Brodhead Urges Students to Play Role in Shaping Duke

April 1, 2005

By Keith Lawrence, Duke News Service

During his first year on campus, Duke President Richard H. Brodhead has been repeatedly told by students that one distinctive quality of Duke is it allows them to pursue their education interests. “You can do absolutely anything here,” the students have said.

In a talk to undergraduates March 22, Brodhead urged students to take full advantage of that opportunity.

“Every day it’s freshly in your power to think of the use you’re making of this place and decide to engage its opportunities more aggressively and imaginatively,” Brodhead told about 500 students and other community members at the Griffith Film Theater.

“The real limit to what you make of Duke will always lie in the inertia of contented habits, your willingness to keep things pretty much the way you’ve got them. Show a little courage and you’ll find that this place rewards the active seeker. I want Duke to be your school: not just the school you attended but the one you helped create.”

Specifically, Brodhead encouraged students to transport their research beyond the campus.

“It’s my intention to make these chances to connect academic inquiry with real-world practice and service even more numerous at Duke and to put these opportunities in plain sight for every student. Dean Robert Thompson and his staff have taken up my invitation to create a website listing all such offerings and explaining how to access them.

“And as new Duke programs come into existence, for instance the ambitious global health program we’re now envisioning, I’ll look to make sure they afford plentiful openings for undergraduates. It’s my dream that Duke could become known for producing a special and highly desirable kind of student (you!), a person of trained intelligence highly knowledgeable about the world and with a strong desire to use their intelligence to solve the world’s problems.”

He also asked students for their help in transforming Central Campus in such a way that students who live there -- including seniors and juniors returning from abroad -- still feel connected to the student community.

“The trick of rebuilding Central will not be to throw up new buildings. It will be, through new building, to solve old problems and create new realities in the Duke experience. I am visualizing the rebuilt Central as a chance to pull the student community back together toward the end of your undergraduate career in housing that will reflect the growth you’ve achieved here, something less like dorms and closer to the adult living you’ll be moving on to: something with significantly more privacy and independence, with amenities appropriate to the age you have attained.

“If we can build what we have in mind, no other university will have anything quite like it. But the main news I want to share is that you have the chance to help invent this future -- even if, like Moses and the Promised Land, not all of you will live to inhabit it. Students are already present on our planning committees, and I hope to enlist many more of you in envisioning the best possible thing we could build.”

Brodhead said he also wants students to be actively involved in bringing provocative speakers to campus.

“I’ll be enlarging the support for bringing interesting people to campus, but in doing so, it’s your involvement that I want to foster. My idea is that all such speakers should be available to engage with students in small groups, and that as many of you as possible would participate in dreaming up interesting programs.”

After his speech, which drew a standing ovation from the crowd, Brodhead fielded questions that ranged from social life on and off campus to how the university might celebrate in the event the men’s or women’s basketball teams win national championships.

Regarding fraternities and sororities, Brodhead discussed the place of the Greek system on campus: “The burden will always be on fraternities and sororities to make the best version of what they could be and take responsibility for not making the worst version of what they can be. Any system that will do that will have my cooperation all along.”

Asked about social life being pushed off-campus, Brodhead noted that “Duke is one of a not inconsiderable list of schools that has had a student die at a party within the last five years,” which naturally prompted schools “to set limit on things… You just can’t have that happen a second time.”

Brodhead did add that if alcohol-related behavior “is going to happen anyway, I actually would rather have it ‘on’ (campus) than ‘off.’

“To some extent, I want to resist the question because in truth I don’t see why one couldn’t have a huge amount of fun in college without engaging in any of the kind of behavior that would make the administration have to come in and break things up.

“I mean, somebody’s got to take responsibility for behavior as it approaches a certain limit.”

As to how Duke students might celebrate an NCAA championship, Brodhead jokingly suggested a huge Scrabble tournament. He then noted that the Durham fire marshal has left open the possibility that Duke students could hold a celebratory bonfire.

“My hope is that we could find the system of self-patrolling of the limits of the bonfire that would enable the bonfire to be restored. Let’s hope we have this problem.”

Just as Brodhead was to begin his speech, four students unfurled a banner behind him that said, “Don’t Angelica Workers Deserve a Living Wage?” The students, member of Students Against Sweatshops, stood in the background throughout the 90-minute discussion, despite several requests to leave the stage.

One student in the audience later asked Brodhead about Angelica, a private company that handles Duke’s laundry business and against whom complaints have been lodged with the National Labor Relations Board.

“I’m aware of those complaints. I don’t take them lightly and I don’t take them trivially, but I also don’t regard the filing of an accusation as the same thing as a conviction,” Brodhead said. “There is a body that adjudicates such things and finds their truth or falsity and it’s for them and not for me.”

Brodhead then noted that the university recently raised the minimum wage for Duke regular employees to $10 an hour. “I am someone who worked pretty hard and pretty quickly after I got here to do something about the wage of the actual people who work at this university. People have different claims on one’s conscience, but the people who work directly for you are the ones who have the most direct claim and that’s where I started my efforts.”