Category: Speeches & Writings Page 1 of 5

An Update on the Duke Climate Commitment

To the Duke Community,

I am writing today with an update on the Duke Climate Commitment, the university-wide initiative launched last September to harness Duke’s extraordinary strengths and resources toward the goal of addressing climate change.

Duke is in a unique position to deliver solutions that will place society on a path to a more resilient, sustainable, equitable, and healthy future, and the Climate Commitment offers us a new model for collaborative action. As highlighted today in stories from across the university, we seek to unify our efforts and amplify interdisciplinary climate and sustainability work, offering every member of the Duke community an opportunity to engage in these efforts. I am very grateful to Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment Toddi Steelman, Interim Director of the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability Brian Murray, and Executive Director of Climate and Sustainability Tavey Capps for their leadership.

Today, I am pleased to announce specific, measurable commitments on climate, embedded into the five areas of Duke’s strategic framework: empowering the boldest thinkerstransforming teaching and learningrenewing our campus communityforging purposeful partnerships in Durham and the region, and engaging our extraordinary global network.

As we empower the boldest thinkers, we commit to

As we transform teaching and learning, we commit to

  • build on the success of UNIV102 and partner with schools across the university to infuse climate and sustainability into educational programs, preparing Duke students to lead in the 21st century;
  • launch a teaching fellows program to support instructors in incorporating climate and sustainability in their courses;
  • offer workshops to students, faculty, and staff to deepen their knowledge and agency on issues related to climate and sustainability;
  • explore resource needs for career services to better prepare students for entering the workforce with the goal of contributing to climate change solutions;
  • expand the Campus as Lab program to use Duke’s campus as a living laboratory.

As we renew our campus community, we commit to

  • continue progress towards Duke’s goals for carbon neutrality, outlined in the 2019 Climate Action Plan Update
  • build on the 43% greenhouse gas emissions reductions to date as we navigate challenges from the pandemic, with a focus on campus energy efficiency, off-campus solar, renewable natural gas, and opportunities to retain the significant emission reductions realized in employee commuting and air travel over the past two years;
  • continue to work with a staff, faculty and student advisory committee to evaluate potential carbon offsets projects that meet our high standards;
  • seek new opportunities to directly engage staff in Duke’s sustainability efforts, including through workshops, workplace certifications, and educational resources;
  • develop a Duke Sustainable Fleet and Electric Vehicle (EV) Charging Plan to reduce the impact of campus vehicles and expand EV infrastructure;
  • continue working with DUMAC to support endowment investments in sustainability, in accordance with the Guideline on Investment Responsibility adopted by the Board of Trustees;
  • expand efforts to infuse sustainability further into Duke’s supply chain through campus policies and contract language;
  • explore opportunities to support and increase sustainability efforts in the Duke Health system.

As we partner with purpose in Durham and the region, we commit to

  • strengthen our relationship with the City of Durham and promote regional sustainability through the Strategic Community Impact Plandeveloped by the Office of Durham and Community Affairs;
  • engage local, state, and federal policymakers regarding equitable climate and sustainability solutions;
  • deepen our involvement with green entrepreneurs, investors, and industry leaders in the Research Triangle and beyond.

As we engage our global network of alumni, we commit to

  • convene climate leaders on campus to share their work and engage with the Duke community, including these events in Spring 2023, among others:

Sustainable Business and Social Impact conference,
Blue Economy Summit, hosted by Oceans@Duke,
Climate Change, Decolonization, and Global Blackness series at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, and
Histories and Society in the Hydrosphere conference, hosted by the Center for International and Global Studies;

  • develop opportunities for alumni who are invested in climate and sustainability work to connect with our education, research and engagement efforts on campus and beyond;
  • provide climate and sustainability literacy and fluency opportunities for alumni through lifelong learning and digital education partnerships.

Over the coming months and years, we will track our progress on these commitments on the Climate Commitment website. We recognize that this initiative may evolve and will take time to implement, and we will only succeed through the collective action of our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends.

These commitments are both aspirational and inclusive. They allow us to think about the kind of university we want Duke to be.  I invite you personally to be a part of this important effort.

The Duke Climate Commitment marks a hopeful moment—when we seize the opportunity to lead toward a brighter future. I hope you will join me in this transformational undertaking.

Together, Duke is in it for life.



Thank You

To the Duke Community,

With the approach of Thanksgiving, I write in gratitude for all you do as members of our Duke community and to extend best wishes.

As we enjoy the company of family and friends, many among us are working through the holiday and unable to celebrate, or are separated from loved ones many miles away. All of us are feeling the strain of a world that seems unsettled and divided.

In these moments, I draw both strength and inspiration from our Duke University family, and I hope others find that encouragement and comfort as well. Wherever we come from or whatever brings us to Duke, we all belong here together. And everything we do—in the classroom, on campus, in the clinic, or in our surrounding neighborhoods—we do as part of a community, turning with shared values and commitment toward a more joyful tomorrow.

I am grateful you are with us at Duke and hope you find refreshment and relaxation this Thanksgiving.



Remarks at the Launch of the Duke Climate Commitment

Thank you all for being here for this exciting moment for Duke.

I’d like to begin by recognizing trustee Jeff Ubben, who served as chair of our Climate Change and Sustainability Task Force, along with Dean of the Nicholas School Toddi Steelman and Executive Director of Sustainability Tavey Capps, who both served as Vice Chairs. Without your leadership, none of this would be possible. Thank you.

In coming to Duke, I knew I was joining a community of enormous intellectual power. We are also a community dedicated to purpose and commitment, a community brimming with innovation and potential and the opportunity to write a bold new chapter. Today, that new chapter—a story of a better future—begins.

The Duke Climate Commitment is a transformational initiative for Duke, one that is unprecedented in our history and in higher education.

Never have we committed to marshaling every part of our enterprise—our collective resources, talents, and passions—toward solving a global problem in such a focused way. The scale and importance of our climate-related challenges call for nothing less: creating sustainable and equitable solutions that will place society on the path to a resilient, flourishing, net-zero-carbon world by mid-century.

Our history has prepared us well to rise to this moment—indeed, at a time when some of our peers are launching new climate schools, we have been leading in this work for as long as we have been Duke.

The School of Forestry and the Marine Laboratory were both founded more than 80 years ago, in the early days of our university. More than 30 years ago these entities came together into one school—and thanks to a foundational gift from the Nicholas family, we now have the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Seventeen years ago, we launched what is now the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability, which elevates our environmental work through education, sustained engagement, and convening of stakeholders and policy experts. A dozen years ago, we launched our plan to achieve carbon neutrality, and we have operated with a broad strategic plan to achieve sustainability in areas such as energy, water, food, and land use.

The Duke Climate Commitment builds on and concentrates these many complementary resources. Our research will advance core areas of expertise in transforming energy, creating climate-resilient communities and ecosystems, and developing data-driven climate solutions—all with a focus on more equitable engagement. Our teaching will infuse climate and sustainability into programs across the university, improving the lives of our students and preparing them to lead as alumni.

But the reason that this can only happen at Duke is our distinctive excellence in interdisciplinary collaboration. While the Duke Climate Commitment will have the Nicholas School and Institute at its heart, it will encompass research and teaching across all of our schools and institutes, guide our campus operations, and help us foster stronger, collaborative relationships with partners in our community, state, nation and around the globe.

To that end, we’re launching data expeditions with an initial focus on climate and health and collaboration grants to drive creative research across disciplines. We’re committing to making climate and sustainability fluency foundational to the curriculum for every student at Duke and extending our reach to our alumni. As we continue to work toward our goal of carbon neutrality in 2024 and to lead the way in sustainable operations, we’re developing Duke as a living laboratory to study and solve climate and sustainability issues. And perhaps most importantly, we’re supporting environmental sustainability in the community and advancing our understanding of the critical impacts of climate change on social and racial equity.

None of this would be possible without the support of our extraordinary partners, donors, and alumni.

The Duke Endowment has provided early foundational support in launching climate literacy, research, and campus sustainability efforts.

Jeff and Laurie Ubben and Mike and Karen Stone are leading the way in supporting our transformational teaching and an endowed professorship.

Katy Hollister and her husband Brad Miller have provided seed funding along with an anonymous 1994 Pratt School graduate to create the DESIGN Climate program—a first-in-class experiential learning initiative for engineering and environmental students.

Cindy Marrs has supported courses and co-curricular activities in climate finance in the Duke Financial Economics Program.

And building on their incredible support of this work, the Nicholas Family this week announced a significant lead gift to create a Presidential Climate Action and Innovation endowment to lift the entire university-wide initiative.

These gifts represent a tremendous foundation for a climate commitment that will harness the best of Duke toward solving a seemingly intractable problem.

We know we can do it. We know that we will do it.

And that’s why the Duke Climate Commitment marks a hopeful moment for us—when we seize the opportunity and step up to our responsibility to lead toward a brighter, healthier future. I hope you will join us in this transformational undertaking.

Duke is in it, together, for life. Thank you.


I want to thank our program and panel participants for joining us today—and thank everyone here with us for your support as we mark this important moment—both for our university and the world that we hope to shape.

Too often in modern life, the drive to be innovative, the drive to be creative, has not been coupled with a thoughtful approach to being sustainable—to innovating in a way that leaves us all better off fifty or a hundred years down the road. 

As an institution, we have an opportunity today to chart a different course. At Duke, we have the bold thinkers to allow us to make this commitment. We have the diversity of thought, we have the talented students and staff, we have the global network of extraordinary alumni, we have the obligation as an employer, and we have the history.

That is why we must succeed. That is why Duke is in it, together, for life.

Thank you all. That concludes today’s event, but I hope you will join us for the sessions tomorrow and beyond.

Undergraduate Convocation Remarks

I’ll begin by saying once again—welcome to the great Class of 2026. We are so thrilled to have you join the Duke family, and we know that you will each bring something extraordinary to this special place.

Let me also say welcome to the parents and families who are watching today’s convocation around the world—you are also entering the global Duke community, and we are grateful for your support.

We are gathered this afternoon on Abele Quad, the heart of West Campus, under the generous shade of these towering oak trees that seem as old as time. But it is East Campus, your home for this first year at Duke, that is actually much older. It was there that this institution moved to Durham in 1892 when it was still Trinity College. It was there that Duke’s first classes were held, first friendships born, first discoveries made, and yes, first basketball game played—in 1905.

And a little more than a century ago, it was on East Campus that President William Preston Few installed one of our first pieces of art—the statue of The Sower. Like some of you, this statue came a long way to arrive here, from Germany by way of New Jersey. But a quiet corner of East Campus is now his home—a farmer in bronze, scattering seeds from a sack around his waist.

President Few must have thought this was a fitting analogy for the college he led, which would grow from modest seeds into the towering university we see around us today. I would venture that he must also have believed The Sower was representative of the experience of learning—of potential growing into being.

Members of the Class of ’26, you have come to Duke to sow your goals and aspirations. And just like the oaks that surround us and stretch along the drive to East Campus, we know that what you plant here will grow tall and true.

In that spirit, I want to offer three thoughts as you enter this exciting new season of growth.

First, know that the Sower’s seeds landed in the right spot: this is fertile soil. It has been tilled and cared for by generations before you—and by the classmates and teachers you will meet along the way. From your first day of class to your last, through your exploration of opportunities like Bass Connections and Duke Engage, from creating art and performing to tenting in K-ville, you will find countless opportunities to have your perspectives broadened, your principles deepened, and your curiosity sparked.

You’ll have a chance while you’re here to get into the weeds—to explore your interests with classmates and expert teachers, to conduct research on real-world problems, to serve our community and engage with the world.

Take full advantage—but remember, it takes time for things to grow, and patience. By rushing into every opportunity or taking on too much, we can rob ourselves of the joy of reflection and contemplation.

So I have one valuable recommendation if you find yourself needing some time: make a list of 10 things you are doing or want to do, and scratch two off. Doing fewer things allows us to explore interests in greater depth and focus, to get out of the weeds and take a step back, and to remain open to those opportunities yet to come.

My second piece of advice today is for you—like the trees planted by the Sower—to sink deep roots here. We are thrilled that yours is the first class to experience the full benefits of QuadEx—and that your Duke will be more engaging, inclusive, and fun than it has ever been before. Seek and relish in those moments of connection, whether formal events with your quad or casual conversations at Marketplace and kanjam in the Gardens.

These moments are what make Duke Duke, and they are what keep you rooted in this special place for the next four years and a lifetime to come. As you sink deep roots, also be sure to branch out.  Get to know people who are truly different from you—who have ideas that excite you, challenge you, or even upset you. They are the ones who will help you grow even stronger.

The extraordinary connections you make here will far transcend the walls of our campus—you are today entering a global Duke community numbering hundreds of thousands who want to do all that they can to help you succeed. These are strong roots—they run deep and will support you as you grow. 

And with the Sower’s hopeful planting in mind, my final recommendation to you today is the most important: take good care of yourself.

Even with the best soil and the deepest roots, plants need a bit of care to grow and thrive—particularly in dry or stormy seasons. Likewise, to be at your best here, you have to first invest in your health and wellness. Make time for exercise, eat right, and get lots of rest and relaxation. Explore this wonderful city of Durham. Go for a hike in the forest. And when a dry spell or storm comes, seek support in our comprehensive wellness and mental health resources.

Most importantly of all—Get. Some. Sleep. I say this every year at this event because I really mean it. A tired brain can’t learn, can’t enjoy relaxation, and can’t thrive nearly as well as a rested one. Believe me, it’s important.

When you stroll over to The Sower in these next few weeks, you’ll notice something remarkable: over the years, through a sort of Duke magic, he has succeeded in his planting. He’s surrounded now by a grove of oaks and pines much taller than these — but if you look at photos from the early years of campus, you will see that those trees were but tiny saplings, planted on the edges of a small but hopeful new institution.

Think how they have grown over the years—thriving in the rich soil, sinking deep roots, and benefitting from the care of generations of Duke people.

Like those towering trees, you are sowing seeds of your own here—with excitement and attention and more than a little hope—and we can’t wait to watch them grow.

Welcome, Class of ’26. We are so glad you are here.

President Price Remarks at MLK Commemoration

On behalf of the Duke community, I am honored to welcome you to Duke Chapel for this commemoration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the rhythms of the university calendar, this important event is perhaps unique, in that it is both a solemn and celebratory occasion—celebratory because we mark the progress made toward Dr. King’s noble goals, and solemn because we mourn his loss and the long and challenging road ahead.

In that spirit, I have been reflecting on this year’s theme—Dr. King’s notion that tomorrow is today, that we should be inspired to action by the fierce urgency of now.

To be sure, our now has perhaps never been more fierce or more urgent—amidst a global pandemic that is disproportionately impacting communities of color and a parallel pandemic of racism and violence across our country.

In the face of these circumstances, we must take action today—inspired by Dr. King’s profound words—to build a better tomorrow. We are committed to doing this work at Duke, to making anti-racism a core priority at every level of our university and providing leadership and compassion to our neighbors.

As we gather for this solemn celebration, may we remember that the work that Dr. King undertook half a century ago has still only just begun—and while the road ahead may be long, we are walking it together toward a better tomorrow.

Thank you.

9/11 Commemoration Remarks

Thank you all for being with us today. We gather as a community in this solemn moment to mark the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

The great poet Maya Angelou, who preached many times in this Chapel, wrote that trauma lives on “in our heart, our mind, and our memories.” As we gather today, we all share in the collective trauma of those terrible events, whether we remember them or not. We share in the pain of the lives lost, in the uncertainty of a world still unbalanced by the horror of that day, and in the mistrust that sadly pervades so much of our society.

But even amidst this despair, there is an opportunity for extraordinary hope. As Maya Angelou reminds us, we are not left with our memories alone—we also have our hearts and our minds. Together, we can turn with our hearts to build a more inclusive, empathic community here at Duke and beyond. We can use our minds to foster a greater understanding of our world and our place in it, and to live lives of service to our neighbors and engagement with our communities.

Today, as we mark this anniversary, let us hear that call together. Thank you.

Commemorating September 11th

To the Duke Community, 

Tomorrow we mark a solemn anniversary and remember the lives lost on September 11, 2001.

Some among us are too young to remember the events of that day; many of us will remember them forever. Some members of the Duke community lost family members—including Duke alumni—and others have served with honor in the military in the years since.  All of us—no matter how old or where we are from—have had our lives forever changed by the collective trauma of the attacks and their aftermath.

Tomorrow morning, to mark the anniversary of these tragic events, the Duke Chapel bells will toll at 8:46, 9:03, 9:37, and 10:03. Immediately following the final toll, I will join Dean of the Chapel Luke Powery and interfaith leaders from across campus in a vigil on the steps of the Chapel. I invite you to join us if you are able.

At 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, the Chapel will host a ‘Grant Us Peace’ Concert with music by the Duke Chapel musicians and the Ciompi Quartet and readings from a variety of faith traditions. This event, which is cosponsored by Vice Provost for the Arts John Brown and Duke Arts, will be livestreamed on the Duke Chapel website.

Departments and programs across campus are also hosting commemorations in the coming days. You can learn more here.

I hope that you are able to find an opportunity for quiet reflection tomorrow. May all of us find inspiration in our community to foster greater understanding and peace in our world in the years to come.



A Community Message from President Price

September 3, 2021

To the Duke Community,

We’re now a few weeks into the fall semester, and I’d like to express my gratitude for your commitment and patience in the continuing challenges of this moment.

Our students, faculty and staff have shown that we can come together in community and adapt. But for now and perhaps for a while yet, we have to find ways to live and work and play under these still unusual circumstances.

We will get through this—and hopefully very soon. Already, things are looking up. In the meantime, thank you for your continued support and commitment to our public health protocols, which you can find at

Thank you.



Remarks to Undergraduate Convocation

Good morning, Class of 2025! I’m thrilled to join my colleagues on this stage and across the university in welcoming you to convocation, and to Duke.

I’m equally delighted to welcome our families and friends, as we gather with this amazing class for the first time.  You’ve nurtured and supported these students throughout their lives, for which we offer our profound thanks, and we look forward to your continued engagement as members of our extended Duke family. 

Students, I’m sure you’re feeling the presence today of all those who have supported you as you worked toward this moment—whether they are with us in person or in spirit.  Will you please join me in offering our thanks and congratulations to our families and friends?

So, here you are, assembled for a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.  And while we wish circumstances would’ve allowed us to gather in our intended venue, Cameron Indoor Stadium, I have to say that—the humidity aside—this is an extraordinary setting: here, outside, under the gothic spires and towering oaks.

Those of us who call this place home can sometimes overlook the beauty that surrounds us, or take for granted the beautiful buzz of the comings and goings of students, faculty, staff, and visitors.  But the long solitude forced by the pandemic makes us uncommonly alert now to the joys of gathering. It’s so good to see people on Abele Quad again. And as the critic and poet Peter Schjeldahl put it recently, “I’ve been feeling apologetic to certain trees…for my past indifference to their beauty.”

The return of all of these people to Duke is not without its attendant pitfalls—and I’m not just speaking of the ongoing challenges of managing our lives amidst the ever-novel coronavirus.

The other day, as I was crossing this Quad, I saw our Vice President, Mary Pat McMahon, in the distance, walking toward me. Seeing an old friend after what feels like a very long break, I waved. Only Mary Pat didn’t wave back. I figured that maybe she hadn’t seen me. So I waved again, this time more vigorously, and shouted “Hi Mary Pat!” Now she looked a bit confused. That’s because as we got closer, I realized this wasn’t Mary Pat at all. In fact, this person didn’t even look like her. 

And how did I look to her?  Maybe a little crazy.

We’ve all had these moments of confusion. They’re universal to the human experience: cases of mistaken identity, related to what psychologists might call a gestalt shift. One moment, we are confidently navigating the world we know so well; the next, we’re confronting a confusing world that looks nothing like we thought. 

While these moments may be universal, they can be unsettling.  And perhaps, as we emerge from the relative isolation of the first eighteen months of this pandemic, they’ve become a bit more common.  So, we adapt. To save face, we convert that ebullient wave, in mid-air, to a hair comb.

Well, with that bit of social awkwardness still on my mind, I want to talk with you briefly today about confusion and uncertainty—topics that have been present for many of us in the past few months, as we’ve weathered the challenges of an ongoing pandemic.  

We’ve suffered all manner of shortages due to supply chain interruptions, but certainty seems especially hard to come by. We crave certainty about public health guidance, about which masks to wear, about how far to stay apart, about vaccines. As recent graduates, you no doubt wanted certaintyabout whether your graduations would even be taking place.

We crave certainty because it’s usually followed around by its close cousin, confidence. Certainty and confidence can indeed be great.  Perhaps you were certain about coming here to Duke. Perhaps this was your clear first choice of colleges, and you had your heart set on coming here since long before you applied early decision. Perhaps some of you know right now that you’ll earn a degree in economics followed by a career in finance, or that you’ll head to medical school or law school after finishing your bachelor’s degree. All of you have known what it takes to excel in high school, and you’ve confidently followed that path to the opportunities that now await you.

Confusion, on the other hand, is not usually so welcome a companion. None of us particularly likes to look or feel confused. Confusion and uncertainty are uncomfortable places to live, and they can undermine our confidence.  So uncomfortable that—just as we’ve perfected that hair-comb move to mask our social confusion—we develop all sorts of moves to mask our uncertainty, to find more certain ground as quickly as possible, to restore our lost confidence.

But my message to you today about uncertainty is: Get used to it.  And more: Look for it and embrace it.

Now’s a good time for this, since I’ll wager that today, as you settle into new dorms and prepare to say farewell to your families, all of you are feeling a fair amount of uncertainty. And that is unsettling, even scary. Today, I want to encourage you to embrace the deep uncertainty of this moment, to allow yourself to experience the confusion of life in a new place. This is not empty advice: I have my reasons.

First is the recognition that some uncertainty is inevitable in your undergraduate experience. No matter how sure your path has been in arriving here, you will face challenges on the road ahead—the challenges of living away from home, of learning class schedules, of the academic expectations of a demanding curriculum, and of so many new relationships. There will be fits and starts, leaps and falls. When we’re used to being sure-footed, a stumble or fall can be startling and frightening.  But that’s to be expected, even welcomed, since that’s how our agility and our balance improves.

Second, passing though confusion and uncertainty is the only route to new understanding.  Sadly so perhaps, but there is no other way forward.  Just as growth in physical strength requires its moments of exercising to our limits—”no pain, no gain” as people often say—our grasp of truly new concepts and ideas requires its moments of puzzling through deep confusion. 

In the moment, it doesn’t always feel that great.  In fact, it’s often no fun at all.  But we can train ourselves to take on confusion in measured ways.  And we do.  That’s what your teachers and mentors at Duke will be guiding you through.  Uncertainty is a necessary part of the deep learning process; but after struggling to make sense of it, you will find that the new ideas do eventually fall into place.  And I’ll wager that you’ll come to enjoy that struggle and that confusion—perhaps as you’ve come to enjoy vigorous exercise—when you see the fruits of your labor. As you resolve your confusions, you will learn and discover, and do great things.

Third, our willingness to embrace uncertainty—to be honest about how much we don’t know—has perhaps never been more important to our society and to our public life, on campus and off.  I mentioned a moment ago that, amidst the confusion wrought by the pandemic, certainty seems especially hard to come by.  Oddly, however, we seem to have a surplus of judgment, and conviction, and sadly of condemnation.  We seem so quick today to judge, so confident in the correctness of our views, that we scarcely pause to consider whether we might, just might, misunderstand. 

Perhaps these two phenomena—the uncertainly of this moment in history and the conviction of so many that surely we know the truth—are related.  That’s worth pondering.  But my point is simply that we—all of us, would do well to be far more humble about whether or not we’ve somehow cornered the truth.  And in our humility, we would do well to grant others the chance to speak their minds. We should let others share ideas, perhaps most importantly when those ideas seem to us outrageous.

Again, this can be very hard to do.  It may seem compassionate, even just, to silence others who voice ideas we find wrong, threatening or upsetting. But as I noted in an address last spring to graduates of our Sanford School of Public Policy, truth-seeking depends upon robust and respectful debate. That is the surest path, if not quite to truth, then to its most reasonable human approximation.

If we admit honestly to our uncertainty, then we can open, in two ways.

We can be open to serving the unheard and the underserved, listening carefully to those voices that are too often ignored, with an abiding concern for justice for the overlooked.  And at the same time, we can be open to recognizing that we may not have all the answers—that there is in fact a chance that we may be wrong.  Wrong about the facts of the matter, and so perhaps wrong about what to do.  We hold some truths to be self-evident.  Most are not.

We must have the humility to embrace uncertainty, to explore modes of inquiry that might confuse or unsettle us, with the faith that a new and improved understanding lies ahead. That is, ultimately, our core mission as an institution of higher learning, one in which we now invite you to take part.

It won’t always be easy, but it will be exhilarating.  At times, maybe a little too exhilarating. And so one key piece of advice: Get. Some. Sleep.  The best exercise routine has to include recovery time.  And a brain after rest learns best.

And if you should lose confidence in your ideas, don’t panic. That’s learning, as I’ve just said. But you should never lose confidence in your boundless capacity to learn and to grow, or—and let me emphasize this—the fact that you belong here, as a unique, deeply valued member of our community.  You should remain confident, especially when your confusion grows, that others are with you in your confusion, that we are here to support you through it.   Please never hide your confusion.  Lean into it as a source of strength. Wear it as a badge of pride, and bring it to your teachers and mentors, and friends and classmates as a conversation starter.  I’m sure that they will be open to and helpful to you in that moment, and I hope you will in turn be open to them.

I am certain you can do it. That’s why you’re here today, under these trees, walking these paths. And if you happen to find yourself on Abele Quad some day in the next four years and see a guy in a suit and round glasses waving wildly in your direction—do me a solid and wave back. I’ll be glad to see you.

Congratulations and welcome. We are so delighted you are here.

Remarks at Sanford School of Public Policy Commencement

Thank you, Judith, and to all of the faculty and staff who have collectively made this day possible.

Congratulations, graduates! I am so delighted to be here to welcome you to the community of Duke alumni.

In fact, I am more than delighted to be here—since as a scholar of political communications and a faculty member at Sanford, this school’s mission is uniquely dear to my heart. Please don’t tell the other schools.

Though I know that this is not the commencement ceremony that you might have imagined when you first arrived at Duke, we’ve made it through a most abnormal year to this joyful day—together.

And how about this setting? Is there any place more Duke than Cameron? Well, maybe the coffee line at Fleishman Commons—but this has to be a close second.

To be sure, there were moments these past few months when it would have been ambitious for us to expect to be here, in person.

One might even say, in the famous words of Terry Sanford, outrageously ambitious.

In your time at Duke, you have no doubt heard that phrase—outrageous ambition—used in many settings and contexts: by faculty and administrators; in admissions and marketing materials; even, for that matter, in commencement speeches. It has become a part of our identity as an institution, as fundamental to Duke as these banners hanging above us in the rafters.

But for all its rhetorical power, the notion of outrageous ambition does not capture what it was that President Sanford felt so ambitious about—that is, his hopes for this institution and its students.

Thankfully for posterity—and for future commencement speeches—President Sanford outlined these aspirations for Duke’s educational mission in the very same speech where he coined his more indelible phrase.

“Duke aspires,” he said—with his characteristic blend of rhetorical flair and folksiness—“… Duke aspires to leave its students with an abiding concern for justice, with a resolve for compassion and concern for others…and with an ability to think straight now and throughout life.”

Concern for justice. Compassion for others. And—though we might say this differently today—the ability to think straight.

These core values have brought you to this moment, have carried you through the countless hours of studying and dissertation writing, have supported you in the sacrifices and challenges you have faced, and will carry you forward to the extraordinary careers and lives you have ahead.

In your pursuit of the Master of Public Policy, Master of International Development Policy, or International Master of Environmental Policy, or Doctorate in Public Policy, you have first and foremost demonstrated extraordinary intellectual promise. It’s what brought you to Duke—what set you apart and inspired the Sanford admissions committee to make the very wise decision to invite you to join this community.

And you have certainly made good on that decision. In your research and intellectual pursuits, you have helped to transform our understanding of critical issues in politics, foreign affairs, the future of technology, immigration, education, and environmental conservation.

You have shared in the vibrant diversity of perspectives on our campus, one that I hope has enriched your lives here, broadened your own thinking, and inspired you to pursue new areas of scholarship.

The university, in rather utopian terms, has sometimes been described as a free marketplace of ideas. This is grounded in the notion that if all perspectives are given equal consideration, the truth will rise to the top.

Of course, the free marketplace of ideas comes with its attendant pitfalls. For one thing, the marketplace of ideas has never actually been free, at least not in the sense of being equitable. Ideas promoted by people in positions of power often get more attention, while great thinkers from marginalized populations are, well, marginalized.

A vital component of what President Sanford called thinking straight, then, is seeking out and amplifying the perspectives of those who may not be getting a fair or equal hearing. To borrow a phrase from the poet Robert Penn Warren, remember that even in a democracy, truth doesn’t always live in the number of voices. Remain open to hearing the hard truths, and help others tell their stories in a way that helps us all better understand and serve each other.

As we have seen in recent discourse, we are often tempted to forget that this openness to ideas—which seems so noble in the context of empowering marginalized voices—cuts both ways.

My colleague Peter Salovey, the President of Yale University, tells a story about the great civil rights icon, theologian, and legal thinker Pauli Murray, who spent her formative years here in Durham. Some of you may have seen one of the murals of her in downtown Durham, or visited the Pauli Murray Center at her childhood home on Carroll Street.

When Murray was a student at Yale Law School in the early 1960s, a student group invited the racist, segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, to visit campus for a debate. There was an understandable outcry, even in that less enlightened moment of our nation’s history, and the then-president of the university was considering whether to demand that the students retract the invitation.

He then received an unexpected letter from Murray, sharing an equally unexpected perspective.  She argued that Wallace must be given the opportunity to share his views, however wrong, however vitriolic, because that very same notion of a free and equal exchange of ideas was foundational to the civil rights movement.

Wallace must be allowed to speak, she wrote, because that “has been the principle behind the enforcement of the rights of the Little Rock Nine, James Meredith and others to attend desegregated schools in the face of a hostile community and threats of violence.”

The stakes are no lower in today’s discourse. Many of our classmates, colleagues, and friends encounter speech that is discriminatory or threatening to them. We know that invocations of free speech are too easily and too often used as cover for attempts to exclude and demean. And free speech, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is similarly used to absolve those of us with editorial power of our responsibilities to exercise it wisely, and justly. 

So, it may seem like a manifestation of our compassion and concern for others to silence those ideas we find wrong, hurtful, or even dangerous. Certainly, we might think, the surest way to protect the vulnerable is to prevent others from promoting ideas designed to anger, provoke, or cause pain. 

But there are several profound challenges in this thinking.  First, the perceived degeneracy of the opposition must not release us or our responsibility to think deeply and critically about our own positions.

Indeed, it’s in defending our own ideas, in responding with argument and debate, that we both demonstrate the strength of our position and allow for continued growth and evolution in our thinking. Robust debate is the surest path, if not quite to truth, then to its most reasonable human approximation.

To borrow the Yale example, barring George Wallace from campus wouldn’t have done a thing to advance the cause of civil rights. Allowing him to debate his ideas, on the other hand, would force him to face and respond to criticism in a way that might sharpen the thinking and strategy of his opponents.

We must refrain always from ad hominem attacks.  We must support and defend those who are subject to hurtful speech, and do all we can to prevent harm and promote our community standard of respectful engagement. 

But let’s not deny those who promulgate controversial ideas their own right and responsibility to defend them. They will surely have these ideas, whether we let them be expressed or not.  Attempting to silence them is not only likely to fail, it would violate our longstanding commitment to open inquiry, which is at the foundation of research and discovery, of teaching and healing.  We can and will insist on decency and honesty, but our openness to a full diversity of ideas and beliefs enriches our work and helps make this a more engaged university, and a more engaged world.

It’s not easy, but it is just. And most importantly, this is how we change minds and hearts—not by edict, not by threat, but by something that, with our constant care and attention, approaches respectful discourse among disagreeable parties.

This, I believe, is what Terry Sanford meant by thinking straight.  This charge carries with it a firm dedication to serving the unheard and an abiding concern for justice for the overlooked.

At the same time, it carries with it the deep intellectual honesty of recognizing that we may not have all the answers—that there is in fact a chance that we may be wrong.  Wrong about the facts of the matter, and so perhaps wrong about what to do.  We hold some truths to be self-evident.  Most are not.

Maintaining our commitment to justice and our humility in granting others the right to express what they believe—that is what lifts the work of policy or research or law or writing into something more than an occupation—into a vocation. By contributing your extraordinary thinking to open discourse—and by working to create a marketplace of ideas that is truly free and equitable—you will be shaping a brighter, more engaged world for all of us.

I know that you can do it. You have done it. You’ve demonstrated leadership throughout your time at Duke, and you are ready to bring your unique perspectives to a world that needs you now more than ever.

And in doing so, by setting off in the spirit of service, compassion, and justice, you—the graduates of the Sanford school—you are the fulfillment of Terry Sanford’s outrageous ambitions for Duke.

Congratulations, and very best wishes.

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