The President’s letter

February 25, 2014

What is a research university, and what value can it offer to society? Recently, this question has sparked discussion around the world, and Duke is in the midst of the conversation.

Last fall, the associations of leading academic institutions in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and China attempted to answer this question with a document called the Hefei Statement—a powerful piece of thinking, remarkable for its depth of reflection on the function and value of research universities. I later met with twelve Chinese university presidents and a comparable number of American university presidents in Chicago, where I saw an emerging forum for candid exchange about challenges and best practices.

Chris Hildreth.

Research universities occupy a distinctive niche in higher education. Relatively few in number and serving a relatively select portion of the population, they have a disproportionately large impact. Research universities have produced great discoveries—leading to new economic activity and improved quality of life—as well as leaders for virtually every sector of modern societies.

The Hefei Statement also describes their more profound benefits. Research universities serve as “storehouses of knowledge and broad capabilities that provide an underlying state of preparedness...that business, government, and communities can draw upon to help deal with the unexpected and the unknown.” Universities, then, are a space of exploration, places where questions are asked and mental skills are developed without reference to immediate use alone, thus laying down a body of powers and understandings that can later be activated, brought into new combinations, and put to uses that could not be foreseen at the time they were first developed.

There are then two key challenges for research universities. The first is how to win a margin of public protection for their deep mission so they can do the unique things that meet society’s long-term needs. The second is how to deliver that value to the fullest extent: How can we design our education today to meet the world’s needs tomorrow?

No university or national system has devised a magic formula for training the sort of thoughtful, versatile graduate who will make a difference in the world. But what I find striking nowadays is the recognition by universities that they need to ask themselves the question, and the willingness to experiment in exploring possible answers.

At Duke we are committed to a broad, integrative liberal-arts curriculum—with new dimensions. This year, a new program called Bass Connections will create, alongside our traditional curriculum, a complementary approach to learning based on contemporary problems. Undergraduate and graduate students will examine the issues of global health, energy, information, education and human development, and the study of the human brain—drawing on a range of disciplines including the sciences, economics, ethics, psychology, law, policy, and the study of culture. Students will be able to take courses, join research teams, and gain firsthand experience in real-world settings. We believe Bass Connections will help to shape students who are skilled at integrating knowledge and committed to using their intelligence to solve real-world problems.

Universities have a great deal to learn from one another. Fortunately, higher education has always shared ideas across national boundaries. Our American system is actually a hybrid of elements derived from medieval France, Reformation England, nineteenth-century Germany, and more recently, the imported brainpower of faculty and students from East and South Asia.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of the principal inventors of the new model of research university, defined its essential spirit this way: “Everything depends upon holding to the principle of understanding knowledge as something not yet found, never completely to be discovered, and searching relentlessly for it as such.” This claim—that no one has the whole truth yet, that the truth is something that can only be advanced toward better and better approximations through an ongoing act of inquiry—this is the spirit that still animates the modern research university. In this concept, professors and students are explorers and discoverers together, and every idea, however final it may seem, not only can be, but needs to be, questioned, tested, reconsidered, for knowledge to keep advancing.

No research university ever perfectly lives up to this ideal, but all universities become better when they remember it and strive to make it real. This is a moment of opportunity for Duke and for all universities as we are pushed to keep asking and coming up with better answers to the question of what a university at its best can be. None of us can find the answer alone, but we can make progress if we work together. I welcome all partners in this shared quest.