From the President: Building a Life at Duke

Usually, the Freshman Convocation is held in Duke Chapel. This year, we’ve decamped to Cameron Indoor Stadium because the chapel is closed for repairs. Indeed, just about everything at Duke is closed for repairs. If you came to campus last spring or summer, you saw that Duke Chapel, the Rubenstein wing of Perkins Library, Page Auditorium, West Union, the football stadium—even the quads were closed for repairs.

Today I ask, what does it mean to have all this construction going on at your new home? For one thing, it makes you a witness to history—to the biggest building boom on campus since Duke was created.

Second, you’re the lucky ones. We are engaged in a transformational renovation of this campus. There has been disruption galore, but you will enjoy the fruits of our labor. The West Campus quad is green again, the renovated library is open, Page will soon be hosting great speakers and performers, the football season will kick off in the renovated Wallace Wade stadium, and there’s more to come.

But I have a third thought, and it’s my real message to you. Let this construction be an image of what your work here could be.

Duke exists for two purposes. We are here to push the boundaries of human understanding, and we are here to help talented young people develop the most knowledgeable, thoughtful, resourceful version of themselves they can become. We care about physical structures because they serve the real construction project this great university is engaged in: the building of capable men and women. So I ask you to be the builder of your best self.

Here are some tips for you as builders. The materials on the worksite were put there so you would use them. Walking past a handsome new library won’t do much; you have to go inside, learn how to frame an interesting question, and seek materials that might help you to an answer. Why come to a school with great faculty if you don’t seek them out? You have to engage the opportunities around you to unlock the door to future growth.

This demolition has been accompanied by a lot of noise and inconvenience. If you want to make room for a new, improved version of yourself, you will have to tolerate some disruption— of your personal habits, of your preexisting networks, even of assumptions that once seemed certain. Disruption is not fun, but it is the opener of possibilities.

Last, construction is always a massive group effort, and if you want to build a fully empowered self at Duke, you should be thinking how this community can assist in that project. Duke has succeeded in drawing top talent in a hundred forms from across every known social boundary. From Renaissance Florence to today, the places where smart, energetic people have been drawn together have been the places where world-changing ideas are hatched and new human energies released. Today you become a citizen of just such a place. From today, every one of you will contribute to this community, and everyone will get a growth boost from the others here with you.

If you want to build to your full potential, you’re going to have to seek out and open yourself to this human richness, even if that means venturing outside what’s comfortable. After the first diversity buzz wears off, you’ll face inevitable temptations to fall back on communities that you perceive as “like you.” And in even the healthiest communities, things can happen that pull people back from the things they share.

Duke is committed to being a community where everyone is respected and has an equal right to thrive. Therefore, Duke requires that each of you take responsibility to build such a community. But if frictions do arise, I hope you will find a more constructive way to engage with differences than recoiling in resentment or withdrawing in defensiveness, human as both impulses powerfully are. In this country and around the world, we see the price millions pay when differences harden into conflict and estrangement. Let’s do better than that at Duke. Let’s make it be part of your education to learn how to enter into points of view different from your own and open your own point of view to others—and to practice this hard human skill not just on good days but even in times of challenge. This will make Duke a better place and will equip you to be a constructive social contributor long after you leave Duke behind.

I was drawn to Duke by its distinctive builder’s spirit. This school always has reached for the further thing it could become, envisioning the even better form that research and education could take. That’s the spirit that has fueled Duke’s construction and I welcome you into the company of that spirit. We admire what you are already, but you didn’t come to Duke to stay the same. You came to catch sight of further possibilities and to win strength and joy from the struggle to reach them.

That construction starts today. I welcome you to Duke.

This is adapted from the president’s address at the new academic year’s opening convocation. 

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