Parents Welcome - Fall 2012

August 8, 2012

Welcome to Parents of Duke First Year Students

Laurie L. Patton, Dean of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences

I am delighted to be the 21st person to welcome you to Duke. I am Laurie Patton, the Dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, and my guess is that you have been welcomed a great deal since you have arrived. And the eagerness and excitement across this campus is electric—you energize all of us. Your arrival is what jolts us out of our summer research and into the world of classroom. We are thrilled that you are here, because you make a difference. That is the Duke way—warm welcome, intense engagement, sleeves rolled up to work and play.

And you are eager to dive in. At the Duke Alumni Association Luncheon yesterday, I asked several of you what your plans were for the day. The parents had a plan that involved eating out, touring the campus again, connecting with performances at the Durham Tobacco campus, and walking in the Duke forest. And the students just said, “I’m desperate to move into my room. When is this lunch over?”

One student told me she wanted to move in because she had a new engineering project she wanted to start on right away. Another said the wanted to begin practicing with the pick-up band that had been miraculously formed in the first two days she was on campus. You might have heard that our informal motto is “Outrageous ambition.” And that our other motto is “Opportunity without Boundaries.” From these students’ account, even moving into a new dorm room can fit into that description.

I want to congratulate the parents in this room because your students have made probably the largest independent choice of their lives in choosing to come to Duke. As parents you are about to let your students go into a world of choice that is unprecedented in their lives—and I would argue—unprecedented in higher education.

Whether it is the 2000 courses that are offered every semester, the question of what to study and why to study it,  the service learning and civic engagement opportunities, or the 40 programs in DukeEngage over the summer, the scores of study abroad opportunities during the semester and the summer, not to mention the 400 student groups on campus. If you follow the trends, 86% of this class will not just major in one thing—but will add a minor, or a certificate, or a scholars program to their major course of study. Forty three percent of students here will study abroad. There has been no time in history when an 18-21 year old has had so much opportunity and so much choice.

And that can be both an anxiety producing thing as well as an exhilarating thing. In American culture, for good or for ill is another question, we seem to need this freedom of choice, and we do everything to maximize it in our world and in our culture to create a sense of well being. But even with more freedom and autonomy, the difficulty of living with that high of a level of choice is a very real challenge. And it is an even more vexing one in higher education today.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz reminds us that there are maximizers and satisfiers when it comes to choice: the maximizers are people who are perfectionists, and want every choice to be the absolutely best possible one they can make. The more choice they have, the more stressful their situation. The satisfiers, on the other hand have a range of criteria and principles with which they make a choice, but they make their decision and move on without looking back, and make the most out of what they have chosen.

As parents, your job is to help students realize that, in a world of exhilarating choice, their task is to take advantage of all they see, but not to be overwhelmed by the wealth of options before them. To remind them that when they try something new—an instrument, a class, a country, an advisor-- and then decide it is not the right path for them—that this is exactly what they should be doing. And our job is to guide them through this—to help them integrate their various intellectual passions and connect the dots between all the things they love. To help them adapt to changing circumstances without over-reacting or becoming paralyzed. To help them innovate—not be afraid of the new—with the help of their professors who are some of the most forward thinking and creative people this world has to offer. Integration. Adaptation. Innovation. Those are the cornerstones of a Duke education.

And with such choice comes extraordinary responsibility. Duke’s outrageous ambition is partnered with a deep commitment to knowledge in the service of society. I said knowledge in the service of society—not anxiety in the service of society. To always find a way to integrate what we know into the world around us; to adapt what we know so that others can use it; to innovate so that what we know can address social ills in the world. Integration, Adaptation, Innovation—there are those themes again—but this time as a way of weaving Duke and the world together into a more vibrant whole.

And so let me end by telling you what we are doing in service of society this year at Duke, and what you and your students can look forward to right now and in the coming months. In academic year 2012-13, knowledge in the service of society means a whole lot of new things. We are celebrating 50th anniversary of the first African American matriculant at Duke in a whole series of events looking at the ups and downs of racial realities at our institution. Equally exciting, Duke will be launching, open to the public all around the globe, the first massive on line open course (MOOC), in a consortium which includes Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, University of Michigan, and several others. I am proud to say that Duke has already appealed to the public in garnering the highest enrollment of the consortium this year. That course is not computer algorithms. It is a simple course, taught by philosopher Walter Sinnott Armstrong: “How to make an argument.” Duke will continue to take its regularly enrolled students on trips to study civil rights in the American South and the history of apartheid in South Africa. These programs and classroom innovations are exactly what we mean by the social responsibility that should always accompany by the great privilege of choice.

Your students have made an extraordinary choice by deciding to come to Duke. They will learn how to choose better in an educational world that is designed to do nothing but guide them. And they will learn how to reach out to the world with their knowledge as a natural, everyday part of what they do. They are here because you have raised them to choose well.  We honor your commitment to them, and to us, and wish you a safe journey home to another chapter of your life as well as theirs.