Two Shades of Blue

A joint merit scholarship program for Duke and Carolina students may become a national model for inter-institutional collaboration in higher education.
March 31, 2003
Duke Archway/UNC-Chapel Hill's Old Well

Les Todd.

For one of his opinion columns in The Chronicle, Christopher Scoville, a Duke sophomore, was given a headline that might have constituted fightin' words: "Carolina Blue." The February column centered on the start of his semester. It's a semester that has brought him to the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a full-time student--even while he works toward his Duke degree.

Scoville is part of an educational experiment. "Unique" is an overworked word, but as an experiment, this appears to fit the definition: one of a kind. In January, Scoville and twenty-seven other sophomore Robertson Scholars--divided almost equally between Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill--switched campuses. Robertson Scholars officials say they are looking to become "a national model for inter-institutional collaboration in higher education."

Scoville said in his Chronicle column that he felt a little like the proverbial stranger in a strange land. He began by reflecting on his exposure to Carolina classes: "I managed the first week, albeit with help from every passing, though incredibly hospitable, stranger who thought I was some French tourist." He added an appreciation of Carolina's vibrant campus life, noting that "students congregate midday at the Pit, smack dab in the middle of two libraries, a dining hall, a coffee house, the Union, and student stores." And he celebrated a spirit of social activism. "Students are meaningfully engaged, and their energy is pervasive," he observed, pointing to "protests, petitions, sit-ins, teach-ins, campaigns, and hunger lunches."

As they steep themselves in the switch, many Robertson Scholars echo Lisa Stratton's description: "starting all over again as a 'freshman' during my second semester of sophomore year." Stratton, a Robertson Scholar from UNC now at Duke, comes from Greenbelt, Maryland, where she attended magnet schools in creative and performing arts and in science and technology. As a high-school student, she took four years of American Sign Language classes, and she's involved with Carolina's Sign Language club. "I haven't had any negative interactions with Duke students," she says. "That has made a huge difference in my adjustment. Being here has dispelled many of the stereotypes about Duke that I had coming into the switch."

Robertson Scholar Sarah Pickle, a Carolina sophomore from Temple, Texas, says she's grateful to her Duke professors for not calling attention to her Robertson distinction. "The students have treated me as if I were a Duke student, though I think my desire for this might be representative of something not so positive that lingers--perhaps a fear of being 'outed' as a public-school or Carolina student." She has run across "negative attitudes directed toward public schools in general" on Duke's campus, not just reflecting the Duke-Carolina rivalry, "which is to be expected." But she's had a series of encouraging encounters with Duke students. "One or two people will reach out, trying to break down all of this Carolina-Duke negativity," she says, adding, "I had harbored the impression that Duke's campus was cold, not as welcoming. I sincerely feel like I've been proven wrong. Those who have reached out have been incredibly warm."While she discerns "less social activism on the Duke campus as a whole," Stratton says, "The students I have encountered here seem genuinely passionate about becoming involved in certain social issues. I think that Duke students are also very self-aware. They know that there are problems with the social activities on campus, and I see a lot of people doing things to try to create a more tolerant, inclusive, united student body." With some of her peers, she is working to put aspects of her Duke public policy class, "Enterprising Leadership," into practice. She is helping to organize student volunteers to donate leftover food from Duke Dining Services to local community shelters, and is investigating how "to make the Duke community more aware of how they can contribute to [addressing] hunger issues in the Durham area."

At Carolina, Pickle has been involved in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and the UNC Campaign Finance Reform Alliance. Here, she says she's been "quite a bit overwhelmed with the switch" and preoccupied with "getting my bearings." Eventually she wants to link up with the labor-advocacy groups at Duke. And having worked as a deejay at Carolina's radio station, she hopes to check out Duke's WXDU.

The campus switch is a defining feature of the Robertson Scholars program. Launched in 2001 with $24 million from Julian Robertson and his wife, Josie, it finances the students' education and summer-enrichment programs in the United States and abroad. Julian Robertson grew up in Salisbury, North Carolina. He graduated from UNC in 1955 with a degree in business administration, and is the founder and chairman of Tiger Management LLC, the world's largest hedge-fund group. Josie Robertson is a member of Carolina's board of visitors. One of their two sons, Julian Spencer Robertson, is a 1998 Duke graduate.

Eric Mlyn, director of the Robertson Scholars program, says "the logistics were very challenging" for the campus switch. "This is the first time anyone had done this." There were "little irritants," involving room assignments, meal plans, course credits, health insurance, and access to student health services. For a time, Duke students at Carolina were faced with having their course registrations denied because of confusion over immunization records. But he says that officials at both universities have been "incredibly supportive," and that the successful switch contributes to the hope that "when the Robertson Scholars graduate, they'll have a warm feeling for both campuses."

All applicants to Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill are considered for the program. Semi-finalists are identified by the two admissions offices. Finalists are selected by a committee set up by the two universities and invited to both campuses for a finalists' weekend. The four-year scholarships cover tuition at Duke and tuition, room, and living stipends at UNC. They also support summer enrichment experiences.

An unofficial symbol of the program--and a major means of promoting ties between traditional campus rivals--is an intercampus bus service. The bus departs hourly on weekdays and is free for anyone holding a Duke or UNC-Chapel Hill I.D. One Robertson Scholar who has achieved avid bus-rider status is sophomore Randall Drain, based this semester at Carolina. He plays on Duke's varsity lacrosse team. "I have lacrosse practice five times a week and games on the weekend, which clearly necessitates good time management and frequent use of the bus," he says.

Beyond the bus, which has "Robertson Scholars Program" on its sides, along with the names of both universities in two shades of blue, the program has found various ways to express the collaborative concept. It has fostered, for example, a Web-based art-resources project with a powerful array of art-historical research tools. This winter, the program announced its third cycle of accepting grant proposals for a "collaboration fund," which supports joint Duke-Carolina projects. One-year grants of up to $5,000 go to faculty, staff, and students on both campuses. Past grants have supported, among other endeavors, a course on portrait photography, a Judaic studies seminar for faculty and graduate students, an undergraduate series on space exploration, and a program exploring links between civil liberties and national security.

The emphasis on community-service projects, large and small, continued when the Robertson Scholars started participating in the North Carolina Department of Transportation's Adopt a Highway program. They are picking up litter on a section of U.S. 15-501--aptly enough, the road that connects Duke and Carolina.

Connections are a continuing emphasis of the program. One of the aims is to create an ethos of community service in its scholars--even as the program works to create a community among the scholars themselves. The program periodically brings together its students informally. Last fall, Robertson freshmen gathered to listen to Duke's president, Nannerl O. Keohane, and James Moeser, chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, talk about how they decide whether to take public stands on contentious issues.

As second-semester freshmen, they all enroll in a special colloquium that meets on the two campuses. The instructors are Robert Korstad, who teaches in the Hart Leadership program in Duke's Sanford Institute of Public Policy, and historian James Leloudis at Carolina. The syllabus shows a concern with the role of major universities in, and with the texture of, the region. Among the themes are "Duke and UNC at Work in the World," "Birth of the New South," "African-American Life in the Jim Crow South," "The Activist Impulse in the South," "The Multicultural, Transglobal South," and "The Role of the University in the Twenty-First Century."

Mlyn says that, with the colloquium and with other aspects of the program, "we want our students to have common intellectual experiences, to meet leading faculty at Duke and UNC, and to begin to think about how their service relates to broader global issues." As he and his colleagues sift through admissions applications, "it's a given with all these students that they're academically gifted," he says. "What we look for are students who have shown a commitment to, or a passion for, service. They have taken on leadership roles in service, not just checked off boxes because it was a high-school requirement. They've stepped outside their schools and started programs on their own, have gathered people around them to sustain those organizations. We look at what the students have done with whatever resources were available to them. We know that students from more affluent backgrounds might have had more opportunities than those from more modest backgrounds. But these are all students who have done unusual things."

The most innovative, and intensive, aspect of the program is support for three summers of enrichment activities. For their first summer, scholars do community-service work in the Southeast. Last summer, this first group of Robertson Scholars found themselves in Whitesburg, Kentucky; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Sunflower, Mississippi, among other places. They worked in domestic-violence shelters, trekked into the wilderness with at-risk youth, helped recent immigrants navigate the policies and procedures of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, taught and mentored young people from impoverished communities, and led community workshops on e-mail and the Internet.

As the program declares in its literature, "meaningful and substantive summer experiences" will help scholars "develop their leadership skills and experience the challenges and rewards of working in a community-service organization." Its organizers are also hoping to build long-term relationships with the sponsoring communities and organizations. Internships, by that model, evolve into enduring partnerships.

The second summer engages students with those same issues in an international context. The third summer is an independent-project summer. It's meant to be built around a senior thesis, a documentary project, or some other substantive piece of work shaped with the help of a faculty member or other professional mentor.

This summer, the sophomore scholars will travel to South Africa or Cuba. Both countries "provide an excellent opportunity for students to experience rapid and exciting global, national, and local transformation," according to the program's assistant director for summer enrichment, Lisa Croucher. South Africa, she says, "has made tremendous progress in human rights in recent years, but still struggles to remove the legacy of apartheid while it also battles one of the worst HIV/AIDS rates in the world." Cuba, since losing its Soviet support, has been "finding its way in a global economy" she says, but is "still shackled by the U.S. embargo, scrutiny of which seems to increase each day in the U.S. media and political debates."

Summer scholars in South Africa will be based in Cape Town, where they will work with local, nongovernmental organizations. One organization is concerned with issues related to HIV/AIDS treatment; another offers dance training to children in underprivileged areas of Cape Town; a third concentrates on biological diversity, genetic engineering, and sustainable development. They will travel to Johannesburg and Pretoria and to Windhoek, Namibia. Kirk Felsman, the Duke faculty affiliate for the Robertson Scholars program, is the program's organizer.

Two groups are shaping the Cuban summer: a Cuban sponsoring institution, Casa de las Americas, and a U.S.-based organization, FundaciÛn Amistad, which is dedicated to fostering understanding between the peoples of the two countries. The Havana-based program will draw Robertson Scholars into an adolescent mental-health clinic, a children's performing-arts program, and a United Nations development program.

Summers devoted to participating in, and reflecting on, community service are emblematic not just of this new merit scholarship, but also of a new direction taken by the world's most venerable awards. In a report on elite international fellowship programs, The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote about plans for a Cape Town rendezvous to celebrate the Rhodes Scholarship's centennial. The schedule included visits to AIDS clinics and impoverished townships, talks on "sustainable development" and "black economic empowerment," and a dinner in honor of Nelson Mandela. According to the article, the head of Rhodes House, the trust's headquarters and a base for the scholars at Oxford, "interprets the founder's requirement that scholars practice 'protection of the weak' to mean that they should work for social justice. Community service, while not a requirement, is a typical feature of the successful candidate's rèsumè."

For now, focusing less on social justice than on academic demands, Robertson Scholar sophomores have settled into their campus-switch routine. Christopher Paul, a Duke sophomore at Carolina, grew up in Chapel Hill and graduated from the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham. This semester, his roommate is a member of Carolina's varsity football team. Paul will apply a current Carolina seminar on "Documenting Communities" to his planned Duke certificate in documentary studies. He's also continuing his study of Chinese, taking a course on literature and philosophy, and studying organic and analytical chemistry--preparation for an environmental-toxicology course that he'll be taking at Duke. "I like getting the exposure to different professors and different teaching styles," Paul says. At Duke, he'll likely concentrate in environmental science, focusing on international environmental policy.

Paul finds Carolina an "active campus, socially and politically." By comparison, in his view, Duke boasts a rich geographical diversity but suffers from a lack of socio-economic diversity--and a lack of passion--in its student body. "At Duke, I know everyone who would be considered an activist, whether in the environmental, anti-sweatshop, or antiwar movements. They're all the same people."

Christopher Scoville, the Duke Chronicle columnist, draws similar comparisons between the campuses. Carolina students, he says, are "more interested in what's going on around them; they're actively engaged in local, state, and national issues." Scoville, whose bottom lip is pierced with a silver bar, also sees on Carolina's campus a wider spectrum of students. "There are some people at Duke who might think I'm a freak. But at Carolina, there are actually people with blue hair. Alternative lifestyles are a given. That adds a lot to the life of the university. It's refreshing."

On the other hand, Scoville says he hasn't found all of his Carolina classes as intellectually substantive or demanding as his Duke classes. For one thing, he's doing far less course-related reading. Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, he has an academic background that is unusual and international: He grew up in Kansas City and, after his junior year in high school, went to the Red Cross Nordic United World College in Norway for two years. He speaks French, Spanish, and Norwegian.

Scoville says he wouldn't have come to Duke without the offer of a Robertson Scholarship. His Carolina experiences, and especially his ongoing encounters there with campus activists, have deepened some of his frustrations with Duke. (His multiple Duke involvements include work with a presidential task force looking at how Duke makes itself more welcoming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students, faculty members, and employees.) Still he says he's drawn to the idea of interacting with students who don't think the way he does. "I don't like to be comfortable; I like to have my view challenged, so I'm glad to be going to a place where not everyone thinks like I do."

As he thinks about the Robertson Scholars program, he envisions its evolving into something less structured. It may, he says, be trying too hard to build a community of scholars and an "idealized notion of the perfect summer program." He says, "Our interests are all varied. We are strong and willful, and we all have our own passions, which don't necessarily overlap. It's good that this is not about people thinking and acting the same."

Program director Eric Mlyn says he's certain that Robertson Scholars don't think and act the same. But he likes the idea of a group identity. "In that sense we're unlike some other programs. We want them to be ambassadors for collaboration as they get to know each other, across campuses particularly. They're the ones who can show everyone else how much can be gained by being a participant on a sister campus."

One quality that Mlyn expects these scholars to gain, or to deepen, is a fervor for "a profound level of civic engagement, whether as doctors, teachers, engineers, or members of the Peace Corps." Already he sees in them "a shared propensity to take risks--and I mean good risks. After all, this program didn't exist when our current sophomores came into it. It was just a series of promises. It took a brave young person, who in many cases had offers from other excellent universities, to join us."