While the Class of 2021’s third year on campus will forever be infamous for the University’s transition to empty quads and online courses, the pre-pandemic year was also remarkable thanks to student activism, campus renovations 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 alcohol was banned from fraternity rush events. Electric scooters began to litter campus sidewalks, though the University placed restrictions on their use. As for student elections, junior Tommy Hessel was elected Duke Student Government president and senior Ibrahim Butt was elected undergraduate Young Trustee.
Junior year also saw its share of controversy. Over the summer, Duke agreed to pay $54.5 million to settle a class action antitrust lawsuit after the plaintiff alleged that Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had agreed not to hire each other’s employees.
Duke’s 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 shut down in September due to “risk management problems”, 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 John Bolton, former national security advisor to President Donald Trump. During a weeklong global climate strike in September, students held a rally on the Bryan Center plaza.
Alumni, students and faculty won prestigious awards this year. 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. Gabriella Deich, Trinity ‘20, who co-founded the Arete Fellowship at Duke, 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 for $625,000.
Demolition, construction and renovations changed the face of Duke this year. 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 would be stepping down in June as senior vice president and secretary to the Board of Trustees. Two weeks later, Duke announced Executive Vice President Tallman Trask’s retirement. Mary Pat McMahon became vice president and vice provost for student affairs, succeeding Larry Moneta, and Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek 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.
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On the athletic front, the baseball and softball teams had outstanding 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.
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. Students got their second chance a month later, after a second victory over the Tar Heels that featured a spectacular senior night from Justin Robinson.
Despite an exciting start, the men’s basketball team’s season was brought to a crashing halt.
Three days after Robinson’s shining moment in Cameron, and midway through spring break, students began to receive hair-raising emails from University administrators. Classes were moved online, athletic activities were suspended, and students were told not to return to Durham to collect their belongings. By the end of a tumultuous extended spring break, it was clear that the Class of 2021’s junior year would not end in a normal fashion.
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.
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.
And on a quiet campus, the bells of the Duke Chapel continued to ring.