President Brodhead welcomes Class of 2013 at convocation

Tells students to 'take possession of Duke and make it serve your aims'

The program says that Dean Guttentag was to present the class of 2013, which makes you sound like a gift. Who is to receive it? How about me! Christoph, I love it. The new Dukies are just what I always wanted!

Men and women of the Duke class of 2013, you have already accomplished two hard things: you got admitted to one of the world's great universities and you succeeded in moving in. I was there on East Campus yesterday morning. It was like D-Day without hostile fire. The day dawned quietly, with no clue of what was about to break loose. At 8:30 sharp, we experienced a coordinated assault. Wave after wave of landing vehicles hove into view. Mountains of equipment were rapidly unloaded, representing months of planning of what you would need in a foreign place. Then our new recruits came ashore and went into action. By night you had already set up camp and were making warm friends of new comrades.

We enjoyed this invasion of yours: the intake of fresh talent is what we live for. As for you, once you've moved in and spent the first night, the hardest part of college is already behind you. But as with the Normandy landing, when you've established your beachhead, you are just positioned to begin what you came here for. Here is your mission: to take possession of Duke and make it serve your aims.

There would be a weak way to manage your assault on Duke. In this occasionally mysterious new environment (and let me share a secret: it will be intermittently daunting to everybody, not just to you), you could become keen to bend yourself to the expectations you imagine to surround you.

In class you could produce just what you think your professors want from you (as if any good teacher valued anything finally but the independent exercise of mind). Or having hatched some clichéd idea of what a Duke student looks or thinks or acts like, you could try to make yourself over in the image of that fantasy as if anyone could have much interest in a you who isn't really you. These don't sound like very interesting ways to go to any college. And they make an especially poor strategy for Duke.

Let me tell you what you really need to know to fit in here. You may have chosen Duke because it was beautiful or academically rigorous or a vibrant, friendly place, and you were right. But the thing that really defines this school is its spirit, its distinctive attitude of mind. You don't get Duke by deferring to existing realities or received ideas. Whatever it has already achieved, this place is always envisioning the most valuable or interesting thing that a university could become, and mobilizing its energies to realize that ideal.

The original school was founded in a backwater town one hundred miles to the west. When the school's leaders decided that a major seat of learning had to be more closely connected to modernity and development, they moved Trinity College to the new city of Durham, and literally re-created it on what is now the East Campus.

Between the 1890s and 1920 Trinity College emerged as the premier liberal arts college in the South. It would have remained that if the people of this place had not then asked, wouldn't it be even better to have the full continuum of inquiry and mental training, with leading schools for all the professions, and undergraduate education situated in that richer environment? With the support of the man out front, James B. Duke, it came to pass.

Understanding that human health would be an ever-greater social concern and biomedical sciences a crucial area for fundamental discovery, when Trinity College re-created itself as Duke University, it also chose to create a medical school, soon a very famous one, where none had existed before. Understanding (as the ancients did) that athletics aren't only fun and games but are deeply connected to the pursuit of excellence, Duke also created nationally competitive sports programs when it re-built itself to this larger idea.

In physical terms, the re-creation of Duke required building not one but two new campuses -- the brick oval of East Campus and the gothic West; and Duke showed its usual stance toward the status quo when it approached the construction. Recognizing that the high talent comes from every social origin, in the deepest days of official segregation Duke chose an African-American architect, Julian Abele, as the principal designer of West Campus.

The spirit of aspiring and re-making strongly marks Duke's founding time but it did not end there. President Terry Sanford had the idea that to contribute to the solution of complex social problems, universities need to offer training in public policy broadly conceived. What began in the '70s in a few dank basement rooms has since blossomed into the Sanford School of Public Policy, a nationally recognized resource for ideas, talent, and the culture of public service. Still more recently, we've become convinced that to prepare you for constructive lives in the world, students need to complement classroom education with the chance to test and use their learning in real-world settings. Not yet even three years old, the DukeEngage program is already a national model, serving nearly four hundred undergraduates in each recent class.

Our students too are bearers of this spirit of envisioning and renovation. We all know the extent to which energy and environmental challenges menace the world you will live in; but Dukies don't wait for someone else to solve these problems. Using their engineering training and entrepreneurial drive, Duke undergraduates devised, built, and now inhabit a house furnished with advanced ecofriendly systems of their own invention -- the Smart Home, the first college residence in America recognized with the LEED platinum standard.

Go out into Durham and you'll find Duke students as active citizens working with our neighbors -- in some cases, in highly innovative programs of our students' own devising, like the program for middle schoolers called Student U.

When you chose Duke, you chose a place that has made itself ever better by its willingness to dream bigger dreams and find ways to achieve them. And when I welcome you to Duke, I welcome you to join this history and write its future chapters. If you want to live up to our expectations, I'll tell you what they are. We expect that you will work to form some serious idea of the most deeply thoughtful, most broadly capable, and most socially valuable person you could become, and exploit every resource of this place to help you develop toward that ideal.

Ambitious dreams really can be realized -- everything around you proves the fact. Eighty years ago Duke Chapel was a patch of forest. But if that is true, it would be a waste to bring no ambition to your new life. You've secured your beachhead -- so far so good. Your personal transportation crew is set to return to their base. (Bye mom and dad. See you in four years!) Now for the good part: seeing what you can make of yourself with Duke as your willing partner.

Class of 2013, we've been waiting for your onslaught. Come take this place by storm.