Duke University Alumni Magazine

A Year of Change

by Nannerl O. Keohane
President, Duke University

    ast fall, after several years of discussions involving students, faculty, staff, and alumni, the university implemented a new plan for residential life. The wide-ranging plan was designed to create an environment more conducive to learning, personal growth, and a rewarding social life for all Duke students. This was the most sweeping change in campus residential life since the merger of the men's and women's undergraduate colleges in 1972.

         We realized that, as with any change of such magnitude, there would be questions and concerns, unforeseen difficulties, and some features that would prove more successful than others. But we were strongly convinced that the basic goals of the plan were sound, and that it would enhance undergraduate life in several ways. Now, with the first year of the new plan complete, we can begin to assess how well it has worked.

         The most substantial change was the location of all first-year students on East Campus. This has also been the most successful feature of the plan so far. East Campus today is vibrant, colorful, and energetic. It works very well in providing new students with an opportunity to learn about Duke, develop a sense of class cohesiveness, and experience the full range of possibilities that a great university offers undergraduates--all features that students in the Woman's College enjoyed when it was on East. There have been some concerns about the impact of the board plan on the freshmen's choice of meals since Duke students these days have great freedom in when and where they eat; but dining together regularly has been an important part of the positive experience they have enjoyed. In general, most of the first-year students have been overwhelmingly positive about their experience.

         Other aspects of the new residential plan have had mixed success so far. One of the most important features-and one that may prove very beneficial in the longer run-is the organization of all upper-class housing in a "quad system," based on the physical configuration of our housing, and on the desire to provide a more varied residential experience for all students. Under this plan, most students reside, as they have for decades, in houses of thirty to sixty students, either in selective housing, including fraternities and theme houses, or in independent houses. The quad system clusters four or five of these houses by geographical proximity into larger units for special programming, including parties, concerts, sports events, film festivals, symposia. This is designed so that students may both enjoy their "comfort zones"-living with close friends whose company they have chosen-and also have larger groups of friends of different backgrounds and interests, brought together in working toward common goals for the quad.

         At the same time that we launched our new residential plan, both the Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC) and the university adopted revised alcohol policies to cut back on the abuse of alcohol, a problem at Duke and on many campuses these days. The new residential system is designed to provide many different ways of having fun, including parties and programs not centered on alcohol, and to encourage students to take initiative in planning their own social lives, rather than relying wholly on "the administration" to sponsor entertainment, or on the fraternities to undergird social life with the omnipresent "kegs."

         Some great events have happened this year; there are more bands on campus than there have been for many years. But some of the student-led social and cultural programming was slow in being launched, partly because the new avenues for such programming and the funding sources to support it were not as well publicized as they might have been. The increased pace of activities this spring leads me to believe that we can expect a growth in imaginative and enjoyable programming initiated and planned by our student body.

         We were very pleased by the strong faculty response to the new Faculty Associates Program, which links faculty members with specific residential facilities to promote informal interaction among students and faculty. A number of faculty and students report that they are enjoying mutually rewarding activities including dinners, movies, trips to concerts or the theater or Durham Bulls games, and quiet chats over a cup of coffee or in a commons room. However, while most students are enthusiastic about the idea of faculty/student interaction outside the classroom, it has not been easy to find the best ways to bring faculty and students together so that the experience will be rewarding for both. But faculty dedication to the program continues, and we believe that with more experience and advance planning there will be greater visibility and participation next year.

    Freshman Focus: seminar sessions in an East Campus dorm lounge
    Photo: Les Todd

         One of the unintended consequences of the plan was that a number of sophomore independents were placed in Trent Hall against their inclinations. Understanding the unhappiness that this would cause for students who perceived Trent as undesirably isolated from the hub of campus life, we upgraded the facility and added a weight room, a special computer room, a cafe, and several commons rooms. The results were encouraging: Although students still deplore the distance between Trent and main West Campus, they have formed strong living groups in the residence hall and have clearly enjoyed the amenities and the comradeship they make possible.

         There have been occasional rumors that the new residential plan was directed against fraternities on campus. Most of the rumors stem from unhappiness over the fact that some fraternities with long histories at specific residential facilities were relocated under the new plan, as were most other selective houses, in order to put the new quad system into place. Other rumors stem from dissatisfaction with the new alcohol policies, I am sure. But the alcohol policy that the IFC developed on its own, to bring our fraternities into compliance with the rules of their national organizations, is stricter than that which regulates the overall university. This is to me powerful evidence of the fraternities' ability to make responsible choices for themselves.

         As I told members of the IFC this past December, the leadership and creativity shown by Duke's fraternities, their willingness to embrace new ideas and try new approaches, has been crucial to the success of our new plan and builds upon the strongest traditions of fraternal organizations here at Duke. Our greek organizations are valued contributors to the campus community, and I look forward to their continuing in that role.

         I also look forward to the second year of the new plan, as the Class of 2000 moves in on East Campus, and upper class students continue to shape their own Duke experience within the framework of the new residential system. In doing so, they will help fine-tune the plan so that we can all move toward a fuller achievement of its important goals. East Campus today offers first-year students a full range of learning and social opportunities--all features that students in the Woman's College enjoyed when it was on East.

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