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Duke plans for 'close to normal' fall semester, administrators tell faculty

President Vincent Price delivered his annual address to faculty at the meeting

Duke’s summer and fall plans include expanded on-campus living and the possibility of international travel for students, said Executive Vice President Jennifer Francis; Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education; and Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president for student affairs, at Thursday’s Academic Council meeting. 

At the meeting, a trio of administrators updated the council on Duke's plans for the summer and fall semester and President Vincent Price gave his first annual talk to faculty since 2019, following a cancellation last year. 

Summer and fall plans, student conduct update

Despite a recent rise in cases, Duke is still operating under the assumption that in the fall, the University "will be operating close to normal, with a return to in-person campus activities," according to a presentation that Francis displayed. Whether that happens depends on circumstances and health guidance that Duke gets from the state government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said. 

Along with reopening in the fall, Duke is also opening up its campus over the summer, including students working in labs, DukeEngage and other co-curricular activities—the first time that on-campus housing is available to students in co-curricular activities, Bennett said. Duke will carry over its surveillance testing program into the summer sessions.

Heading into the fall, there's also some hope that study abroad and other programs involving travel will return to a more normal setup. 

"We are planning as though we will be able to do some international travel in the fall and we're seeing record demand there," Bennett said.

Francis said Duke's ability to host outdoor events with speakers will depend on CDC and state guidelines. She suggested that faculty plan on virtual events, with an on-campus event as a possibility. 

Bennett and McMahon updated the council on student conduct following a record number of COVID-19 cases last week. 

Duke's COVID-19 conduct strategy, which centers around the Duke Compact, has multiple paths depending on violations. Low-level violations usually result in warnings or referrals to wellness programs, while repeated or serious violations—such as hosting large gatherings—go through the Office of Student Conduct. 

"Students that are hosting large events, students that are not following isolation and quarantine protocols—those are the ones that we usually pay attention to," McMahon said. "We have seen students be issued one- and two-semester suspensions. Some in the fall, more so far in the spring because of that accumulating factor." 

McMahon noted that Duke has seen about 2.5 times more student conduct cases than at this time in past years. She said she couldn't share information about specific conduct cases, particularly open ones.

She also discussed Duke's communication strategy to undergraduates, including a weekly email blast, bi-weekly emails from McMahon and Bennett and a monthly email about student conduct. About 70% of students read those messages, with a higher rate for the conduct emails. 

Vincent Price addresses faculty

Price, who was recently reappointed to a second term as Duke's president, addressed faculty for the third time in his term and the first in two years, after last year's address was canceled due to inclement weather and then Duke's decision to close campus during the spring 2020 semester. 

In his talk, Price emphasized that Duke's current strategic plan—called Toward Our Second Century—involves investments in faculty across the board. He acknowledged that Duke's current faculty chairs are underfunded and said that Duke plans on seeking out greater endowments for faculty positions. 

"Our faculty endowments lag considerably behind our peers," Price said. 

Duke will also prioritize financial aid for students. The School of Medicine is in the middle of "securing a record gift" and fundraising will go toward undergraduate financial aid endowments as well. Some of that will come from Duke's next capital campaign, whose financial target will be higher than the $3.75 billion threshold for Duke's last campaign—Duke Forward—although the University hasn't settled on a firm goal yet, Price said.

"We have raised well over $500 million each year over the past three years," Price said. 2017, 2018 and 2020 were the three most successful fundraising years in Duke's history, he noted, despite 2020 being affected by pandemic-related disruptions.

The new fundraising campaign will launch in 2024, commemorating Duke's centennial. 

Price emphasized that faculty funding and financial aid are part of a deliberate strategy. 

"It represents a people-first shift of emphasis in our investments," he said. "Less emphasis on investing in buildings—the physical infrastructure—and more emphasis in investing in the people who work and teach and study and live in those buildings—our human infrastructure."

As part of that people-first focus, Duke is also working on improving its campus community. 

Price acknowledged that COVID-19 has made fostering that community difficult this year, but pointed to Duke's tobacco-free campus policy as a success story on that front. He also said that Duke's Next Generation Living and Learning 2.0 task force is a key part of the plan to improve campus culture. 

Last summer, Price also charged administrators with devising new anti-racism activities and guidelines. Following that, Duke is launching a survey later this month to gather information on the campus climate from students, faculty and staff, Price said.

In Other Business

Price told faculty that Duke hit 50,000 undergraduate applications this year, while most other programs also set historical highs in applicants. As a result, he said that he expects record-low acceptance rates. 

David Schanzer, professor of the practice of public policy, asked whether Duke plans to make any changes to its relationship with Duke Kunshan University, citing Chinese human rights abuses and infringement on academic freedom.

"China is involved in a massive, massive genocide that was named by the Trump administration and reaffirmed by the Biden administration," Schanzer said. "China has passed a national security law that would make it a crime for students visiting from DKU—Chinese nationals—to take many of the courses that I and many of my colleagues teach."

Price acknowledged Schanzer's concern but said that Duke is not reevaluating DKU's status. 

"It's true that affairs in China have developed in China that are not positive since we entered into this relationship with DKU," Price said. However, he said that Duke's belief was that engagement "stood to provide benefit to the students who attend DKU and ultimately longer term to China and the world." 

"I don't think at this point that we collectively at Duke want to step back from the vision that took us there," he also said. Price noted that there are some "bright lines" on academic freedom that Duke monitors, including the University's power to operate its own virtual private network. 

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