Gathering Points


The tradition of bookending your Duke career by gathering in the Chapel as a class says a good deal about this university. In some universities, there is never a time when everybody gets together as a class; in others, there may be ceremonies of some kind at the beginning or the end, but it isn’t particularly cool to attend them. Only at Duke do people scalp tickets for Baccalaureate, and most of the guests must watch the ceremony on TV.

When he built this university, James B. Duke—the man with cigar in hand, standing just out front, submitting with dignity to the transformations you impose on him in celebratory moments—specified that at the heart of the university there should be a great towering church, standing on the highest point, in such splendor and majesty that it would prove to be the physical and moral center of the campus. Since a hot August morning four years ago, some of you have perhaps never entered the Chapel again. Most, however, come inside these serene, refreshing spaces at times to worship, to attend a concert or performance, to show visiting family the glories of the historic stained glass and stonework, or just to sit quietly alone and wrestle with some problem that was clogging up your mind.

It’s impossible to ignore Duke Chapel, impossible to imagine any description of this campus in which it would not be prominently featured. Every afternoon at five, its bells toll another milestone. You walk past or within sight of the Chapel so often that it sinks deep into your consciousness and becomes part of the landscape of your life. In that sense, the Chapel is not only a religious place. It is the center of the campus in every sense of the word, and that’s one reason that you want to be together in that center one more time before you leave.

You come also because you care about each other, despite the different paths you have taken. You may think of this care as focused mainly on classmates you know well, but despite your differences and occasional estrangements, you are bound by membership in this multi-faceted, talented, unique class. Think back: The biggest, most important moments of your college life—the events and relationships that help define who you are as a person—rarely appear on your résumé. They may include a sudden awareness that you had understood something for the first time. They may include becoming aware that you are responsible for what you know, that it’s not just something outside you in
a book. They may include falling in love, making a friend, finding your voice, feeling empowered.

At your opening convocation in August 1997, I spoke on the theme of freedom—the kind of freedom you might expect at Duke, and my advice on how to use it wisely. I also told you about some of the things you would need to grapple with, freely and responsibly, during your Duke years. One of those predictions was that race would surely matter in your lives.

During your first semester, students hung a black doll in effigy on the quad to protest what they saw as our inhospitable environment for African Americans. The Black Student Alliance held an Allen Building “study-in,” and Race Day in front of the Chapel drew some five hundred people. Now, in your senior year, several hundred students marched silently through the quad to present a petition demanding still more concrete action to address issues of tolerance, openness, and diversity. Race has indeed been relevant. Progress has been made; but there is still work to be done—at Duke and in the world outside—work that you can now begin to tackle with the strength of your degree.

Your first year at Duke, three Duke doctors published a book called Buzzed, which received national recognition for educating the public about drugs and alcohol. During the fall of your junior year, one of your classmates died of alcohol-related causes. This year, the lead author of Buzzed, Dr. Cynthia Kuhn, who participated in orientation sessions for resident advisers last summer, found this note on the bottom of a final exam: “Do you remember giving the talk at the R.A. orientation session on the common drugs at Duke? You discussed the dangers of doing twenty-one shots on your twenty-first birthday. Incidentally, that day was my twenty-first birthday…. Dr. Kuhn, you saved my life.” Again, there is still much to be done.

As I look back on our time together, I see a balancing act: After four full and fast-paced years, you are about to step out into a new position of almost total freedom—again. And as before, it carries a high price tag in responsibility. Your education has been in large part what you chose to make it; and so will your life be after Duke.

As you will remember, Terry Sanford died during your first spring on campus, and thousands gathered here in this Chapel to honor this governor, senator, and president of Duke. Even those who never knew him were deeply moved. And throughout your time here, Duke people continued to push their boundaries. This spring, for instance, author and poet, our own Duke alum and English professor Reynolds Price, curated an art exhibit. He was not acting out of character; he just had what President Sanford would have called outrageous ambitions.

Perhaps it seems impertinent to think of yourself in the same breath as Terry Sanford or Reynolds Price. But in this Chapel, all together, you can do that. You are Dukies just like them, made of the same fine stuff. You have spent a lot of time in the last four years rediscovering what great men and women have found, what saints and sages throughout the ages have learned, what science has revealed, and what art speaks that science cannot. I know absolutely that all that learning will serve you well.

But in closing I also offer these words of the seventeenth-century Japanese poet Basho: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” That conundrum is your final assignment. Remember that Duke University will always be a home to you when you are ready for it. This Chapel will always be here, as solid as the stone it’s built from, as brilliant as the stained glass on a sunny afternoon; it’s always yours, in your hearts and minds, and here on the campus you have claimed as your own—as the Class of 2001.

This is excerpted from President Keohane’s baccalaureate address.

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor