If you come to Duke in 2009 not having visited since 1984, you'll find it profoundly changed and profoundly the same. This paradox, a sign of health in a great university, arises from two facts. As places of discovery that attract the most creative minds from this country and around the world, universities are in touch with new developments and are natural homes of innovation. But our fundamental work is largely constant: promoting curiosity and inquiry, bringing intelligence to bear on the world's complex problems, training people for positions of responsibility, and challenging students to discover and live up to their full promise.
But change and permanence don't just coexist on campus. At best, change supplies us with new ways to perform our constant mission. Twenty-five years ago, the personal computer was a fantasy and the Internet a mystery known to a few research scientists. Since then, information technology has altered virtually every aspect of daily life, creating, among other things, new tools for analysis and diagnosis in medical research, new means for retrieving knowledge of the past, and new ways for faculty members and students to be in closer, more continuous communication.
The other major change in American research universities in the last twenty-five years, the extension of global reach, has had a similar effect. Duke once drew students principally from North Carolina, then from the region, then from the nation, and now from around the world. This new fact, too, has created new ways to perform our classic function. A key benefit universities afford is the chance for talented people to meet, to stimulate and learn from one another, and to discover how to accomplish things together, at work and at play. Nowadays, and into the future, a Dukie will inevitably learn about and learn to collaborate with people from around the world—daily practice for a life in a global society.
What will the next twenty-five years bring? In spring 2009, the economic crisis looks to be the main thing that will shape the future university. But Duke, which was created on the eve of the Great Depression, has outlasted many a business cycle, and other changes may prove far more enduring.
I expect the next decades to be a time of profound transformation in higher education. The historical model was based on separation and specialization; the new model will be about creating connections and interactions among a wide variety of separate domains. In a world where all important problems have plural dimensions, faculty members will be less content to inhabit islands of specialized expertise but will reach across old boundaries to form new communities of inquiry; students won't learn to narrow their curiosity but to access and synthesize knowledge across multiple domains.
In place of the classic separation of "the academic," academic study and real-world experience will become more tightly connected, each enriching and building on the other. On campus, curricular and what is now called extracurricular activity will be understood as complementary ways to teach fundamental skills of self-discipline, initiative, teamwork, and leadership. And people who "go to Duke" will form ever-denser connections with people away from campus, in this city and region, and around the world.
Because the future will require different things from higher education, the Duke of 2034 will be profoundly different from the Duke of today. But behind these innovations, our core mission will be recognizably the same. This will still be a place dedicated to expanding the reach of human understanding. This will still be a place dedicated to the flowering of individual human potential. And this will still be a place where the lived interactions of a face-to-face community form the heart of teaching and learning.