From the President: Becoming a citizen of Duke

Class of 2020, this ceremony marks a great transition. Your childhood is over and a new life begins. By the powers vested in me, I now proclaim you a student of Duke University. Or let me reach for a stronger word: I now proclaim you a citizen of Duke. Let’s think what difference that word makes.

A citizen is more than a resident. A citizen is a member, someone who fully belongs. Belongs to what? We don’t speak of people being a citizen of their families or a citizen of a club. The word derives from the Latin civitas, city, which also gave us the words civic and civil. When a city-state was the largest effective social unit, a citizen was a member of a city. Nowadays, citizenship mostly refers to membership in a national community. Your entering class contains citizens of seventy countries.

Citizenship brings privileges, like the right to vote or the right to serve on a jury, and it brings duties, too, which vary from place to place. If you are from Switzerland or Singapore, you may already have performed national military service. If you’re a naturalized citizen of the United States, you have pledged to support and defend the Constitution.

This sounds pretty simple, but as this summer taught us, “citizen” can be quite a contentious idea. I was in England on the day of the Brexit vote, when, to the surprise of many on both sides, Great Britain voted to leave the European Union.

The European Union is a remarkable creation of the second half of the twentieth century in which a score of nations, on the continent where the strife among sovereign nations has engulfed the world in world war not once but twice, concluded to join in a supranational entity, giving up some separate rights to win the benefits of a larger union. Under the Treaty of Maastricht, citizens of E.U. nations also became citizens of the European Union, entitling them to the free flow of peoples and economic activity across national borders. This June, British voters decided that their fears of lost sovereignty and an influx of “outsiders” outweighed the benefits of an open community.

We know such hopes and fears closer to home. The United States, a country whose culture and economy owe their dynamism to the continual inflowing and intermingling of peoples, is going through one of its periodic bouts of nativism, marked by the will to define citizenship by who we exclude.

The history of citizenship is a fascinating subject. But if I have the word on my mind today, it’s because of you. Here you are in the act of joining Duke Nation. What does it mean to be a citizen of Duke?

Citizenship always entails some definition of who’s in and who’s out and how a person can become included. In most countries, if one or more of your parents was a citizen at the time of your birth, then you are a citizen by jus sanguinis, by right of blood. In a few countries, most of them in the Western Hemisphere, and the United States prominent among them, you also become a citizen by being born in this country whatever the status of your parents. This is called jus soli, citizenship by right of soil.

So what determines citizenship of Duke? There is only one way. You may have been born in Duke Hospital, but that did not get you in. You may have had a parent who went here, and we welcome that continuity when it occurs, but no one has a hereditary right to attend Duke. No one is admitted to Duke who has not passed through a searching assessment that starts with tests and grades but extends to all of your involvements, asking whether they evince real intellectual engagement, not a mere desire to “do well”; also, the will to live up to the full measure of your talents, with the hard work that entails; also, an inclination to use your gifts for the benefit of others.

You are here today because, each in your own way, under your own circumstances, you demonstrated the promise that Duke seeks. You’re entitled to citizenship because you earned it the only way it can be won: by being eager to live up to your full potential.

So, what privileges does this new citizenship bring? Duke offers opportunities for self-discovery in virtually every known form—academic, artistic, athletic, entrepreneurial, social, spiritual, local, global. Your admission is your ticket to explore every opportunity this university affords.

And the duties? That’s where modern concepts of citizenship often fall down. As I noted, there are countries where national service is compulsory. This country has no such requirement: Within my lifetime Americans have gotten out of the habit of being asked to sacrifice anything for the larger good. Did you know that in Australia, voting is obligatory? Here it isn’t, and since it’s optional, the primal democratic right, the right of citizens to choose their government, has undergone partial atrophy from lack of use.

You can decide how well citizenship as passive enjoyment of goodies has served the larger society. But I’m here to tell you, passive citizenship has no place at Duke. For this place to work, you have the responsibility to participate. Let me name four ways.

First: Going to a university whose programs are being copied around the world won’t do you any good if you don’t try to learn about those programs, see which ones might serve you, and make an effort to participate.

But second, enrolling in things is just the start. Duke exists to transmit the store of human understanding, but our real work is continually to increase that store. We take truths that seem final and challenge them, interrogate them, with teachers and students partnering to achieve an ever fuller understanding. But this only works if you participate: If you join the discussion, ask your question, share the part of the truth you’ve been gifted to see.

Third, at a place so rich in talent and perspectives, every classmate and every social interaction could enlarge the understanding you’ve achieved to date. We have just rebuilt this university’s great common spaces including the Marketplace and West Union because we know that in a great residential university informal personal exchange—the unstructured interaction of teachers with students and of students with their fellows—is the essential medium of learning. But to get this benefit, you have to have the courage to enter into conversation with strangers, and not just superficially, but risking the deep sharing in which deep understandings are forged.

Fourth, students have told me that they went through rough patches here at first. Is that surprising? No real world ever guaranteed perpetual, stress-free bliss, and no human ever grew except by seeking and facing up to challenge. These same students have shared that hard days got easier once they found a mentor, an upperclassman or a member of the faculty or staff who would take an interest in them and cheer them on. Plenty of people here are willing to play this role for you. But to find your natural advisers, you have to do your part to make the connection.

Be active in your education, and this place will give you what you came to find. But there’s one more thing Duke citizens have to do: You have to help create the atmosphere in which everyone can have the same rich experience. Any way you could victimize someone, or humiliate someone, or silence someone, or exclude someone takes away that person’s rights and robs you of their contribution. Every way you learn to respect others, listen to them, and encourage their participation builds their power and equips them to teach you. This is not a care some of you owe to some others. It’s the care each of you owes to all.

My friend Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions, lifted your spirits, and here I am, loading you down with expectations. My excuse is you actually need to embrace the commitments I’ve described: Lower your expectations when you arrive and you will lower the quality of the experience you take away. A government website I consulted says that “citizenship is a unique bond that unites people around civic ideals.” I’ve asked you to bond around the aspirations Duke is built on: the ideal of individual personal development, the ideal of education through community, and the ideal of the active, ongoing pursuit of truth.

So let’s do this right—this could be fun. Have you ever attended a citizenship ceremony? Neither have I. Let’s make one up! Raise your right hand. Do you solemnly swear to pay allegiance to the values of this university by living up to them in your daily life? If so, please signify by saying aye. Congratulations! You are now a citizen of Duke.

This essay is the president’s convocation speech for the Class of 2020.

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