Duke University Alumni Magazine

Seasons of Change
by Nannerl O. Keohane
President, Duke University
Baccalaureate Address

    f this baccalaureate could be a conversation or a dialogue rather than a formal service, we could share rich memories of the four years since we assembled here for our first official day at Duke. Many of the most vivid memories would be of shared events--Octoberfest, Homecoming, the Final Four your freshman year, the victory over Carolina this winter, the best bands, the vigils, the great lectures by big-name visitors, spring breaks.

         But many of the memories would be more individual, more intimate--of a particular conversation or friendship, of moments in class when something intrigued you or excited your imagination, a great personal triumph on the playing field or the stage, a story or photo that got published, a love affair.

         These memories and accumulations, and many others, add up to your Duke education. To get that education, to become a certified graduate of Duke, you have worked hard, played hard, and only rarely had time to stop and reflect on what was happening to you.

         I would guess that in choosing Duke, each of you expected it to be a very special place, a place where you would learn a lot, make a lot of friends, have fun, get involved, and earn a degree that would help pave your way for life. I hope that Duke has brought you what you hoped for in all these respects. Many of you tell me that your Duke experience has been wonderful, transformative, more than you could have dreamed. But even Duke does some things better than others, and in your more critical moments, you tend to take two separate approaches to what should be different at Duke.

         One set includes those who believe Duke was almost perfect when you came and has gone downhill ever since. Your view of Duke includes a firm conviction that "the administration," that faceless mass that runs this place behind closed doors, and especially the president, have been working intensively for four years to ruin the Duke you chose to attend, mainly by misunderstanding what "work hard / play hard" is all about.

         The other set includes those who have tried in one way or another to make Duke more inclusive, more fun, more intellectual, more religious, more politically conscious, more relaxed, more equitable, more diverse, more whatever you wanted it to be.

         Some measure Duke by a standard that you experienced in your freshman year: kegs at least three nights a week, most of the fraternities on the front benches on Main West, the bonfire after the basketball team made the Final Four, freshmen living on East, North, and West. For members of this set, Duke is a place to be cherished for its distinctiveness among fine universities, a place where all members of the community are bonded together by certain traditions and by our fierce support for the Blue Devils. When the new alcohol policies and the new residential policies were adopted in your sophomore year, and when the fortunes of the basketball team went through a roller-coaster phase, you felt that something unique and distinctive was taken out of the heart of Duke.

         For others among you, kegs may have had their fascination, at least for a while, but you weren't so happy when you had to confront the mess in the hallways every Sunday morning. Walking along the gauntlet of the fraternity benches on Main West wasn't always a pleasant experience if you were a woman. And if you were a member of a minority group, you questioned why almost all the people living in that prized space on Main West were white. You questioned why Duke seemed so much more welcoming to some folks than to others, depending in part on your social class or the color of your skin, and you tried to find other students who wanted sometimes to take ideas seriously and talk about things that matter.

         I ask that when you think back on these four years, you will all consider the possibility that the folks in the other set of Dukies in your class, whichever that set might be, have a point. Duke has indeed had a historically distinctive character that alumni recognize and treasure across the years, a way of approaching life that is different from most of its peers, something worth understanding and striving to maintain. But Duke has never been stagnant, never stood still, frozen in one shining moment and conveyed intact to future generations. If this place had never changed, you would be getting your degree this weekend from a one-room schoolhouse in Randolph County instead of one of the nation's finest universities.

         Duke has always changed, as any great institution must, with the changes in our country and our world, with changing opportunities and moral understandings, changing demographics, changing laws and regulations, changing fields of knowledge, and awareness of the rights of folks who have previously been excluded or ignored. This has been true from the very beginning of this institution 150 years ago; and if it ever ceases to be true, Duke no longer will be Duke.

         At Convocation almost four years ago, I used an image that many of you tell me you found arresting: the image, drawn from Michel de Montaigne's book of Essais, of the "back room of your mind." I suggested that you might think of your education as a way of furnishing the back room of your mind, the place where you are most truly yourself, both in solitude and in what you draw upon to share with others.

         The past four years or so have been spent by each of you here at Duke in furnishing that back room of your mind, filling it with the sturdy furniture of facts and the graceful embellishments of art, the bracing air of theory and the solid and beautiful ornaments of friendship. Your mental back rooms are hung about with memories that serve as trophies, memorabilia, enriching your lives and providing the major tools and skills with which you now confront the future.

         Among the furnishings most resonant for many of you are surely memories of particular spaces--Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Gothic Reading Room, Gross Chem, and, of course, this very chapel, both its external prominence as the heart and soul of this campus architecturally, and its intricate internal play of light, stone, and shadow. Other adornments of the back room of your mind will surely include memories of the beauty of the campus, from the first blur of soft pinks and whites in the gardens in spring, through the lush green heaviness of early summer, into the crisp fall afternoons and the clear lamp-lit silence of a winter evening.

         As you leave Duke, I urge you to keep a firm grasp on the best pieces of that furniture you have assembled in the back room of your mind. Work hard/play hard is not a bad guideline for the world outside the Gothic Wonderland, as long as you balance it with some other bits of mental readiness that you will also need. Working hard and playing hard will not, alone, bring you happiness and fulfillment in the years ahead. You will also need to love well, think clearly, and serve some principles and interests larger than you are, in order to have a rewarding life over many decades.

         In the years ahead, your university will be defined and judged by your accomplishments and your character--by your well-known deeds, of course, but just as much by how you handle the smaller and less visible parts of life. You will carry Duke forward into the world, and those who become part of your own life will, when they think of Duke, think first of you.

         That may seem a daunting responsibility, but we are confident that you will represent this university very well. I urge you to use the skills and mental habits that you have acquired at Duke, both to preserve those things in the world that you believe are worth preserving and to work boldly and passionately to change those that you think need to be changed for the better.                     

This is an adaptation of the address President Keohane delivered in May.

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