Good morning! I want to begin by saying thank you to all of the reunion volunteers who are with us for your leadership over the past year. This morning’s class gifts and this weekend’s celebrations are a testament to your tireless efforts on behalf of our university. We are so very grateful for your commitment to Duke.
Would the reunions class volunteers please stand to be recognized.
I also want to recognize those of you who supported your reunion class gifts, which will make a significant difference in the lives of our students.
Duke is a university committed to teaching and learning from the world around us, and with your support, we are developing new and innovative programs to better educate the leaders of tomorrow. We are deeply invested in the health of our neighbors, and with your support, the health professionals we train will be able to continue healing the sick and serving the most vulnerable among us. We believe in rigorous research for the betterment of society, and with your support, our faculty will be able to make new discoveries and drive the creation of new technologies that will improve lives.
With your support, we are building a future that lives up to Duke’s values and promise, and I’m very excited about what we can accomplish together. Thank you for supporting the Duke we have always been and the Duke we are destined to become.
This morning, I am delighted to officially welcome you back to campus. Having visited some of the class parties late last night, I am also pleasantly surprised to see you brave, over-caffeinated souls here for my first reunions address.
This has been a year of firsts for me. It is, of course, my first academic year at Duke. In August, I welcomed my first class of first-years to campus, and my wife Annette and I have since ticked off our first football bowl game victory, our first Duke solar eclipse, and our first trip to the beach.
On the academic front, we’ve continued our proud tradition of Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, and Schwarzman scholars, sending our brightest Dukies on to graduate study that will prepare them for lifelong leadership. Our incoming class was the most competitive ever – almost 38,000 students applied to join the Class of 2022.
We’re also making new investments in our campus. This weekend, you’ll have a chance to visit beautiful new buildings, like the Brodhead Center, the comprehensive Student Wellness building, and the stunning Rubenstein Arts Center. These investments are helping to revolutionize campus life and give our students new collaborative, innovative learning opportunities.
In my first few months at Duke, I’ve also enjoyed getting to know the students, faculty, and especially alumni – I met many of you already at homecoming and our events in DC, New York, and California. To a person, every member of the Duke community has been incredibly welcoming to me and Annette, making us feel right at home in the Duke family.
But despite my best efforts to make a good first impression, far and away the most popular members of the family are our two dogs, Scout and Cricket. Everywhere they go on campus, they are surrounded by a crowd of fawning students and staff.
It’s like Beatlemania, only it’s Doodlemania.
I was walking them through Duke Gardens one recent Saturday. It was beautiful early-spring weather, and the dogwoods and azaleas were in full bloom – the sort of day that Annette and I had been looking forward to since we moved to North Carolina. The main lawn of the Gardens was packed with students and neighbors throwing the Frisbee and sprawled out on beach towels reading and listening to music.
Annette and I wandered over to the ponds, because Cricket and Scout are obsessed with the ducks. They don’t chase them – they just watch intently – very intently – from the edge of the water with a look that is somehow equal parts arrogance and terror.
We were sitting by the ponds when a girl walked by with a camera around her neck – she was with her family on a college visit, taking pictures of Duke. She complimented us on the dogs and snapped their picture before walking off with her parents and her younger brother. After a few seconds, she came running back up to me and said, “excuse me, but my brother recognized you.”
I smiled, preparing to introduce myself.
“Are you the head of Duke Basketball?”
I wonder how Coach K would feel about that.
This episode got me thinking about cases of mistaken identity, which seem to abound these days in higher education. There’s an arms race among elite colleges and universities – each time one of us builds something or invests in a new program, the others follow suit. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: it means that we’re investing alongside our peers in redefining higher education for the 21st century.
But it does present a risk: we have to be sure not to lose our sense of who we are as an institution. For the roots of our future – of the Duke University of tomorrow – lie not only in the decisions we make today, but in the history and values that make Duke Duke.
As a newcomer, I still have the benefit of an outsider’s perspective, having spent the bulk of my career on the campuses of our peers. I came to Duke from the University of Pennsylvania, where I served as Provost, and I also taught at the University of Michigan and Stanford. So naturally, I’ve spent a great deal of time this year thinking about what sets Duke apart.
Duke, first and foremost, excels at institutional balance. We do a better job than our peers of striking the balance between teaching and research, between rigorous academics and top-tier intercollegiate athletics, between a commitment to improving the region and a desire to bring about positive change globally.
Duke is also right-sized for our mission of discovery and service: we are large enough to have the resources to tackle the world’s greatest challenges, but we’re small enough to still have a human impact in our immediate neighborhood. Through innovative partnerships in Durham and throughout the Triangle, we are building an even stronger future for the region.
But what really sets Duke apart is our people. As President, I have learned very quickly that physical infrastructure gets the headlines, but it’s the human infrastructure that is our true value proposition.
This is even reflected in our architecture – the gothic spires on Abele Quad were intended to mimic the medieval universities of Europe, guilds of learning built around libraries, communities of people rather than the physical campuses we think of today. Degrees were created as formal documents of admittance into these communities; that’s of course why diplomas include that bit about the rights and privileges of a graduate.
At Commencement, you are not so much graduating from Duke University as graduating into the school of Duke alumni.
Going forward, Duke has an incredible opportunity to cultivate and engage with that community, a family of extraordinary people of accomplishment and purpose. That means offering our alumni new opportunities for continuing education; it also means continuing to encourage you to engage with our students to share your talent, drive and experience to advance our educational, research, and service missions.
We recognize just how valuable you are as members of the Duke community, and we want to provide you the support and encouragement to lead even more fulfilling lives.
This being my year of firsts, I’ve had to rely on support and encouragement myself from time to time. I’m sure many of you remember, for instance, that the President – meaning me – formally begins the academic year by leading nervous new students in the alma mater at Convocation. And as new President, I joined my fellow First-Years in another longstanding tradition: frantically learning the words to Dear Old Duke in the waning hours of orientation. Not only did this make me an honorary member of the class of 2021, it also ensured that the eight short lines are forever seared into my memory.
When I think about this community, I am reminded of one passage in the alma mater: though on life’s broad sea our fates may far us bear, we’ll ever turn to thee. It speaks to the fact that wherever life has taken you, whether near to campus or a world away, Duke will forever be your home. Each of you has made a difference in the history of this university and its intellectual life, a contribution for which we are so very thankful. I am delighted to welcome you back here to engage once again in this truly exceptional community. Together, we are Forever Duke.