The poetic art of naming things is old and difficult. If you’re familiar with a certain cosmic creation narrative, it may even be considered the first act of mankind after receiving the breath of life. But while you may think the long and storied human experience in naming things would mean we find it easy, you have only to look at Duke’s nascent residential model to find a potent example of how difficult it seemingly remains.
“QuadEx” is a name, often loathed, for something that receives plenty of attention at Duke University. This attention is often given by its undergraduate body, who sees it mostly as a failed reform of Duke’s housing and social life, prior iterations of which they have only heard rumors. The criticism comes in repeated waves as students take their intended steps into the social life of the university and end up falling painfully into the gaps where communities and programming of prior eras used to be.
QuadEx was strategized as a way to fill those gaps and create a powerfully sustainable and inclusive way of giving each student at Duke a ground floor of belonging. But the critics are overwhelmingly correct — the reform has not lived up to this ideal after years of implementation, and students have little reason to believe that it ever will. I remain deluded enough to believe there is still a significant possibility of success, with the right model leading the implementation. This column is a presentation of that model.
In advance of presenting, let me tell you briefly where the model comes from and why I’m writing about it. My first semester at Duke was the fall of 2017, several geological eras ago when Central Campus was not merely an archeological stratum beneath a parking lot but a thriving third campus. Greek organizations and SLGs had sections on West Campus and Central Campus, and no one was wearing a mask save the premed students shadowing surgeons. In the span of a few years, several important changes took place:
- President Richard Broadhead became President Emeritus, and Vincent Price arrived on campus in 2017.
- West Union was renovated, reopening in 2017 with a terrifically long name no one uses (The Richard H. Broadhead Center for Student and Campus Life). All the yearly traditions taking place there moved to Central.
- Central Campus was deconstructed and paved over in 2018, burying decades of vibrant campus life, social tradition, and student belonging.
- Duke Students for Housing Reform made a lot of demands of the University in 2019. Almost none of them were heeded.
- The COVID-19 pandemic plagued Duke from 2020 to 2021, halting the annual transfer of significant social structure knowledge from one generation of Duke students to another.
- Greek life largely disaffiliated from the University and moved off campus.
- Duke launched QuadEx in the fall of 2021.
Throughout all these changes, I was struggling with orgo problem sets and joining the Next Generation Living and Learning Committee (this unwieldy title compels me to again reference the poetic art of naming things, etc.). I worked with students from all different backgrounds and a now-closed consulting firm on how to meet the demand for housing reform and address the changes that took place over the past few years. This was in the fall of 2021, as Duke was announcing the linkage of East Houses with West Quads and calling it a name taken from Stanford’s ResX program. I loved the work and believed in the mission, so much so that I became a Spark Fellow after graduating to work on implementing the strategy of that Committee full time from June 2022 to July 2023.
It was during that year of work on implementing QuadEx that I was often compelled to think critically about how to explain what we were doing, because all the prior efforts to communicate it to students and other stakeholders were absent or ineffective. After my fifth lap walking around the legacy Willow Oaks lining Abele Quad, I had an epiphany. The best way to explain how QuadEx could be great was right in front of me.
QuadEx starts with the most fundamental identifier students share no matter who they are: the place they live, specifically their first year East House followed by their linked West Quad. Shared space is the core of this QuadEx model, just like a sapling tree’s core forms the substance around which all its future rings concentrate. But a sapling core is not a mature tree, and even though that part of QuadEx has been fully implemented, shared space is not enough to build a ground floor of belonging where all students feel at home at Duke no matter their background or identity. A flourishing, mature version of reformed housing and social life needs many more rings. I think we have to start with at least three.
During the year I worked on implementing QuadEx strategy, I was able to successfully get the first level tree ring off the ground and running in the form of the Quad Arches. Strategically, Duke needed a set of shared signs and symbols that constituted a shared identity derived from shared space. It was my suggestion in the Neighborhood Identities Committee report to do so using heralds like many of our peer institutions do, but very early on we flipped the heraldic shield to a gothic Arch. Filling the Arches with their ten elements took several months of research and deliberation with the teams of brilliantly engaged students who made those choices, and then several more months of illustration by a local artist. Each symbol is a toolkit for identity, operable for a wide range of uses and designed so that the only thing necessary to participate in using them is to live in your Quad. Taking a look at any brand or sports logo will give you an idea of how important a shared symbol is for creating shared identity, and all the moving parts of the Arches act in concert to achieve that. I won’t drone on; you can read more here.
As much as the Arches were my darling project, I know for certain that if you have a pretty symbol but you don’t do anything with it, the social program is still immature and likely unsuccessful. Shared activities and experiences are required to give life and story to the symbols, which is why they form the second ring around the core of this model. I spent several months planning the Quad Cup concurrent to designing the Arches, sketching out a way that we could take all the things students already did and stitch them together around the Quads to create a ground floor of shared activity. Whether in academics, athletics, arts or community engagement, students would be able to earn points for their Quad and scheme to win the Cup, sharing the experience of hoisting a physical trophy at the end of year and keeping it in their Quad until next year’s winner steals it away. None of this materialized in spring 2023 when it was intended to, but through the efforts of some incredible students and staff, it seems like it launched this spring. I’m hopeful it flourishes as more students step up to lead its charge.
Shared spaces, symbols and experiences are much more robust ways to build community than any single element alone, but just doing things under the same banner as individuals leaves a cratering gap in the model. For the activity to be meaningful and sustained, the individuals engaging in them need a way to relate to the other players, just like Duke Basketball needs players, coaches and fans to make a good game. This is where the third ring, the Quad Societies, operates. Some Duke students enroll with a built in network of fantastic connections they are blessed to have through parents or friends, but others arrive not knowing a single soul. For the undergraduate Quads to have a ground floor of belonging where everyone can stand at the same level in growing a network, QuadEx needs groups of stakeholders connected to the Quads who do activities with them and build relationships.
If you’re a sophomore interested in law, business, or medicine, you happen to be at a place that has professional schools for all three professions. But beyond the variable success of cold emailing, how can you connect to these groups of students, and how can you ensure they want to connect to you? The Graduate Society of each Quad would consist of graduate students from every school at the university who self select to connect to undergrads, joining them at Quad Cup events and building organic relationships that make learning about applying to medical school easier, especially for the students with the least amount of privileged access to the process. When I met with the Graduate and Professional Student Council last summer, there was genuine enthusiasm for this on the part of the grads — many of them want to connect just as much as the undergrads do.
What if you’re not interested in more school after graduating? The Alumni Societies would apportion the vast alumni network of Duke University into affiliation with the Quad they lived in during their years here (or with one they just happen to like). Inviting them to attend Quad Cup events and sharing the Quad Arches full of symbols they already know because they lived there would make the process of organically forming professional networks more possible and more equitable. A first attempt at this was made during the Reunion Weekend Bricks to Stones Parade, and the alumni database has already added where someone lived at Duke to their profile. These are small steps, but they are easily buildable.
Finally, the Faculty Fellows program has already demonstrated the immense value that student faculty relationships produce, and should be expanded to include many more faculty who elect to affiliate with a Quad and join them at events to meet students through a Faculty Society of each Quad. When else does a biology major get to meet an economics professor? Or a physics major an English professor? Several of our peer schools do something like this already, so proving the concept isn’t necessary. We just need to do it. And while we’re at it, finding a way for the staff who make this place run to participate in Staff Societies would not only give them closer insights into how students actually live today, but also give students a better sense of how Duke works and how we can change it for the better. The Quad Societies have no current implementation plan as far as I am aware, but for QuadEx to be successful, a ground floor of shared networks and relationships is fundamental.
There is a possible fourth ring, and while I think it’s the most important to the longevity and success of the model, it’s the one least likely to be implemented. Sharing space, symbols, experiences and networks can sustain a communal identity fabulously, but for such an identity to evolve over time while maintaining a continuous center, shared stories and memories are crucial. The Quad Books would be a database of current student activities, victories, losses, challenges and mischief that can be a rich trove for future cohorts. Once students become alumni, they leave a lot of hard-earned knowledge about how to navigate Duke just floating through the air with no place to pass it off. Writing stories about experiences at Duke and submitting them to the Quad Books would pass that knowledge down as future students return to the Books again and again to learn how Duke students of the past got through this place. Like recounting the Exodus story at Passover each year, students can feel like they are experiencing past versions of Duke themselves and gain just as much as the ones who wrote them.
Duke University already possessed much of this structure and programming before 2016, operating in a variety of different forms, but operating nonetheless. Greek organizations continue to attract students because they are able to offer shared space, symbols, experiences, networks and stories in ways that no LLC or Quad can (yet). Duke also used to be a much more homogenous place, and before it rests on the laurels of cultivating a much more broadly diverse student body than it had in prior decades, it needs to address the fact that a heterogeneous student body requires much more intention to build community. When everyone at Duke looked and acted the same, building community happened naturally because of a built-in shared identity made possible through bigoted exclusion. Making significant progress in removing those exclusions has fostered a diverse student body, which definitionally does not naturally share many identifiers. That’s why we need to plant the seeds and cultivate some.
My hope is that Duke will have the bold leadership and creative vision to grow those seeds into some mature and flourishing evergreens so that QuadEx may one day be a name for something beloved and lasting. Until then, students, alumni and other university stakeholders should continue to be critical and insist that we can do better. I know I will.
Nicholas Chrapliwy (T’22) is a staff member at the Sanford School of Public Policy and former Spark Fellow in the Office of Undergraduate Education. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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