Duke University Alumni Magazine


President, Duke University

n March 26, while two sets of extraordinary student athletes were representing Duke on each coast, my faculty colleagues brought to campus, all expenses paid, a select group of seventeen prospective students. Those students, who already have been assured of admission to Duke, toured the campus, attended campus-wide scheduled and special events, tasted Final Four fever at its peak, got to know one another, and conversed with faculty and graduate students.

I was on my way to San Jose when they arrived, so I sent them a welcoming letter to let them know how eager Duke is to have them. They are potential members of the first group of undergraduate University Scholars, under the aegis of a far-reaching and intellectually ground-breaking program that begins this fall.

The seventeen students are a diverse lot--racially, culturally, socially. They come from across the country, from great schools and not-so-great schools. They share uncommon ability, promise, and financial need. They were chosen by a faculty committee from a group of 200 of our highest-ability applicants who also need financial assistance. Their visit to the campus was designed to help them learn more about Duke, and the program, we believe, is well-suited to their special talents.

Because they are among the very best students to graduate from American high schools this year, they are sought after by institutions from Cambridge to Palo Alto. That's because, as near as one can tell from interviews, letters, and the usual assortment of academic statistics and rewards, they are students who have the intellectual creativity and special academic talents that can flourish in the academic greenhouse we are creating, thanks to the leadership gift of Duke trustee Melinda French Gates '86, M.B.A. '87 and her husband, Bill Gates.

We are looking for intellectual dynamism that can change the world. The standard isn't the 800s across the SAT boards many achieved, but an ability to think across disciplinary boundaries, accompanied by intense curiosity, an almost ferocious drive to learn

and contribute to the world of the intellect.

Because we believe that many of the great intellectual advances in the next century will be the result of daring leaps across traditional disciplines, we are also looking for students whose originality of thought will--in the company of outstanding faculty and graduate students--change Duke's own intellectual map. We see the University Scholars as a pioneering effort to accelerate the great push toward interdisciplinary thinking and work that has been under way at Duke for some time.

These are young men and women whose intellectual abilities enable them to attend any university in the world, so long as they have the necessary financial support. Thanks to the Gateses and others who will join them in funding this program, Duke now can offer these students the financial resources to explore their creative impulses. We are committed to making Duke the best possible setting for educating such remarkable young men and women. They will be joined by University Scholars chosen through the Graduate School and each of our professional schools as well, so that the program will have intergenerational as well as interdisciplinary dimensions.

We are aiming high, and with good reason: Duke strives to bring together in a distinctive fashion the qualities and resources of a major research university and medical center with the character, ideals, and traditions of a

liberal-arts college. Duke fosters connections--whether in familiar interdisciplinary fields such as biomedical engineering or novel and revolutionary ones such as the impact of the Internet on society; in specific endeavors such as the Kenan Ethics Program, the Cognitive Neuroscience Program, and the John Hope Franklin Seminars for Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities; in the first-year FOCUS program, which involves students in study around a particular intellectual theme; and in the rigorous self-designed curriculum of Program II.

Programmatically, the University Scholars program will bring together undergraduate, graduate, and professional students for intellectual collaboration, original research, innovative thinking, and networking. The premise is that our interdisciplinary and intergenerational community of scholars (both students and faculty) will make for the most vital, challenging education; that it is an ideal way to prepare students for the new and complex demands of life in the twenty-first century.

For most of their academic lives, University Scholars will live and learn like students at Duke in any program. They will be unique, however, in participating in the University Scholars Seminar and the annual University Scholars Symposium. The seminar will meet informally over lunch or dinner every two or three weeks, providing a chance for beginning undergraduates to talk seriously about their intellectual life with graduate and professional students and with invited faculty such as, this coming fall, the distinguished natural-history writer Stephen Jay Gould. The seminar will provide insights into field specializations and research opportunities that typically are off-limits until the last stages of undergraduate education.

The annual University Scholars Symposium will be a conference where University Scholars who wish a public audience for their ideas and research will present their work, probably focused around a specific topic or set of topics each year. The University Scholars will invite a Duke faculty member to serve as keynote speaker at each symposium.

Since it was first announced last September, our fledgling program has prompted inquiries from students and institutions across the country. We have chosen our first class of University Scholars with special care because we realize that they--and Duke --will set the standard for such intellectual initiatives both here and eventually at other leading universities.

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