Brodhead Tells Students: Build A Life You Can Be Proud Of

Duke president addresses first-year students at opening convocation

I read a story in
the "New York Times" that put me in
mind of you. The story was about an American high school student who, drawing
on his summer experience in China, was able "to create a standout personal
statement" in his college applications, which told of exploring ancient
tombs of the Ming dynasty and "trading jokes with long-dead Ming Emperors."  Don't laugh: last year you too had to
create the impression that you were one of the wonders of the world. And it worked!
Human marvels, I welcome you to Duke.

I believe that
each of you is great. But my point in telling the story is, you don't have to
do that any more. You no longer need to compose a show of yourself in order to
impress colleges. You are free of
that. In fact, you are entering on a freedom the likes of which you have never
experienced and will seldom experience again.

Let's take the
measure of this new, free life. First, you'll be out from under parental
supervision (bye bye mom and dad), with no loving busybodies to wake you up or
ask what time you got in. Second, your new life is amazingly unprogrammed.
Unlike high school, where the algorithm filled your academic program pretty
predictably from year to year, here you'll have a wilderness of choices, with a
few simple rules on how to use the menu. Third, for years your life has been
structured by routines whose origins were long forgotten. But you haven't
formed a single Duke habit; your life here is a blank slate waiting to be
composed. Fourth, one day you'll have others to support, but as of now, you're
free of dependents. Fifth and best of all, you don't need to get a full-time
job. One of the beauties of going to college is that when people ask you what
you do for a living, you can simply say "I go to Duke." End of
discussion. If you are already fretting about the job you'll get after you
graduate four long years from now, all I can say is, some people just can't
stand the taste of freedom.

I want you to stop
and do justice to this profound truth. Around the world, people fight and die
for freedom. But when you enter Duke, this priceless privilege is yours for the
asking. Released from so many constraints, you have the chance to be the maker
of your life. My plea to you is, put this great freedom to some extraordinary

Let me descend to
some particulars. In college you will have freer access to alcohol, sex, and
other what used to be called adult pleasures. I trust this is not news to you:
the association of college, drinking, and sex in an alcoholic haze was already
well documented in Chaucer's "Canterbury
Tales," written in the fourteenth century. As for drinking, you know the law
and are obliged to obey it. But such laws have never made alcohol and the
conduct it aggravates less prevalent on any American campus. Many of you have
strong values on this score, and many of you will find those values
tested.  My message to you all is,
this is a domain of freedom. Make it the object of your conscious and
thoughtful choice.

It would be
disappointing if, after telling us that you longed to chat with Ming emperors,
the height of your college aspiration really was to live like a bit player in a
college reality TV show. I say it seriously: take responsibility for your
conduct; don't do things you are not proud of. And if you say, of any practice
you'd really rather not partake of, well, I have to, or what will They think? I
reply, have some courage and see where it gets you. Having escaped the tyranny
of all kinds of adult supervision, it seems a poor sequel to cave in to the
tyranny of some imagined Them. Here's the truth: if they were candid, "They"
might turn out to be ambivalent too and to welcome alternatives and frank

My first rule for
the use of your freedom is, build a life you can be proud of. My second, at
least as important, is: make great education happen for you.

You've come along
at a strange historical moment. The economy used to rebound from recessions,
but no one knows where it is heading now. In the 20th century the
spread of consumerism drove economic expansion, but now free spending has brought
us to a crisis point. But how to reduce personal and national indebtedness
without stifling growth? It's complicated. Meanwhile, a raised standard of
living has raised energy use and unhealthy diets around the world. How to
separate the growth of well-being from the health and climate disasters that
come in its wake? It's complicated. We thrilled at the stories of freedom's
global spread last spring, but creating a new social order has proved far more
challenging than those happy headlines suggested. As I said: it's complicated.
Here in the US no one is certain if our vaunted political system is capable of
making hard choices or solving complex social ills. It's very complicated.

With uncertainty
at every side, it's easy to see how you could think your main college task was
to make a beeline for some well-paid job. But there are at least two things
wrong with that picture. For one, our emerging challenges are so interdependent
and all-encompassing that no known job can reliably remove anyone from their
reach; and second, the world will be in sorry shape if all smart young men and
women withdraw into insular, prosperous cocoons. You're going to have greater
success and a happier life if instead of fleeing the hard facts of your time,
you try to understand them, engage them, and shape better outcomes in place of

You are the very
people who could make that kind of difference. That's why we admitted you. (Did
you really think it was because of your standout personal statement?) But to
deliver on your potential down the road, you need this place to broaden and
deepen your understanding and strengthen your active powers. Which brings us
back to your freedom and your use of it at Duke.

Duke is a place of
amazing abundance. The resources are here to teach and fortify you in every way
you can imagine. Plus I never saw a school where so many people are so
responsive to student interest and initiative. But as the saying goes, you can
lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. To turn Duke opportunities
into your personal strengths, you have to want them, reach out to them, and
actively incorporate them into your life. It's your choice, but it matters what
you do.

It's in your power to create the dullest
academic program compliant with Duke's minimum formal requirements -- if you want
to do that, we can scarcely stop you. But it's also in your power to make our
curriculum light up with your curiosity and discovery. Out of class, you could
give your brain a four year rest; or with the slightest effort, you could
involve yourself in the flow of discussion that fills this campus every day, by
which people sharpen each other's ability to think. It's in your power to
create a Duke filled with people of the sort you already know and have least to
learn from. Or, you could take advantage of belonging to one of the most varied
and talented human communities on the face of the earth and open yourselves to
each other, teach each other, and find out what you can accomplish together.
Wherever I go, the thing I find most in demand throughout the world are smart,
quick minds who know how to work creatively with others across divides of
expertise, discipline and culture. At work and play, every day here is a chance
to learn that critical skill -- or, with some difficulty I admit, you could leave
this skill undeveloped. It makes a difference. You make the choice.

I once saw a guy
in a shirt that read, I Went To The Sorbonne and All I Got Was This Lousy Tee
Shirt. It's up to you what you get from Duke. I don't doubt that you will have
an extraordinary experience here; I just don't want it to fall one inch short
of what it could be. Want to know how you could really make a standout personal
statement? By having your own dreams for your education and using Duke to help
you fulfill them. That's what you came for. That's what we're here for. Come in
and join the fun.