Good afternoon, Class of 2027! On behalf of the administration, faculty, and staff, I’m delighted to welcome you formally to Duke University.
Today is the beginning of a new journey, and you’re joining us at an exciting time. Yes, this is the start of a new era for each of you; but it’s also the start of a new era for Duke.
We’re proud to welcome our new Provost and chief academic officer, Alec Gallimore, along with several other new members of our leadership team. And beginning in January, we will celebrate Duke University’s centennial, reflecting on what we’ve accomplished in the past 100 years and setting our sights on what’s ahead.
You see, 100 years ago, a new class of students was entering the last full academic year of Trinity College, housed on East Campus. And the magnificent and stately Chapel where we are now gathered was still farmland.
The Class of 1927 was, like you, facing a rapidly changing world. Although they had nothing like ChatGPT in their midst, they were poised to enter the Roaring ‘20s, after their years in high school had been scarred, stolen in a way, by the recent world war and the terrible Spanish flu pandemic.
The first issue of The Chronicle that year noted the ways Trinity College was transforming, even with no hint then that, by the time the class of 1927 would graduate, they would do so as alumni of Duke University.
Contributors to The Chronicle, noting with pride the expansive growth of the College, observed that so many women were on campus that the capacity of Southgate was strained, with 3 coeds in each of the smaller rooms and 4 in larger rooms.
Ten new faculty were joining the College. As today, key leadership transitions were celebrated. That year Alice Baldwin would be named Dean of Women, and become the first female granted full faculty status at Trinity.
And let me tell you, the Class of 1927 was ready for a full schedule of lively welcoming events. They thrilled to the annual opening of the academic year with the raising of the flag by the senior class. And there was excitement building for a reception featuring music and ice cream—and appearances by a campus celebrity named Scab, the dog adopted by the sophomore class, who would soon be joined by a first-year Poodle named Cicero.
Those new students had little sense of what their century, the 20th, would bring, including the Atomic Age. But Chronicle editors tried to be helpful: warning first-year students against slick sales pitches from boarding house operators and laundry services.
So here we sit, similarly with no clear sense of what our century, the 21st will bring. And I’m mindful that any advice I lend you today might seem, by future lights, to be about as helpful as a warning against unscrupulous boarding house recruiters or collectors for laundry services.
But advice is a part of the convocation tradition, so with your indulgence, I’ll briefly give you mine.
It’s my answer to the question many are asking these days: What can a university offer you in 2023? With more ways than ever before to learn and to disseminate knowledge, what is a university even for?
We are a learning community, dedicated to the pursuit of greater human understanding.
You’re here to learn, you know that. But we are all here to learn.
Duke is a research university, which means your faculty are asking their own questions too. They design experiments, conduct interviews, run simulations, dig through archives, dig through the mud. Whatever form their work takes, they contribute new insights to their fields.
As you work alongside the faculty, not only will you grow in your own studies, but you’ll also help us grow in our understanding of the world.
We get to follow the evidence wherever it leads — and we are at our best when we do that together, as a diverse community with very different perspectives, disciplines, backgrounds, experiences, ideological orientations, identities, and religions.
You’ve just been through orientation, which is wonderful; I’m here to say that the work ahead, if you do it right, will be disorienting as well.
Like physical training—which entails pushing us to the often-painful limits of our endurance in service of gaining strength—intellectual and moral training similarly come, inevitably, with discomfort.
And more noxious even than physical discomfort is confusion. It can be quite destabilizing, and exhausting.
Take care to remember that nobody ever walked the path from not knowing to knowing without wandering over that difficult territory called confusion.
But my advice to you today is that you embrace disorientation and confusion, because on the other side comes greater moral strength and mental agility.
OK, this is a celebratory gathering, and I don’t want to bring you down. I also have some good news.
You are not traveling this path alone, but as part of a larger, and beautifully supportive, community. A community you will live with, eat with, think with, argue with, learn with, win with—graduate with and grow with for the rest of your lives.
This is the defining character of a university, and why it’s more relevant in 2023 than perhaps ever before in history. In an era of machine learning and social media, the unrivaled power of a living, breathing, human learning community is real.
It is true blue. It is Duke.
It’s an idea we would do well to remember: the sharpest thinking, the fullest understanding, emerges from communities — not individuals in isolation.
We can and we must have faith in our ability to learn together, from each other. I know that’s hard to do sometimes, especially on topics where we might worry that we will say the wrong thing, or where we know others disagree with us.
But even in that discomfort, we need you to engage. We need you to speak up because you might see something that the rest of us have missed.
And equally important, we need—every one of us—to listen, without judgment, because your classmates may very well see something that you, and we, have missed. As I’ve said elsewhere, while we hold some truths to be self-evident, most are not. And an excess of moral judgment may be one of the greatest threats to our still-new century.
Yes, this can be clumsy, and not without some pain as we grow more agile and stronger—particularly living in a world more likely to respond to challenge with indignance, where contradictions are met with quick and unreflective condemnation rather than conversation.
Our Duke community can respond differently, though: listening to each other, assuming always the best in each other, and being open to changing our minds when the evidence leads us to do so. The wise community, as suggested by experience across millennia, is humble in admitting what it does not know.
It’s daunting. But you are more than capable of having these tough conversations. With the support of good teachers and the accountability of a diverse community, you can do this.
Before I conclude my remarks, I will also offer you the same practical advice I share with every incoming class: please, make sure you get enough sleep. Life is too short and too beautiful to waste on doom-scrolling. Caffeine can only get you so far, and we all need adequate sleep to do our best work and treat each other with bright eyes rather than weary eyes. In this aspect at least, I think our Trinity colleagues of a hundred years ago were perhaps our betters.
Class of 2027, I thank you for choosing Duke. Your presence makes our community stronger, and in your hands our future will be as well.