Duke's Signature in American Higher Education


Over the past two years, Duke has undertaken a comprehensive academic planning process, both within each of the schools and Trinity College, and across the university, with a goal to position the university to become as good as any private university in the nation. The planning process, which was led by the university’s senior academic officer, Provost Peter Lange, concluded in February with the board of trustees’ unanimous authorization to invest some $727.1 million over the next five years to strengthen Duke’s academic programs and its students.

In the following pages, Duke Magazine reports the introductory section of the plan, which outlines the context for higher education’s current and future challenges and describes the unique leadership role that Duke plays and projects to play in the future. This preface was principally drafted by Provost Lange and by Vice Provost for Finance and Administration James Roberts.

The purpose of this introductory essay is to provide a broad context for considering the carefully crafted and intellectually exciting initiatives outlined in the academic plan described in the following pages. Before we turn to these specific initiatives, it is useful to situate our high ambitions and bold goals in the context of American higher education and the particular traditions of Duke University. Above all, this introduction is intended to remind us of the ultimate ends and values that motivate our collective efforts and that must ultimately provide the touchstone for measuring our success. Duke has been blessed in the past by far-sighted, effective leaders attuned to these values; such outstanding leadership will be equally important in achieving the goals of this plan.

Private Research Universities in American Higher Education

American higher education is widely admired throughout the world. Although the United States has no national university system, we have achieved a breadth of access to higher education for our citizens that is unequalled and a depth of accomplishment in advanced training and scholarship that is unrivalled. The balance of trade in intellectual capital and in providing intellectual services is decidedly in our favor. Our strength results from the tremendous diversity of our educational “system” (which is of course no system at all, but rather an educational ecosystem of over 3,000 separate institutions, some public and some private, some large and some small, some focused exclusively on undergraduate education and some with broader aims in teaching and research).

While institutions of many types and levels can be effective in meeting their missions and serving their particular constituencies, only a small number of the more than 3,000 institutions of higher education are nationally and internationally pre-eminent by virtue of the breadth and depth of their capacities and the contributions to education and learning that result. There are institutions of this caliber among the great state universities, and some of our liberal arts colleges are truly distinguished. Among the great research universities, a very high proportion are private. Many of these same institutions are leaders in graduate and professional education, research, and health care.

Private research universities occupy a special place in the diverse world of American higher education because of their distinctive missions, organization, governance, and funding. They are deliberately intermediate in scope and scale between the small private colleges and the large public universities. As a group, they attract a disproportionate number of the best faculty, are highly selective in their admissions policies, create a residential educational experience that promotes interaction with the faculty and student learning outside the classroom, and provide much of the nation’s leadership in research and scholarship. They are resource-intensive places, typically combining large endowments, strong philanthropic support, and external research funding with high tuition. These resources are powerfully additive in supporting the teaching and research missions of these institutions and their commitment to national and international leadership.

Like the best small colleges, the premier private research universities provide low student:faculty ratios, small classes, and extensive residential programs with attractive social and cultural amenities. At the same time, they support their research missions through competitively paid, research-oriented faculty and the library, technology, and facilities infrastructure necessary for them to succeed. Professional schools in areas like business, law, and medicine add further to the range of opportunities these institutions provide. Out of this combination comes an education of extraordinary breadth and depth, as students learn from faculty members who themselves are actively engaged in creating new knowledge and solving real-world problems.

Duke’s Mission, Ambition, and Responsibility

Duke University is among these top-echelon private research universities. We have substantially realized James B. Duke’s remarkable vision of transforming a progressive regional liberal arts college into a national and international university. Thanks to the vision and patient labor of generations of trustees, administrators, faculty, staff, students, and alumni, Duke has claimed “a place of real leadership in the educational world,” as he envisioned. Our trajectory has been remarkable, and our momentum is strong. But our work is never done. Honest self-examination and understanding of the competitive advantages enjoyed by even more successful institutions show us the way. Moreover, like other successful private universities, Duke must continually adapt its priorities and commitments in the face of new environmental opportunities and challenges and the changing internal dynamics of the educational ecosystem. 

This is not a matter necessarily of catching some institutions or surpassing others. We do not know with certainty which institutions will be “the best” 20 or 30 years from now, or how the best will even be defined. Our overriding goal therefore is to be among the small number of institutions that define what is the best in American higher education. Certainly Duke can learn from other institutions, but we must also set our own sights and help set the standards for others. This is what leadership means.

What are the practical implications of this overarching ambition? It means first of all focusing on fundamental purposes and then setting our own standards. We are the stewards of a sacred trust rooted in our strong historic ties to the Methodist church, recognized civilly in our tax-exempt status, and reinforced by the benefactions of generations of donors who have reposed confidence in us to exercise wise stewardship over the resources they have entrusted to the university. This sacred trust and attendant resources have but one inter-related, common purpose: to foster the intellectual and ethical development of individuals and to promote the good of society. We pursue the good, as the Indenture and our mission direct, through teaching, patient care, the preservation and discovery of knowledge, and other forms of service to our community.

Being a leader in these pursuits requires an unstinting devotion to excellence. The notion of excellence and its pursuit has become something of a cliché in recent years so it is worth pausing to consider what we mean by it. Like other fundamental values, excellence eludes simple definition; nonetheless, some effort at clarification is worthwhile. Excellence is first of all a quality of what we aim to create. To paraphrase Ambrose Bierce, excellence is the quality that distinguishes the imaginary state of perfection from the mediocrity we too often see around us. Although we can’t always define or measure it precisely, thoughtful people recognize excellence in the various walks of human life, and that subjective recognition (justly deserved fame) is intrinsic to its elusive quality. Indeed, the most common way to recognize excellence is through peer review processes (juried competitions and selection committees for prestigious awards, for example). From another perspective, excellence is not a “thing” or an end-point but rather, as Aristotle was probably the first to say in his discussions of ethics, a habit (or discipline) of constantly pursuing the best. The pursuit of excellence is not a destination but the disciplined commitment to excel (to rise above others, to be eminent). 

Duke’s ambition must be to excel in its chosen endeavors, to pursue the elusive goal of perfection through constant improvements, to surpass others and gain distinction. This is our responsibility if Duke is to claim and sustain a “place of real leadership” in the educational world and to serve society as James B. Duke envisioned. This striving to be the best is what gives us the prospect of being among the best.

How do we know if we are hitting the mark in doing good and pursuing excellence? We need both internal standards and external feedback. While a substantial section of the strategic plan is devoted to assessment, it is worthwhile to reflect here on the fundamentals with regard to teaching and research. Consistent with our mission, we want to have a demonstrable impact on the good of society through our teaching, research, and direct service to the community. Our social impact in teaching is greatest if Duke educates leaders, men and women who will not only succeed professionally but who will be role models in their personal conduct, their civic contributions, and their commitment to lifelong learning. It follows that we want those whom we teach to leave Duke better equipped not only with specific knowledge and skills but also with a truer ethical compass, a deeper sense of social responsibility, and a more passionate engagement in the multifaceted world around them. This is especially true of our responsibilities to (and expectations of) undergraduates, who spend four especially formative years among us, shaping their characters as well as their minds. As Duke graduates, all our students must share that sense of stewardship of our sacred trust that properly motivates trustees, administrators, and faculty. 

We can only imperfectly measure our success in educating in this expansive way, but what we want to gauge is the long-term satisfaction of our alumni, both with their Duke education and with the lives they lead, and the contributions they make in their professional endeavors and the communities in which they live. Shorter term, we can (and do) learn from our currently enrolled students about their Duke experiences, what is working well and what needs improvement. While we can gauge success anecdotally, and measure it periodically through survey research, there is also an important market test, and that is the demand for our programs expressed in our applicant pool and matriculation rates. The expected value of a Duke education is embodied in the choices of the thousands of students who apply for places in our programs each year. Indeed, this is one of most critical forms of external feedback we receive.

When it comes to research and scholarship, Duke serves society by preserving and extending the body of human knowledge, enriching the diverse perspectives that can be brought to bear on the fundamental character and practical problems of human life and society, and contributing to the stock of useful products and services available to society. How do we know if Duke is succeeding in this part of our mission? Again, there are no definitive, easy measures. Just as the individual impact of a Duke education is played out over decades, the work of research and scholarship is long-term and cumulative. Some impacts are immediately evident, but the lasting impact of ideas and discoveries is something only time can tell. But we know Duke is succeeding when the work of our faculty is published in prominent places, discussed in the national media, cited in the works of other scholars, taught in their courses, and honored by professional organizations and national awards. In professional fields, we want to inform the practice of doctors, lawyers, preachers, engineers, business people, and public policy makers well beyond the ranks of our own students. In the sciences and engineering, we want to earn the support of private foundations and government agencies, produce important discoveries and translate them into successful products and processes. Though harder to quantify than student demand, these are all real market indicators of our effectiveness. 

But we can also look closer to home. The most immediate impact of our scholars and researchers is on their faculty colleagues and their students. Interesting faculty attract interesting faculty, and we can size up the vitality of our faculty individually and collectively by the degree to which they serve as magnets by virtue of their ability to stimulate the creativity and contributions of others. It is not just the quality of our faculty that matters but the quality of their interactions with each other and with their students. 

This latter point provides an important reminder of the centrality of community in higher education. Our job as leaders is to create the conditions that allow teaching, learning, scholarship, and research to flourish. While each of those activities can take place under a wide range of circumstances, there is no question that they flourish most effectively in a community that shares a common purpose and values, a community that fosters creativity, intellectual risk taking, spirited debate, and social engagement. Essential to achieving those common purposes is a value system that respects and takes full advantage of the intellectual and cultural diversity of our community and that accords dignity and respect to all of the varied people and roles essential to the mission of Duke. Like excellence, community is an elusive ideal. It is both a goal and a discipline, and we must keep it constantly in view.

Competition and Differentiation: Duke’s Distinctive Signature

In our consideration of the broader context in which Duke functions, it is important to discuss the dynamics of our market within American higher education. The leading private research universities have much in common, offering similar degree programs and pursing similar lines of research, yet the rivalry among them is often intense. Each institution is pursuing excellence (and the public recognition that comes with it) on it own terms, seeking to create the deepest, richest, and most diverse environment possible for teaching, learning, and research and for the preparation of new leaders for our society. The leading universities compete with each other for the human and financial capital they need to excel in their broadly overlapping missions. 

Although this competition can be costly and sometimes takes on the character of an arms race, the independent pursuit of excellence by individual institutions is an important source of innovation. Because there are few if any trade secrets in higher education and many channels of information sharing, successful innovations are widely publicized and then diffused. This free flow of information and innovation is undoubtedly one of the great strengths of the American system of higher education, contributing to its ability over the last century and more to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities presented by changing environmental circumstances and new public demands. It also helps to explain the broad similarity of the leading institutions as well as relative stability of the prestige hierarchy in American higher education. If Duke develops an innovative, effective program of teaching or research, other institutions with adequate resources can seek to imitate our success. Similarly, we are always on the lookout for what is working elsewhere. 

Nevertheless, because no institution has the resources to escape defining choices, and each institution evolves independently, every private research university has its own distinctive signature reflecting its unique history, specific programmatic balances, and relationship to place and space. We need to understand 
what is truly distinctive about Duke’s signature and what elements of that distinctiveness we want to 
preserve or sharpen over time. Having this or that program is not alone the answer because programs 
can be replicated and their leadership attracted away. Our signature is determined far more by distinctive programmatic balances, relationships, and values. James Engell, professor of English and comparative 
literature at Harvard University, has expressed this idea most eloquently in a discussion of the entelechy (en-TEL-echy) of higher education:

Entelechy means the striving for perfection in a series of goals taken together as a whole. The word comes from Greek enteles, or complete or full, which in turn derives from telos, or goal. An entelechy demands we envision how to fulfill the potential of the whole by coordinating and giving proper relative weight to a set of varied goals and the goods they seek to achieve. For each institution, this entails a particular inflection or emphasis.1

How do we describe the balances and inflections that form the signature of Duke? Several interrelated factors create this signature:

• We have an exceptionally strong tradition of academic freedom dating back to Trinity College; we recognize that this tradition of unfettered inquiry, free expression, and spirited debate is essential to the critical examination of the human condition and the discovery of new knowledge. Like other forms of freedom, its productive exercise requires mature judgment and respect for the rights of others.

• The distinctive combination of schools that constitute Duke and the relationships among them are unique. Each of our schools has substantial interactions with virtually all the others, and our faculty members have close colleagues and collaborators not only in their own disciplines but in many others as well. This is less true of our students but ought to be more so; the intergenerational University Scholars Program is a start.

• This sense of complementing and a habit of cooperation extends beyond our own campus to formal and informal partnerships with other universities and organizations in the Research Triangle, across the country and, increasingly, throughout the world. Duke has been and will continue to be a leader in collaboration.

• Our signature reflects a combination of place and scale and a relationship between campus and surrounding towns that is especially conducive to community. It is easier at Duke than at most other major private research universities to establish multifaceted relationships that span professional interests, family friendships, religious devotion, and recreational pursuits. In addition, we have abundant opportunities, individually and collectively, to help meet the many needs of the Durham community and to see our efforts make a tangible difference. We need to sustain and expand this sense of belonging to a community, and make it more intergenerational and inclusive; it is one of our defining assets. 

• Duke is a community of deep engagement for students outside the classroom, in community service, the arts, political organizations, academic competitions, and athletics. Duke’s men’s and women’s sports attract the interest and loyalty of people in all walks of university life, and in the wider community as well. Participation in high-level athletics competition while engaging in a challenging course of study is a defining characteristic of Duke for many students; and many more of us take pride in their efforts and accomplishments and share their triumphs and disappointments. Our widely shared interest in athletics is an important source of community; the academic and athletic performance of our student athletes and their personal conduct reflects our commitment to excellence, personal growth, and high standards for all our students.

• Duke has a culture of innovation and collaboration rooted in its long tradition of academic freedom and the ease of interaction in an academic community situated in a small-town environment. Duke is especially open to innovation and supportive of entrepreneurial initiatives undertaken by our schools and members of our faculty, staff, and student body. We need to make this sense of shared ownership and empowerment even more pervasive.

• We have a tradition that fosters moral and ethical reflection, responsible leadership, and spirited debate. This tradition permeates Duke in many ways: through the central presence of the Duke Chapel, the broad influence of the Divinity School, and the fresh energy of the Freeman Center. Our innovative Institute for the Care at the End of Life spans schools, disciplines, and faiths in addressing some of the most personal human needs and profound mysteries. The innovative work of the B.N. Duke, Hart Leadership, and Kenan Ethics programs touches many members of our community. Our robust faculty governance system and the active roles played by students, through DSG and GPSC and many other avenues, provide abundant opportunities for leadership, linking faculty and students with each other, campus administrators, and trustees. 

• Duke is committed to the value of diversity in all its forms as part of the celebration of human life and a fundamental foundation for effective teaching, learning, and inquiry. Though this commitment has never been perfectly realized, it has deep roots and requires constant nurturing. An especially important part of this commitment is our strong support for effective financial aid programs in each of our schools; these programs help ensure that our programs are accessible to talented students from many diverse backgrounds and that all our students benefit from participation in a diverse academic community. 

Our quest for academic excellence is inextricably bound up with these signature qualities. Like any other great university, Duke depends on attracting outstanding faculty, students, and administrative 
leaders. But it is how their talents and energies work together that matters, and Duke is a particularly 
conducive place for working together, for interdisciplinary collaboration, for the transmission of values and experience through participation in an intergenerational community in which we learn from each other (and challenge each other to excel). 

These relatively intangible qualities require careful cultivation, and that work goes on as a function of leadership at many levels, an essential backdrop to the development and execution of our academic plans. We recognize, of course, that none of these signature characteristics is fully formed or free of tensions and contradictions. Raising them to consciousness helps us understand these tensions, and the work that remains to be done to build a distinctive, inclusive community devoted to academic excellence, not for its own sake, but as part of a fabric of stewardship, citizenship, and reverence for the gifts that have been assembled here. This is the entelechy that makes Duke a special place—a place like no other—to teach, learn, discover, create, and offer care.

Fundamental Threats to the Pre-eminence of Private Research Universities

This mission-driven, values-driven view of our defining characteristics comes under periodic pressure, and the pressure is intense today. Over decades and centuries, however, universities have shown a remarkable capacity to adapt and change; they may change slowly, after many committee meetings, but they do change. “New inventions, fresh discoveries, alterations in the markets of the world throw accustomed methods and the men who are accustomed to them out of date and use without pause or pity,” wrote Woodrow Wilson, then Princeton’s president, in 1909.2 But the institutions about which he worried are still with us, recognizable though also clearly different. Indeed this combination of change and constancy, innovation and consolidation, is what makes it possible to think of universities as institutions and not just organizations or enterprises. Private universities like Duke are here for the long run and must chart their courses accordingly. 

Yet this is a moment of paradox. On the one hand, the demand for high-quality higher education is at an all time high and support for our research mission is equally robust. Despite the substantial costs, would-be students are lined up by the thousands to attend the leading institutions, and most are turned away. The returns to a college degree are also at an all time high; the knowledge economy is for real, and solid college preparation and advanced degrees are rightly seen as essential to success. Moreover, it is widely recognized that the breadth of education acquired through a liberal arts education, with its emphasis on lifetime learning and life skills, is the best preparation for a complex, rapidly changing, interdependent world. Yet this is also a moment of great anxiety for higher education. We have weathered a decade of criticism about rising costs and “political correctness” that has not wholly subsided, and there are now new threats on the horizon.

The threat most often cited today is digital technology and, more particularly, the emergence of vigorous, entrepreneurial for-profit education providers. A 1999 study by Merrill Lynch & Co. outlined the opportunities for private investment in for-profit higher education,3 and the sums invested are rapidly increasing. The question is not whether for-profit distance education will become a factor but at what rate and with what implications for the leading private research universities. The issue for Duke and similar institutions is whether for-profit on-line education will unleash new forms 
of competition that will erode our core markets and thus force a fundamental restructuring of the kind 
of education that has been the hallmark of private research universities. 

On-line education by for-profit providers could fundamentally change the dynamics of competition and educational delivery. In the “old economy,” the leading institutions competed for the best students and the best faculty, but they did not compete for market share. (No one wanted substantially more students, who would overwhelm finite campus resources and dilute student quality.) But in the model of the “new economy,” education is infinitely scalable, and the new for-profits will want market share above all. This makes all the difference. Standardized curricula consisting of “plug and play” modules prepared by the leading content authorities and supported by wizards of the new on-line, multi-media technologies and cognitive learning specialists will obviate the need to prepare local lectures on American politics or English literature or organic chemistry. At the same time, the cost per unit of instruction delivered can be driven dramatically downward as economies of scale are realized, potentially extending the reach of high-quality education but threatening the purchase of old-fashioned, labor intensive, high-cost providers. Students will not only benefit from lower costs and the wider availability of “name brand” education, they will be free to choose the time and place of study to suit their own convenience. Students will have “live” interactions with their professors or instructional guides through two-way video or at their convenience through electronic mail and course web postings. On-line libraries from around the world will be at their fingertips. Students will meet and greet each other digitally, discussing course content, collaborating on projects, sharing cultural and political interests, developing friendships and romances, and perhaps even competing in their favorite “dream team” on-line sports. The beautiful grounds and expensive bricks and mortar foundations of today’s leading institutions may become a liability rather than an asset.

This stylized vision of market forces and new technology is powerfully exhilarating to some, deeply troubling to others. What does it mean for Duke and other distinguished private research universities? We are, after all, the “old-fashioned, labor-intensive, high-cost providers” in the paragraph above. In one very important sense, the scenario outlined above is not really new. Private research universities have always faced competition from lower cost institutions. We have deliberately chosen a small market niche, providing high cost/high value education to a small number of the best-qualified students, all of whom would have had a wide array of less costly alternatives open to them. So competition itself is not new. Demand for selective private higher education under these circumstances has always exceeded supply, despite significant cost differences. Our market power can only be explained on the assumption that students and parents are finding an experience of great value in the education we offer.

Notwithstanding bursts of public concern and criticism about the quality of the education Duke and similar institutions offer, we have stood up to this fundamental market test very well.

The real question for the future is whether the structure of demand is likely to change. Will the students and parents who currently choose institutions like Duke prefer a digital university without walls in the future? This alternative will be cheaper (as are other current alternatives), but will it also be more appealing, or at least sufficiently appealing to change current preferences? These are not questions that we can answer with certainty. But to face them squarely, we need a clear-eyed understanding of our “customers’” needs and expectations and a commitment to meeting them through the “value proposition” we offer them.

Survey research suggests two things: Students are seeking academic quality and a sense of community that will reach beyond the years of study on campus. Clearly, there is a mix of practical and idealistic motives in seeking these characteristics, but many students are finding them in private research universities. We have been meeting their needs—never perfectly, but in many substantial ways. The “value proposition” of the private research university has rested on three fundamental principles: the complementary relationship of teaching and research scholarship in producing a distinctive form of education that at its best involves students directly in the creation of new knowledge; the value of personalized education that is as much about leadership and character formation as it is about skills and knowledge transfer; and the overarching importance of participating in a learning community, with a wide range of intergenerational interactions and opportunities for leadership and participation in athletics, cultural events, and social service. 

Our conviction is that the best way to succeed under changing market conditions will be to intensify these distinctive characteristics of private research universities, and Duke’s signature among them. At the same time, we must be fully accountable to our many constituencies in demonstrating as effectively as possible that the education and community we sustain creates superior value, widely accessible, for the students who experience it directly and for the larger society. This vision of conserving a legacy rooted in deeply held values and intensifying our signature is fully compatible with, but must constantly shape, our commitment to innovative leadership through bold initiatives in teaching and research. These initiatives will not only deepen our commitment to traditional modes of inquiry and discussion, they will also harness new technologies to our carefully defined purposes and allow us to reach new markets of students, particularly in our professional school programs, beyond our traditional reach.

The academic plan gives bold expression to our 
commitment to stewardship, leadership, excellence, community, and values-to our distinctive entelechy. Duke University, like the other great private research universities, was created and has been sustained by men and women for whom these simple virtues have real meaning. If we cannot sustain these virtues, we are unworthy of our legacy and deserve to be judged by ordinary, commercial, and utilitarian logic. Cyber-U will not be far behind. 

1. James, Engell, “The Idea of Organic Growth in Higher Education,” paper presented to the Forum on the Future of Higher Education, The Aspen Institute, 1999, p. 1.
2. Quoted in Engell, p. 1.
3. M. Moe, K. Bailey and R. Lau, “The Book of Knowledge,” Merrill Lynch & Co., 1999. 

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