Download the full version of the 2012 report or read the summary below. [A Note from the Committee: Although our intention is not prescribe what Duke ought to be like and how it ought to achieve this, our written report does provide plenty of suggestions for areas the University may want to focus on; we hope the Duke community will take these simply as useful starting points]
In the spring of 2011, Duke Student Government (DSG) assembled the Intellectual Climate Committee (ICC) to investigate undergraduate intellectual engagement in the campus culture. In the aftermath of several media controversies and serious incidents relating to campus culture, the ICC was established to gain an understanding of what, if anything, should be improved in Duke's intellectual climate. The first thing we did as a committee was define intellectual climate:
"By intellectual climate, we mean an environment where Duke students: seek out knowledge purposely, learn for the sake of learning, engage in respectful dialogue, and exchange ideas (about anything) actively and of their own volition. An intellectual climate requires resources, institutional support, and social acceptance."
This definition does not preclude pre-professionalism or real-world application, but it stresses that students view their Duke education as more than a means to the next step. It involves an honest passion and curiosity for learning. From this starting point, we sought to discover what students felt about the state of our intellectual climate, and where it might need improvement.
We have found that many students find the current intellectual climate satisfactory (18% of undergraduate respondents to open-ended questions in our survey said so). However, 56% gave us specific ideas for improvements, and 14% felt unsure, or pessimistic, about whether changes would be effective. This indicates to us that more conversations are necessary regarding our intellectual climate. Our university should strive to satisfy more than just 18% of our undergraduates.
As committee members who each have opinions on these matters, our primary concern has not been to prescribe specific actions that must be followed; instead we are offering suggestions of areas for improvement. More importantly, we hope to initiate a broader conversation on these issues. We hope all members of the Duke community will join us in this dialogue and help our university continue to enrich its intellectual climate.
For the survey portion of our report, we developed the questions to our student survey as a committee. With the help of Duke Institutional Research, we sent our survey out in Fall 2011 and received a high, representative response rate. For further details refer to the full report or full results. You can also visit our survey results page to see significant trends.
For the video interview portion, we reached out to many student leaders representing a broad spectrum of students and interviewed those who responded to us. We similarly communicated with several administrators and interviewed those available.
With regards to student perception of intellectual climate, we found that while 69% of students expected a lot of intellectualism before coming to Duke, only 42% currently rate Duke as having a lot of intellectualism. A deficit exists in meeting these expectations. Students also tended to identify themselves as "moderately intellectual" much more than "very" intellectual (33%). This may reflect what several students pointed out to us: the lack of social acceptance that being intellectual has. One thing to note, however, is the increasing rate at which students identify as very intellectual from freshman to senior year (see below).
Students also were generally more satisfied with their intellectual experiences inside the classroom (84%) thanoutside (66%). While 44% of respondents reported that their ideal amount of weekly intellectual experience is about what they currently have, 51% said their ideal is more. Thus it is a clear that a significant portion of students sees room for, and want, improvement. The rest of the report relates specific aspects of campus culture to intellectual climate, detailing how we might improve in each of these areas.
Many students and administrators specifically pointed to Duke's admissions process, especially to the difficulty matriculating students who seek an intellectual climate. Dean of Admissions Dean Christoph Guttentag explained that while a small percentage come to Duke actively seeking this kind of climate, and a small percentage actively seek a specific social scene, most students fall in between. Their willingness to engage in intellectualism is determined by the greater campus climate, Guttentag offered. Professor Tom Ferraro also stressed that students who do matriculate to Duke must be the ones to demand a social and intellectual climate with more depth.
Intellectual climate is tied inextricably with academics and is impacted by curriculum requirements. Trinity College's Curriculum 2000 restructuring and subsequent revisions in 2004 include various "Areas of Knowledge" and "Modes of Inquiry" that students must fulfill. While we agree with the importance of having well-rounded students who take classes in a variety of disciplines, we do not think Curriculum 2000 effectively promotes this intellectual inquiry in practice. The 2004 revisions intended to create more academic freedom as "faculty advisors [sensed] students felt forced to choose some courses simply to 'fill in the matrix'". Yet 14% of students who provided suggestions for invigorating the intellectual climate in our survey specifically cited their classes as obstacles. Survey respondents noted that too many Duke students take "easy-A" classes they don't care about in order to fill requirements and inflate their GPA.
Seminars represent an opportunity to create real discussion among students. Each student must engage in conversation and think critically in ways difficult to parallel in larger classes. Grades are deemphasized, as students are encouraged to focus on developing the conversation at hand instead of memorizing specifics for a later exam. Class dinners and online forums extend discussions beyond their academic components. The FOCUS program, in particular, is a great example of fostering intellectualism in and outside the classroom setting through the weekly dinners and the shared residential experience. Programs like Winter Forum, DukeEngage, DukeIntense, DukeImmerse, and study-abroad experiences (including the Duke Marine Lab program) also have the potential to replicate the intellectual nature of FOCUS by blurring the lines between discussions inside and outside the classroom. However, many of these programs still have not achieved a level of widespread student awareness.
The interactions between undergraduates and faculty are at the core of the intellectual climate of any university. Yet, according to our survey, 48% of undergraduates believe that faculty catalyze extracurricular conversations "somewhat" or "not at all." Many professors reminded us that while they feel substantial pressure to conduct research and stay on the tenure-track, they feel far less encouraged to engage undergraduates outside of the classroom. The FLUNCH and recently expanded Faculty Outings programs are great avenues for students to seek out faculty, but faculty should be provided with more clear opportunities to reach out to their students, such as class dinners. The decentralized dining experience makes class dinners especially difficult, both in finding a proper space and time. The other limitation that must be overcome in order to foster these interactions, as professor Tom Ferraro pointed out, is that students must have more availability after class to continue to engage with their professors. This issue of overbooking is addressed in the section "GPA & Credentialism" below.
Honors theses are not mandatory at Duke, but numbers have been steadily rising in recent years. Over the past three years (2009, 2010, and 2011), an average of 24% of seniors graduated with distinction, meaning that their honor theses were approved . Honors theses not only encourage deeper thinking and analysis; they also bring together students with similar academic interests. Representatives of the library have told us that they have been impressed with the caliber of work submitted for graduation with distinction.
Duke's library system is consistently ranked among the best university libraries in the nation and despite the growing popularity of online resources, its print circulation has actually increased over the last decade. Our meeting with library representatives indicated they thought highly of the students who come to them with highly involved writing projects. However, other undergraduates rarely approach them. The lack of high quality submissions for the library's Durden Prize and Middlesworth Award for excellent research and writing reflect that undergraduates underutilize the librarians' expertise and the extensive library collections.
Our survey also indicated that 35% of Duke undergraduates never read a book outside of assigned class reading in an average semester. This again points to the problem of overbooked students discussed in the GPA & Credentialism section.
Professors, administrators, and student leaders alike cited that an overemphasis on GPA impedes intellectual engagement. This overemphasis on GPA is related to a culture of pre-professionalism, but more specifically, a narrowly defined vision of pre-professionalism. 80.6% of the survey respondents stated that career preparation matters a lot for their purpose of being at Duke, but a comprehensive vision of what "career preparation" should look like does not exist. As a result, many undergraduates associate their sense of worth and success too closely with their grades and resumes. As Career Center Executive Director William Wright-Swadel put it, students with this competitive mindset are risk-averse and thus less likely to engage intellectually in their lives. This fear of failure has taken away from the love of learning.
A desire for credentials among undergraduates may likely stem from the high school college admissions mentality. Many students view double majors, minors, certificates as a ways to boost their resumes. In fact, the Duke Undergraduate Admissions website proudly advertises that 83% of undergraduates earn a double major, minor, or certificate, even though these extra credentials often come at the expense of taking classes that can contribute more to one's intellectual development and worldview. Mr. Wright-Swadel, director of the Career Center, also noted that the Duke certificates in particular fuel this narrow view of pre-professionalism. Professor Ferraro notably mentioned that this type of pre-professionalism often does not create good professionals (does not encourage a mindset of skills that will help students become good professionals). The approach students take toward majors, minors, certificates, and, significantly, toward a packed schedule of extracurricular activities, has two potential, very harmful results: It doesn't accurately reflect the many ways to achieve success and become good professionals, and it leaves many students with no space for reflection, engagement, or intellectual curiosity at the end of the week.
Students groups have the great potential to create small communities of undergraduates with meaningful interactions. 61% of survey respondents did state that their extracurricular activities added intellectually to their Duke experience. Dean of Undergraduate Education Steve Nowicki told us that he felt certain groups like the Center for Multicultural Affairs, the Women's Center, the Center for LGBT Life, and the Arts Theme House really add to the campus culture by contributing to the diversity of thought on campus. Assistant VP of Student Affairs Zoila Airall mirrored these sentiments in relation to cultural groups on campus. One problem to overcome, though, is the mentality of using student groups simply as "resume padders." Some administrators feel this is okay as long as resume-building remains only one motivation among many and not the defining motivation for involvement. While we agree with this sentiment, we have observed that there is often an emphasis on quantity over quality of involvement among our peers, which detracts from the potential of student groups to add to the intellectual culture.
Students generally don't perceive the central focus of athletics (and particularly basketball) as harmful to intellectual climate. Only 28% of respondents saw athletics as detracting, versus 54.3% who believed athletics didn't affect it, and 17% who saw athletics adding to it. Many who say athletics detracts believe the overemphasis on socializing about basketball sometimes overshadowed other kinds of conversation. Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek, who has produced much academic work on collegiate athletics, pointed to the "entertainment business" aspect of Duke Athletics that sometimes interferes with perceptions of our university. Nevertheless, she did explain that athletes bring a level of diversity to Duke classrooms that should be acknowledged. Senior Sanjay Kishore, former president of Duke Partnership for Service (dPS) sees athletics as having the potential to unite the student body if only we took it to the next level.
In practice, extracurricular intellectual conversations are often dependent on adequate resources. Dean Steve Nowicki, in a Spring 2011 interview, described the resources most conducive to a thriving intellectual climate as casual, informal, and predictable social spaces that are welcoming to individuals from all backgrounds. When intellectualism is not well integrated into the dominant social scene, it becomes even more important to have such spaces for individuals who seek alternatives. Nowicki and Zoila Airall pointed to Jazz at the Mary Lou Williams Center as an excellent example of this kind of casual, intellectual, and inviting social outlet.
As many survey respondents, student leaders, and administrators told us, Greek organizations and Selective Living Groups have often monopolized social and institutional social resources. The result is that many independent students seeking intellectually-stimulating social environments feel marginalized; this marginalization reinforces preconceived notions about Duke within the media, as evidenced in Caitlin Flanagan's controversial January 2011 Atlantic essay.
Additionally, the university has a primarily decentralized dining system with only two communal dining halls, making it harder for unaffiliated students to find casual and reliable spaces for discussion and debate. However, two big steps have been taken in the past year that may remedy these problems. The Duke Houses model, as Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Donna Lisker explained to us, is meant to redistribute resources and social privileges among all students.
As senior Sanjay Kishore stressed, the first few weeks of freshman year are vital to intellectual climate because they set the tone and expectations for incoming students. Many students reflected that in past years, first-year students have been shown a skewed vision of Duke—an incomplete view of possible social outlets. The first few weeks should be an opportunity for upperclassmen to reach out to incoming classes by really talking to them about various academic, co-curricular, and social opportunities and connecting them to larger / more varied social circles than just visible partying culture. Limiting these interactions to only FACs might not go far enough to give first-years a representative view of Duke.
As noted by Professor of Education David Malone, the summer reading program is a component of O-Week that contributes to the campus intellectual climate, as it is the one activity that all first-years supposedly do before arriving at Duke. Regardless, many of our peers and faculty noted that this opportunity is often wasted by incoming students who do not complete the summer reading and FACs who avoid or discourage reading it themselves. We do believe that in recent years Duke has taken steps to show a more holistic portrait of our diversity during the first few weeks of class (such as the First Big Weekend).
Although the first year experience often receives much attention in setting the tone for the intellectual climate, our survey brought to the forefront the difficulties that sophomores and juniors often face in navigating the social scene. They reported being on the whole less satisfied with intellectual experiences outside the class and felt the social scene detracted from intellectual climate more. They also identified wanting more intellectual expriences in higher frequencies than their freshmen or senior counterparts.
We did note that as students pass through their Duke years, they become more satisfied and even self-identify as intellectual at higher frequencies. While this may be a sign of improvement through the course of the Duke experience, we hope such trends can be brought about earlier in the student experience.
A slight majority of undergraduates surveyed believe that the social atmosphere negatively affects the intellectual climate, 56.3%, compared to 21.6% who think the social atmosphere adds to the intellectual climate. Similarly, only 15.8% stated that it is very easy to find an outlet for intellectual expression on the weekends. Despite such a low availability of intellectual social outlets, 32.7% stated that their social life is more intellectually engaging compared to the average Duke undergraduate's social life, compared to 10.4% who thought theirs was less engaging.
Administrators like Provost Peter Lange believe fraternities do not affecting intellectual climate, and that isolating fraternity culture by throwing it off campus would only disintegrate campus culture even more. In the past, fraternities occupied prime real estate on West Campus and received special privileges in comparison to other groups on campus. This is evidenced by the fact that Greek students reported the most satisfaction with their social experience, the social scene, and availability of social outlets. Dean Nowicki described this situation as a "dominant social culture defined by a minority." The Duke Houses model attempts to reduce the disparities in privileges granted to fraternities versus other independent student groups. However, administrators and students need to ensure that the unaffiliated houses have equivalent resources as SLGs and Greek organizations, such as self-government, communal spaces, and the ability to host campus-wide social events.
The majority of student leaders and administrators we interviewed believe that the widespread use of alcohol on campus is not incompatible with an intellectual experience. However, most agree that self-destructive use of alcohol (e.g. the desire to "get wasted" to the point of vomiting or having to be hospitalized) , and the culture that propogates thisattitude, is what hurts the intellectual climate.
As both Dean Nowicki and Mr. Wright-Swadel pointed out, there is also no real acknowledgement for intellectual achievement among undergraduates; instead there is often a stigma associated with being "too intellectual". Although this sounds more like a statement about the average American high school, many people feel that students often do not want to sacrifice their social standing on campus by being stigmatized as "nerds". Despite this being an institution of higher learning, socialness and intellect still don't mix well. This stratification of academics and social life, as embodied by the "work hard, play hard" motto, becomes a social mandate on how students must relate to each other.
The importance of this aspect of intellectual climate in recent years should not be underestimated. Many groups that help set the tone for campus-wide discussions have been able to do so by creating their own spaces online dialogue where they may not have existed within the physical confines of Duke. DSG's Blue Devils District in the 2010-11 school year was following in the example of some of Duke's online community successes: Duke Yellow Pages, Duke Democrats Blog, Duke College Republicans blog, Blue Devils United, and Develle Dish. These online spaces for dialogues have the potential to truly enrich our campus by giving a voice to a huge diverse of students and issues. The Chronicle's online edition also provides an space for discussion of campus issues, and students often link to articles through social media to start discussions within friend groups. Even the Duke Twitter community has seen growth as a space for commentary on different campus issues. But as with any tool, there are risks and problems that come online culture. A few years ago, many would have pointed to sites like College ACB or Juicy Campus as ways that Internet anonymity can lower the quality of conversation among students. (Some may feel the same way about anonymous commenters of the Chronicle.) The sense of privacy in student group listservs has also enabled insensitive and sometimes degrading conversations.
Still, Duke's online community has a great deal of potential in offering ways of organizing, discussing, and fomenting an intellectual climate. We look forward to seeing how students can innovate and create a complimentary presence for the University online.
We are deeply grateful to all the administrators who agreed to be interviewed and provided useful information for the report: Provost Peter Lange, Dean of Undergraduate Education Steve Nowicki, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Donna Lisker, Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek, Assistant VP of Student Affairs Zoila Airall, Trinity College Dean of Academic Affairs Lee Baker, Career Center Fannie Mitchell Executive Director Mr. William Wright-Swadel, Dean of Admissions Christoph Guttentag, and Trinity College Assistant Dean Baishakhi Taylor. A special thanks to Dean Steve Nowicki and professor of English Tom Ferraro for helping us throughout this process and giving us helpful advice when we needed it
We are also want to give special thanks to the faculty members who provided testimony and advice for our report: Professor of Slavic Studies Carol Apollonio, Professor of Classical Studies Peter Burian, and Professor of Education David Malone.
Thanks also to the student leaders and administrators who agreed to be interviewed: Sidney Primas (2012), Cory Adkins (2013), Zoila Airall (Campus Life), Sanjay Kishore (2013), Lee Baker (Academic Affairs), Gurdane Bhutani (2013), Sue Wasiolek (Student Affairs), Tali Chuchinsky (2012), Donna Lisker (Undergraduate Education), Nana Asante (2012), Andy Chu (2014), and Elena Botella (2013).
Thanks to the faculty in the Department of Statistical Science, including Jiali Luo and professor David Jamieson-Drake, for helping us design and conduct our student survey.
Finally, thanks to Duke Student Government for convening us and supporting us throughout this process.