From the President: Building a University Into a Home

Each April, as the azaleas come into bloom, thousands of Duke alumni return to campus for Reunions Weekend, and I greet them with the words, “Welcome home.” But why do we think of college as a home? In many countries this is not the case: There, people feel a lifelong allegiance to their secondary schools and strike a more pragmatic, businesslike relationship with their universities. But in America, we expect that college will be our home for four years and stake a claim on our emotions for the rest of our lives. How does college become a home?

We know it doesn’t happen right away. Every part of first-year orientation seeks to reassure our apprehensive new students that they will, one day soon, feel at home at Duke. One year later, that transformation can be so complete that many now-rising-sophomores mope around their parents’ houses saying mournfully, “I can’t wait to go home,” while their parents protest in anguish, “But you are home!” And by graduation, Duke has become a home many seniors struggle to leave.

Part of the way a college resembles a home is in requiring its residents to negotiate relationships not initially of their choosing, much like a family. Dropped into a dorm filled with strangers, our students must figure out how to live in close quarters with people who may be very different from themselves. Seeking commonalities while appreciating differences not only confers educational benefits, but is part of how Duke students forge friendships and build community. The joys of living and learning together contribute to the special and distinctive ways a university becomes a home.

To achieve this goal, a university must ensure that its physical geography enables community and discovery. Classrooms and laboratories are important but not enough. A home also has private spaces for seclusion and reflection—and social spaces where its members can gather to talk and connect and share a meal. At Duke, we’re in the process of re-imagining the great common spaces of the university so that they foster the kind of community that creates a vibrant home for students.

The most dramatic transformations are happening at the heart of West Campus. The Bryan Center already has been renovated, reorganized, and brightened, its gloomy exterior panels lifted off to let in light. Alongside the Bryan Center, the beautiful Penn Pavilion, made possible by a generous gift from Robert and Katherine Penn (both ’74), is a swing space for dining in the short term; in the longer term, it will be a large, central, flexible events space of the sort this university has sorely needed. These buildings spill onto the expanded plaza, the outdoor space that’s proven so successful as our pedestrian Main Street since its opening in 2006.

These improvements set the stage for the centerpiece, the renovation of West Union—a building many alumni will remember as a dark, low-ceilinged corridor to cut through on the way to somewhere else. Thanks to a gift from The Duke Endowment, the private foundation in Charlotte established by James B. Duke, we are engaged in a massive construction project of the sort that is becoming Duke’s signature: preserving the exterior historic shell while carving out and transforming the interior into an open, modern, inviting space with well-designed places for gathering and dining.

These are not cosmetic changes for frivolous purposes. The ideal of residential education is that a community of engaged, spirited, intelligent people will educate one another all day long, stretching and inspiring each other through every encounter—academic, extracurricular, and social. If some forms of education now can take place online, at Duke we know that some profound things can be learned only face to face, by interacting with other people in the fullness of their humanity. That’s when a university is most fully a home: when it’s a place of ever-widening and ever-deepening relationships, where people share their lives and grow together.

To realize the potential of residential education, we must create the enabling conditions for this interaction, our own collision spaces that are attractive and welcoming to all students and faculty members. The opportunity to radically rehabilitate West Union has spurred Duke to ask how the whole neighborhood of West Campus could be coherently redeveloped as a home of community and connection. In continuing the building of this university, our aim is not simply to spruce the place up. We are rethinking how Duke can be an enriching home for our students—a home that nurtures them and challenges them, fulfilling our deepest educational mission.

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