations about how we would move forward. Our leadership team did exactly what I would have hoped they would do. They animated other groups across the campus. We shared a lot of information. It helped tremendously that we have a world-class health system, medical school and school of nursing to guide us. But universities are never command-and-control structures. They function when there's clear guidance delivered from leadership, but the follow up depends entirely upon the ability of decision-makers across the University to respond appropriately. And that has certainly been the case at Duke. So again, it's reminded me of the deep and abiding value of that distributed system of decision making and responsibility.

TC: I think the three highest-profile decisions, at least for students, have been moving classes online in the spring, deciding to bring students back to campus in the fall, and then scaling back the reopening and moving most juniors and seniors off campus. Are those decisions that you signed off on? And who do you involve in the room on a decision of that magnitude?

VP: Absolutely, those three decisions are absolutely mine. They were not controversial decisions among my leadership team, but they were clearly mine. 

And in a changing environment, you have to act on the best available information, and so throughout the spring and summer, we were gathering a lot of data and a lot of information to inform our planning. So for example, I mentioned the strength of the health system, not just as a body with which we would regularly consult as we go about the health implications of different protocols we might develop, but because of the employees of our health system worked throughout the pandemic, even when the rest of the workforce in the spring went essentially on lockdown and worked remotely. Of course, to meet the healthcare needs of COVID patients, Duke Health was always up in and in operation. We learned a tremendous amount about appropriate protocols, safety protocols for the workplace, return-to-work protocols that were later developed. We leaned heavily on that experience, and there was a lot of information-sharing. 

We then took that information and put it to work as we thought about how we could start to reopen labs, which was sort of the first phase of the return to campus, having researchers come back to their labs on campus, start up their programs, graduate students, postdoctoral students and others, coming back to work again under very regulated conditions. We leaned on that experience. 

When students who were competing as intercollegiate athletes returned over the summer for practice, it gave us an opportunity to develop a whole set of protocols around those activities. All of that informed the plans we were making for bringing the students back to campus. We shared information broadly across the University, but also with peers. 

In some sense, you want to wait to make decisions, particularly if they're large and important decisions, until you have as much information and experience under your belt as possible. At the same time, people are waiting on those decisions. And it was unfortunate that we had that surge in late summer. That required us to rethink our de-densification approaches on campus, and take that additional step, as you said, to de-densify a little bit further. And it turned out to have been, in retrospect, exactly the right call to make, to have all of our students in singles and to have them essentially sharing bathroom fixtures at a four-to-one ratio. That was not an original plan, that was an adjustment we made late, but it was hard for us to give up because we so wanted to have a full complement of students with us, and because we needed the latest information to make that call. 

That was a point where two values come into conflict. My interest, our interest collectively, in helping our students and their families know exactly what to plan for, against the changing context of the pandemic and our acquisition of enough information to feel confident when we're making the right call. And by the way, we made that call when many institutions were saying to themselves, now's the time to go remote-only, as a number of our peer institutions did. So even though it was a scaling back of our plans with respect to the number of students we would have living on campus, it was done to preserve our core value, which was to ensure that we were able to maintain that sense of community,  maintain that opportunity for students to interact closely with faculty as you can only do if you're here on campus. 

TC: When Duke scaled back fall housing, students raised concerns about the communication of the change—how it came really late, and it came after a few days of rumors circulating about it, and then it felt really abrupt to a lot of people. And I wonder if that was sort of an unfortunate consequence of the circumstance, or is that something that you and your team have taken into account and tried to adjust going forward?

VP: It's both. I don't think it was avoidable in the sense that, as I described, the context was really driving the timing of those decisions. It's also difficult in a large organization, where you have so many decisions being made by so many people, as you said, information sort of leaks out. My concern is with misinformation leaking out. So this was actually a case where there were maybe early indications we were moving in this direction. It wasn't as though the community received, essentially, an about-face. But I just knew it would be deeply unwelcome information, particularly for juniors and seniors and their families. And believe me, if there was any way we could have avoided it, we would have avoided it. And that was essentially what was responsible for it coming late. 

But again, I don't regret the decision. And I'm not sure under the circumstances, from a communication perspective, how we might have managed differently. It would come as a somewhat sudden decision, and certainly as an unwelcome decision, no matter what. 

The final thing I'll say is that we have always, with every decision we've made, announced to the community that our plans are subject to change. We put conditions around all of our pronouncements, necessarily, because the world is so uncertain right now. We have to both convey to people enough information so that they can make plans and depend upon that information, but also as a sort of truth-in-advertising statement, let people know these plans are subject to change. And we did that all the time. But again, when they're subject to change, and the change happens just before the onset of the semester, there's no question it induced a lot of anxiety. And I regret that. I'm not sure in retrospect, again, how we would have handled it differently. But I will say it has heightened our attention to trying to provide information about decisions at the earliest possible juncture we can with confidence. There's no reason we should not let the community know what we've determined is going to be the case or is very highly likely going to be the case.

TC: Duke has done really well in preventing infections this semester. We've had 187 total positive tests since Aug. 2, as of Nov. 6. Some schools have had thousands. Some schools have moved classes online. What do you attribute that success to?

VP: One of the decisions we made over the summer was to build up a large-scale testing program that would regularly surveil asymptomatic members of the community. It was not abundantly clear in the spring that this kind of system would be necessary, but it became clear to us that many people who were testing positive were asymptomatic, and especially in the age groups we're dealing with in our student population. Given that, and given the prevalence of the virus generally in this region, it was our clear belief that we needed to have an extensive program first of gateway testing, so that every student is tested upon arrival to avoid having the virus seeded in the student population on day one, to the extent that you could prevent that from happening, and then to have regular surveillance testing following that up. 

We were expanding as we went, so we now have testing capacity that's quite extensive. Fifteen thousand tests a week are regularly being conducted. That was not always the case, and we had to allocate early testing resources to that gateway testing. So there was a period of time where we leaned heavily, and we continue to lean heavily, on a faculty group that's essentially a modeling team that directs our surveillance testing optimally, based on the information that we're receiving. Building out that structure was one of the wisest things we did. I think you can see the difference: Campuses that did not have that structure in place struggled and continue to struggle. 

But that’s necessary; it’s not sufficient. I'd say the bigger maneuver actually was with the development and rollout of the Duke Compact, and our emphasis on the fact, and it is a fact, that you cannot test your way through this pandemic successfully. You behave your way through the pandemic. That prevention is entirely dependent upon masking and social distancing, primarily, but all those behaviors, handwashing, and our work to enlist support across the community for doing that, and engagement with students and doing that, and the student leadership that was exhibited in helping us do it, that has made the bigger difference. So people tend to focus on the tests—and believe me, it's a big program, 15 testing sites, mobile testing vans, it's a wonder to behold. But if we did not have this student and faculty and staff response to the Duke Compact that we had, we would not be looking at the numbers that we're seeing. So I think that that is, of all the things we've done, probably our major cause for success.

TC: Is there anything you would have done differently since March, or since January when COVID-19 started to affect Duke Kunshan University?

VP: I don't think the major decisions would have been different. I don't think that there's grounds to second-guess any of those decisions. I do think, we’ve talked about communication and sort of the rollout of some of these decisions. I think we might have managed more effectively there from time to time. It's impossible to overcommunicate in this environment. It is certainly possible to under-communicate. And so if we've made a mistake, it's probably along that dimension. But even there, as I said, I wouldn't characterize it as much as a mistake as it is a lesson learned as we move forward. 

As you know, we've been very conservative. And as students become so exhausted, and faculty become exhausted, and really, at a certain point that strong desire—it's stronger than a desire, it's a need—for social interaction builds up. We do need to find ways to create environments for safe social interaction. And if we've erred, we might have erred a little bit too much on the conservative end of things. But again, was it the wrong decision? Absolutely not. In the context of uncertainty, I think that that conservative approach is probably what put us in the excellent condition we're in today. But as I look forward to January, and the arrival of students for the spring semester, it's something that the team and I are thinking a lot about. Again, we can't go too far down that road because we have no idea what conditions will be like in the winter. But we know, for example, that the weather won't be as nice. All of us have benefited from good weather, which means we can be outside. That's healthy. That's the right thing to do in a coronavirus pandemic. But given conditions in the winter, and perhaps the high environmental prevalence of COVID, we really have to think through what we can do to meet the social needs of our students, the community needs of our students and faculty and staff—all of us need this. That's an unresolved puzzle at this point. We're leaning on all of our experience to date in making informed judgments about what we can do possibly in the spring.

TC: To deal with the financial impact of the pandemic, Duke has suspended University-funded payments to a retirement program, implemented a hiring freeze, and more. You've taken a salary cut, as have other top employees. What is the state of finances and the impact on the University? Could more cuts be necessary? And how could this affect long-term priorities going forward?

VP: The financial impact has been severe, principally because of loss of revenue. It's a large revenue shortfall, in the neighborhood of as much as $250 million this year. We had large revenue shortfalls last year, but because of non-salary expense reductions, when we all went to remote work sites, travel stopped. I mean, you had a pretty large reduction of expenditures. And so we came out of last year in reasonable shape. This year we knew would be a tougher year. So the values that I mentioned earlier really drove our decision-making and our thinking about this. 

The reason we went to the salary reductions we did, and the suspension of the University’s contributions to retirement, those are temporary changes, but what they allowed us to do was to avoid things like large programs of layoffs and furloughs. So it's a tradeoff. We also did it in a progressive way so that those employees with the lowest incomes were insulated, for example, from our decision not to have a salary increase program in the spring. We did have a salary increase for anyone making less than $50,000. And we have two different retirement programs. There a pension plan that we did not adjust at all, because it primarily serves the needs of our lower-salaried employees. So we've been thinking about, in making all these financial decisions, how we balance the financial needs against those values. We decided, as you know, not to move forward with the pre-approved tuition increases. Again, this is another loss of income. And we knew it. So in some sense, you'd say why make things worse, when the challenge you're struggling against is a loss of revenue? And the answer is we're not the only ones doing poorly. Families are struggling. So this made sense for us.

At each of those points along the way, we've always had in mind that we could end up saving as much both on the salary side and with respect to non-salary expense reductions, to close that $250 million gap that I described. At the moment, it looks as though we'll get there. So I don't feel any sense of panic about our condition. But we're not done yet. We have another semester to go. But our projections look pretty good—good in the context of having made all those cuts, which itself is not good, it's painful. Now beyond COVID, once we get through this academic year, we still have some structural challenges that we need to work our way through. So some of the changes that we're making, you know, we'll probably live with longer than just this intense COVID period. But the point is emerging as well-positioned as possible, post-COVID, so that we can realize our ambitions. 

By the time of our centennial in 2024, we will probably be in the midst, maybe having launched our next major fundraising campaign. Our priorities are going to be financial aid, chairs to support our faculty, some signature programmatic initiatives. I think we'll be in a position to move forward aggressively on all those fronts with no insecurities surrounding, broadly, our financial standing, and that's our goal. We don't want to merely survive, we do want to thrive. And Duke, notwithstanding a lot of the temporary cuts and the pain associated with them, is overall in very good shape.

TC: We’ve reported on the concerns of some part-time contract workers who weren't paid in the early days of the pandemic, and the fact that surveillance testing hadn't yet been expanded to contract workers by the beginning of October. As you've tried to protect long-term priorities and create a campus experience for students, how have you tried to bring workers or lower-paid members of the community to the table and consider their concerns?

VP: By being in regular communication with them, number one. We have several unions, and they've been in regular communication with our administrative leadership team as we develop these various protocols, and have been very cooperative. Somewhat distinctively against peers, we really have, as I said, rolled out a program that by design has been progressive, to insulate as much as possible from harming those people who are most vulnerable. And we've retained not just our own employees but also contract workers into the summer, but it's not indefinitely sustainable as a program. So again, we're balancing this. What we've avoided is University-wide programs that would amount to layoffs and furloughs and those kinds of things, very successfully. At the unit level, units are making their own decisions. But again, we've tried to be flexible. 

To take one example, we reconstructed our benefits program to make full-time benefits available to part-time employees. So if employees wanted to reduce their time, they could retain their benefits. And that would allow us, if employees wanted to go that route, to have the resources to keep more employees on the payroll. So all the way through we were thinking about that. 

The other consideration all the way through is the health and vitality of the local economy. Just having classes in person, having our students safely back in Durham, is huge for the Durham community because we're the largest private employer in Durham. And so we've been working very closely with the city from day one, and the Durham County public health department, and that informs our decision-making as well. So our goal has all the way along been to boost the economy of the region as much as possible and mitigate the economic damage that the coronavirus is extracting. The Duke-Durham fund that we seeded with $5 million in the spring is another good example. Those funds went to support nonprofits at a moment where the services that they provide are so terribly needed but they operate on razor-thin margins and need support to continue. We've been assisting local businesses as well, to keep them going. 

So this is teamwork, and I assure you that the collaboration between the city and the county and Duke has been extraordinary throughout. Excellent leadership by Durham Mayor Steve Schewel and our local and regional leaders in close cooperation with Duke as we went along. It's not what I would have wished for. These are always difficult decisions, but I think we've been able to keep so many more employees employed, both Duke employees and contract employees, than might have been imagined at the outset, because of the way we've approached this—because that has been an important value for us.

TC: You've talked about making anti-racism and equity “long-term priorities for Duke, woven carefully into every aspect of our institutional strategy and culture.” What's your role in that as the leader of the University?

VP: The strategic framework toward our second century that was developed in my first year as president, it’s a community product. It came out of consultations with trustees, faculty, students, staff and others. But it reflects my own, I would say, personal vision for Duke, the sort of people-first design of that framework. And within weeks of arriving on campus, I decided to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from the face of the Chapel. And given Duke’s institutional history, pre-COVID of course, it was clear to me that for us to evolve as an institution we needed to have in place programs that took seriously that the work we’re in—the work we do is the work of developing and identifying human talent to the fullest extent possible. That means having broad access to Duke’s programs. It also means valuing equally every member of the Duke community. And for an institution that was segregated for so many years, in a region of the country that worked through a history of Jim Crow laws, when you see the national issues that have been exposed by COVID, it simply brought into much clearer focus the need for us as an institution to seriously dedicate ourselves to an anti-racist mission.

Now, the strategic framework itself is a way to think about it, because it identifies the different ways in which we would approach it: by investing in people; by really rethinking our educational programs; by foregrounding community and having a healthy, welcome and—we use the word inclusion a lot, but inclusion implies a lot that’s not in place in many communities around the country, including Duke. When we think about regional partnerships, and our obligations—and opportunities, really—to lift the whole region, with a particular focus on those members of the Black community who have been systematically excluded from so much, and when we think about the broader alumni community, these are all opportunities for us to mobilize University resources in an anti-racist cause. And so that’s why in my Juneteenth letter, when I laid out some of our high-level University commitments, I did it in the context of that framework. 

I’m excited about this as a possibility. I don’t for a moment think it will be necessarily rapid or easy, because these are systemic challenges that were centuries in the making, but I think an institution like Duke has an opportunity to be a leader, a true institutional leader in this respect, and I came to this part of the country because I was drawn to that as an opportunity. I came to Duke because what I saw at Duke led me to believe that we have as a community the potential to do exactly that. COVID has brought all of this into a sharper focus, and so again, I don’t welcome any of the terrible things that we’ve had to suffer and witness over the past nine months, but they have given us, I think, cause for recommitment, and they have given us an opportunity to refine our vision. And so that’s where our anti-racism planning is. The website that we launched is still new, but that will be an opportunity for us to monitor, to tell a story, to remind us of this commitment for years to come. Because this is not a one-and-done. It’s not even a new initiative in the context of an initiative to do this or that. This is a deep institutional commitment. 

TC: Other than the website, do you have structures in place to hold yourself and other leaders accountable, so that when promoting anti-racism and equity is a long and hard road, and there aren't protests that are as big, and it's not the headline of the day, it remains a commitment?

VP: Absolutely. So a couple of things that are our focus now, one of them is communication—you and I have talked about that. My role is to continually remind our community of this commitment and to find ways to let the entire institution talk about it openly, and keep it front and center, keep it salient. It has to remain that way. If you stop talking about something, you stop doing things about it. 

So communication's one challenge. Another one has to do with regular data-gathering and transparency. In the spring, we'll launch our first comprehensive staff survey, assessing the climate in workplaces around the University—a long-overdue activity—and build out a series of data collections that spans our engagement with the Durham community, to our student environments, and gather those data, examine those data and make them available to the wider community. 

Then there's accountability. It's hard to hold people accountable if you don't have data, because you can't monitor trends, you can't ask yourself how you're doing. You can't ascertain whether you're making forward progress. And when it comes to accountability, this is a matter of my inserting into the goals of every one of my direct reports, ways in which they're accountable to this mission, and on a regular basis, quarterly and annually, sitting down and seeing how we're doing, and holding people accountable for progress, rewarding people who make progress, and letting people know that they won't be rewarded if they don't make progress. 

And then the other big challenge for us is coordination. You know, the outpouring of activity, if you go to anti-racism.duke.edu, the outpouring of activities is fantastic across all parts of the University, from athletics to our academic departments to the health system, it's been magnificent, but a lot of that can happen and if it doesn't add up, if it's not coordinated, it won't have the impact it needs to make. So I'm looking to Kim Hewitt, vice president for institutional equity and chief diversity officer, to help me coordinate those activities across the entire institution. So that the work we're doing with faculty and students in the academic realm, the work we're doing with staff with administration, the work we're doing in Duke Health, all of these things can be more effectively integrated. So we are building new systems, and Hewitt has been terrific and a wonderful partner in this. So those are the principal means by which we're building out a structure for the long haul. Again, not a new initiative, per se, but a renewed institutional commitment to get this right.

TC: As you look ahead to the break, and to planning for the spring, and then to people coming back for the spring assuming things continue according to plan, how do you feel? At the end of a successful fall, but with this surge in cases increasing across the country?

VP: I feel the way I have throughout the pandemic, which is proud, as I said earlier, of how well we've done, but you will never find me spiking the ball. Because I would be spiking it on on the 30-yard line—my own 30-yard line, right? 

Thanksgiving is a light at the end of the tunnel for all of us. Not actually a light at the end of the tunnel—it's a light hanging down in the middle of a pretty long tunnel. So the first thing I would say to all of us, and this is important: This has been hard. It's been hard on our students. It's been hard on the faculty and staff. So we're not done yet—we can never let down our guard. We haven't even wrapped up classes. What we all need to do though, is take a break, and over this winter, disconnect, unplug, declare Zoom-free days—hopefully Zoom-free weeks—and just recuperate and reinvigorate, because that will be so necessary coming back next semester. 

Next semester will look a lot like this one. That wasn't clear to me last spring. Nothing was clear last spring, but it's becoming clear now that it will look a lot like this semester. No one wants to see new therapeutics and vaccines more than I do, to help the globe work its way out of this, but it's unlikely those will have the impact next spring that would allow us to be substantially different than we are today. 

More face-to-face activities, more in-person instruction. As I said, I'm hoping we can find creative ways to maximize social interaction and community building. You know, we're not going to be able to jam people into Cameron for basketball games, so how do we find other ways of enjoying basketball and enjoying community, because that's what basketball represents in some respects at Duke. Those are the challenges we're looking at for the spring right now. 

I would say more of the same. And that's probably depressing for a lot of people to hear, because what people want so terribly is for things to go back to normal. If conditions allow, we would readily do that, but most projections, particularly now, as we see ourselves heading into the holidays, the national trajectory and the regional trajectory are not at all where we want it. I just think it's unlikely that we're going to be looking at a very different spring.

TC: Beyond the spring, looking forward, what do you want to accomplish? What are your long-term goals as president? And has that changed at all over the course of this crazy year?

VP: A couple of things. One is I charged the 2021 and 2030 strategy teams with trying to make decisions now that might be desirable to hold on to, so that they're not one-off decisions. So we've been talking about changes in the residential experience for students at Duke. We're making changes this year with an eye toward following up on recommendations that came out of our Trustee taskforce some years ago on next-generation living and learning experiences at Duke. I think we'll be able to build on what we've learned and change some things heading into the post-COVID era that will be very positive for Duke, you know, address some of the challenges we have with kind of hyper-selectivity in student life, with that challenging migration from East Campus to West in the sophomore year. We’re going to take advantage of what we're learning from this COVID period to make progress along those lines. 

The same with our curricula and our class programs. Zoom and modes of remote instruction are actually pretty good for some things. They're woefully inadequate for many—no one wants to return to face-to-face instruction as our primary mode of instruction sooner than me. But, that being said, we now have access, our faculty have learned a whole set of interesting tools. We can modularize the curriculum, we can build kind of attachments to that core face-to-face experience that will be magnificent. So we're going to move forward there. So in a variety of ways, we're consolidating our experience and our learnings. We're making faster progress doing things, frankly, that we wanted to do before COVID came along. So I'm very optimistic about what a post-COVID Duke experience will be. It'll be that same fabulous Duke experience it's always been, and that much better. That's our goal.

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