Brodhead at Baccalaureate: The Duke Connection

The networks students build at Duke won't be broken when they leave the university

Part of the Commencement 2013 Series
Duke students prepare to enter Duke Chapel for Friday's baccalaureate service.  Photo by Geoffrey Mock
Duke students prepare to enter Duke Chapel for Friday's baccalaureate service. Photo by Geoffrey Mock

March 27 was the Last Day to Withdraw from Spring Courses. I bet you never noticed. April 24 was the Last Day of Classes. That you noticed, but that was just fun. Then April 28 was the Last Day of Reading Period; and May 4 was the Last Day of Exams -- and by this same inexorable progress, you have now arrived at the Last Day of Duke. Face it. When you reach the Baccalaureate service, this whole thing is about to be over, finito, kaput. Repent! The end of your world is at hand.

You're all in black, the color of mourning. No wonder. You're about to leave a beautiful place and a magical way of life, and the company of a thousand friends. You were so connected, and you're about to be disconnected. Let's linger a little on that word.

Your fellow alum and Commencement speaker Melinda Gates once recommended a book to me called Connected, by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. The book takes off from the thought that people live not just as separate individuals or members of abstract identity groups, but specifically as creatures of networks. Each of us lives within an architecture of relationships, differently shaped for each person, composed of many different kinds of bonds. The people we have bonds with in turn have bonds with others, and they with others, in ramifying patterns that contemporary graphics can display with beautiful precision. 

As social network scholarship has been revealing, once you map these networks, it can be shown that things flow across them in measurable, if surprising ways. One finding is that if everyone on earth can be connected to every other by six degrees of separation (this was demonstrated by sociologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s), actual influence tends to be focused within three degrees of separation, as far as your friends' friends' friends. And the things transmitted within these network neighborhoods can be quite unexpected. The data trove from the health study conducted for many decades in Framingham, Massachusetts enabled the discovery that rates of obesity increase noticeably not just for those whose friends are obese, but for those with more overweight contacts at second and third remove. In Christakis and Fowler's words, we influence and are influenced by relationships beyond our direct ones, yet not so far away.

From this study, I learned the fascinating fact that the core webs of connection for college graduates are nearly twice as dense as for people who didn't go to college. I am positive that the webs for the average Duke grad would be six, ten, or even twenty times that. Think of it. The kind of students Duke attracts have already shown signs of inordinate human curiosity and eagerness to engage when we first admit them -- that's one of the things we select for. Since the historical tipping point in the advent of social media happened just around the time you were choosing a college, you were able to start connecting on Facebook within minutes of your admission, and already had hundreds of friends (well, in a certain sense) before you ever saw each other's faces. When you finally arrived, from the first assault of the smiling FAC brigade, you knew you had stepped onto a campus where people rejoice in each other's acquaintance. Last week a mother in Boston told me her not excessively social son called home his first week at Duke and said, "Mom! It's ridiculously easy to make friends here!"

From this start, think of the connections you made with teachers, through friends, and the people you shared residences or classes with, or activities, or sports teams, or summer experiences, and add in all their friends -- that's what it meant to go to Duke: to be connected and re-connected across a multitude of circuits to this lively, inventive community all day for four long years.  What Christakis and Fowler helped me realize is that the hyperconnectivity you formed at Duke is in no sense separate from what you learned at Duke. Information and ideas and questions and angles of perception flowed in to you from contacts both direct and a little distant, shaping your personal understanding, making it steadily richer, and flowed out from you to shape the understandings of others. If you are not the same person you were when you arrived, it's because you've inhabited a culture of connectivity continually at work to open eyes and deepen minds.

And then? Just when the circuits are all lit up, you're about to be unplugged. What will that be like? A few weeks back I met a graduate two years out who said: "You know President Brodhead, leaving Duke has left a void in my life. A profound void," he added, with riveting earnestness. At a Duke gathering in New York shortly after, I asked a woman from the same class whether she agreed and she said, "Oh, I wouldn't call it a void exactly -- it's more of an abyss."

She was partly kidding, and so am I. You won't be disconnected when you leave. You'll have exchanged hundreds of texts with each other before you even get home; and once you get where you're going next, you will have little trouble finding Duke enclaves to stay in touch. Like a religious sect renewing communal bonds through ritual observance, Dukies in far-flung cities somehow find each other during basketball season. And alums and their yet-unmet friends may help you in future in important ways.  Friends of friends are an especially significant source of tips about jobs, Christakis and Fowler remind us -- also of introductions to people you might someday marry. The alum who found it ridiculously easy to make friends at Duke is getting married this summer to someone he met nine years ago -- a fellow resident of Giles.

So one of my messages to you is, Relax: the Duke connection will not be dissolved, it will deepen and grow. But my other message is, to the extent that this chapter actually is over, that's not all bad. If you're living in some city next fall and every one you know is a former Dukie, that might be fun. But if ten or twenty years from now you don't know anyone except your Duke classmates, that will be pathetic. You will not be a cool person; you'll be a shut-in. You will not be a smartie; you will be a dullard. You broke out of an established life and opened yourself to a host of new contacts when you came to Duke; that was the condition for your horizons to expand as they have. Time to break out of this known, loved world before it becomes a limit to you. Want to learn something that may amaze you? There are very interesting people in the world who are more than twenty-two years old! You have been living in a generational ghetto. Break out, and you can make new connections with new chances to learn and grow.

Your breaking out of this enchanted dream has a social meaning as well. Some while back I heard a memorable phrase -- former Labor Secretary Robert Reich apparently coined it, though I learned it second or third hand, through connections: "the secession of the successful." The phrase describes the growing tendency for the affluent and well-educated to shut themselves into little worlds where they can associate with one another, with limited contact with those with different experience. We have long seen this in residence patterns that group the affluent in a cluster. Those have helped produce schooling patterns that group children from similar socioeconomic backgrounds heavily together.  More recently, the Brookings Institute has demonstrated, college graduates have begun increasingly to settle in hot spots with high proportions of other college graduates, leaving other cities to become educational deserts. Being well-connected is highly compatible with being disconnected, it appears, since even networks have their bounds.

The secessionist temptation is easy to understand, but such choices take a toll. If people like you continue to hang out only with other people like you, there will be a double cost. You'll lose the means to grasp the conditions the majority of your contemporaries actually live in, a cost of knowledge. Plus you lose the chance to bring your powers to bear on the challenges of your world, a cost of influence, since problems will be too far away for you to see or care.

I'm glad you did well here; but you won't have learned Duke's lesson if you seek to extend Duke on for life.  Duke wants you to keep opening your mind to your world your whole life long. And Duke wants you to be an actor in your world, using your gifts to shape what is into what might be. Your Duke years readied you for such a career. But that's over now; Duke is done.  Now the burden is on you to keep connecting and connecting and connecting, learning your world and the reach of your powers.

It's been a pleasure to be connected to you. We're disconnecting now. Good luck out there. Go well.