Under the Gargoyle


by Nannerl O. Keohane, Duke University President

      One of the best things about a university president's job is observing, each year, the demonstrations of loyalty and affection for the university during reunion weekends. Alumni have a remarkable skill for helping those of us who work here daily take a fresh look at the university, renewing our respect for what Duke means and has done over the decades.

      It is true, of course, that helping renew our sense of Duke was not uppermost in the minds of the thousands of alumni who returned to Duke this fall for Homecoming and reunion weekends. Most came back to be with old friends, to renew memories of their years at Duke in a nostalgic haze. I suspect that some wanted to see if the students have gotten rid of those darned benches--they haven't--and others to make sure that there are still great parties happening around all those benches--and there are. Some of you came back to give us advice on how to run the university, from which we always learn much; and others to confirm your hunch that most of your classmates look a lot older than you do, and we hope all of you were right!

      Since becoming president of Duke in 1993, I've enjoyed these weekends immensely; I've also enjoyed traveling around the country--and abroad--making contacts with many more of you, renewing your sense of Duke today. The Alumni Affairs office tells me that I've personally met more than 5,300 alumni, either at class reunions or through meetings and conversations around the country. I look forward to meeting with the rest of you in the years ahead.

      In the meantime, I hope that my occasional letters to alumni give you a sense of the excitement I feel about the excellence of this university, and the power of the Duke traditions on which we are building. I was especially pleased when Duke Magazine offered this space for periodic comments about life at Duke, and about some of the ambitious and exciting achievements of our faculty and students.

      Earlier this year, all alumni should have received a copy of a summary of Shaping Our Future, the strategic plan approved last year by our board of trustees. (If you did not receive a copy, please let us know and we'll be glad to supply one.) The mission statement contained in that plan included the commitment to attend not only to students' intellectual growth, but also to their development as "adults committed to high ethical standards and full participation as leaders of their communities," and "to prepare future members of the learned professions for lives of skilled and ethical service."

      The world for which we at Duke are educating leaders is not marked either by ethical sensitivity or by shared ethical understanding. Many people have lost their ethical bearings altogether, or follow moral road-maps that divide them from other human beings in suspicion and distrust. In an attempt to address this disturbing situation, programs designed to foster teaching and research in ethics are multiplying across the land today.

      Skeptics may wonder what Duke might add to this proliferation of attention to moral issues. A great deal, I would argue: a history of attending to the spiritual as well as the intellectual dimensions of life, embodied in our motto and in our affiliation with the United Methodist Church; a dedication to service to others enshrined in the founding indenture; and a great wealth of courses and programs in ethics in virtually every school of our university. Thus Duke comes to this effort with distinctive strengths and deeply rooted commitments.

      In many ways, universities such as Duke are particularly well placed to provide both educational and practical experience in ethics. In the first place, universities are well equipped to teach ethical understanding in the most straightforward fashion. Faculty members in several disciplines--primarily philosophy and religion, but also psychology, classics, and history--are specialists in the core materials of ethics. Great plays, novels, scriptural texts, or works of moral philosophy also form a rich corpus from which ethical truths are distilled and shared.

      I would argue that those who teach such materials should discuss moral issues straightforwardly in class, not to persuade their students to adopt a particular brand of ethical philosophy or convert them to a specific religion, but to train students to think carefully about ethics, just as we train them to appreciate music or art or to excel in quantitative reasoning.

      Universities are also places where rich and productive research is being done on human beings and society. Insights produced by such research suggest improvements in patterns of human interaction in our governments, our families, and our laws.

      Beyond the classroom, a campus is a concentrated human community, in which students live closely together, sharing all aspects of their lives in an intimacy they will not elsewhere encounter beyond the family. These communities give practical experience in the consequences of ethical and unethical behavior.

      It is easy to understand the Golden Rule in a residence hall. If I refrain from playing my stereo at top volume at 3 a.m. when my roommate has an exam the next day, I can reasonably expect that she will do the same in turn. No weighty tome on the truths of enlightened self-interest is needed to persuade me of the benefits of this. Honor codes, athletic teams, student judicial councils that enforce rules students have helped to devise--these are excellent places to learn the habits of trust and cooperation that provide the basis of ethical behavior in a complex society. We should help students reflect more specifically upon these lessons, and connect them with life in the outside world.

      Universities are also very diverse institutions nowadays, in which people of many different cultures and backgrounds come together. One of the major challenges to ethical understanding in our society is its great complexity--not just its formidable size and scale, but the large number of different cultures, languages, religions, racial and ethnic groups that compose America as we approach a new millennium. Universities are among the few places in America where people have easy opportunities to reach out across the barriers that frequently divide our society and learn from one another both the ethical practices of different cultures, and the imperative importance of living more humanely together and caring for one another.

      Finally, universities provide multiple opportunities for transcending one's own selfish horizons to help those in need. Community service projects are a major feature of life at your alma mater. Students are quick to respond to the needs of children whose lives and futures are at risk, or to the direct impoverishment of people in soup kitchens or in dilapidated housing. Through projects sponsored by religious groups and residence halls, by fraternities and sororities and service clubs, Duke students reach out to the community in large numbers every day. The traditional idealism of young people is alive and well on campus, and finds its best contemporary expression in robust community service programs. These lived experiences in ethical practice touch the lives of many students, and transform the lives of some them, in addition to greatly enriching the lives of those they help.

      I am delighted to announce that we have recently secured important support in carrying out our commitment to education in ethics, in the broadest sense, at Duke. In September, the Kenan Charitable Trust awarded Duke a planning grant of $250,000 to develop a creative new program in ethics. In our discussions with the board of the Kenan Fund for Ethics, we have agreed that ethics will not only be something we teach in classrooms across the campus, but also a more prominent part of our lived experience.

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