Between the Lines: May-June 2009

June 1, 2009

My lunchtime interview for this editorship—a distant time ago, in 1983, when "dining" and "Durham" hardly belonged in the same phrase—was over a plate of barbecue. To push a metaphor tastelessly, those first impressions of barbecue had some resonance with my first impressions of Duke: It was alluringly unusual but essentially ill-defined.

From its start in May-June 1984, the magazine charted the course of a restless, ambitious university that was developing in stature and confidence. Today H. Keith H. Brodie, then chancellor and later president, says the debut signaled that "Duke was poised to compete with its peers," adding, "We knew investment in the magazine would pay off multiple times and in multiple ways."

Part of the payoff comes from clear-eyed presentation of campus controversies. Co-publisher Peter Vaughn has a framed display: magazine covers from March-April 2005 and May-June 2006, and a news release on Duke's record-setting fund raising for 2005-06. The earlier cover, with a protesting female student, refers to the campus' confronting sexual assault. The later cover shows an empty lacrosse net—a reference to the lacrosse case. "Alumni generously support a place about which they are informed and engaged," Vaughn says, and expect "thoughtful reporting about important and interesting news, even if it is controversial."

A survey last year found that two-thirds of the magazine's recipients had spent time reading each of the past six issues; more than half had spent at least an hour with every issue. For young alumni in particular, the magazine far outscores every other category, from "personal Duke contacts" to e-newsletters, in connecting them to the campus.

The debut editor's note promised a publication built on "interesting people and interesting ideas." Twenty-five years later, it's a promise—and a premise—that continues to guide us.