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Helping Students Turn Visions Into Realities

Directors of undergraduate studies serve on the academic front lines


Caption: Sophomores are welcomed as majors by Chemistry's associate DUS Chris Roy (with black hair) and faculty members Steve Baldwin and Patrick Charbonneau. Photos by Les Todd/Duke University Photography

A crystal ball is missing in the Department of Chemistry, and the director of undergraduate studies (DUS) is feeling a little lost without it.

The ball once belonged to the legendary teacher and former department DUS James Bonk.  The current DUS for the department, Richard MacPhail, would like to find it.

"I like to say I learned the job at the feet of Yoda," MacPhail said with a laugh.  "One of the things Jim Bonk would do when he had a thorny issue is say to me, 'Let's consult the crystal ball.' I was having to guess the enrollment for a class the other day, and I was trying to find where the ball was."

That's often how it goes for a DUS, a largely unheralded role that asks faculty members to make forecasts and important academic decisions, sometimes with limited support or even the luck of a crystal ball.  Yet, for Duke's 6,500 undergraduates, the nearly 40 DUSs may be the most important faculty of all, said Lee Baker, Trinity College's dean for academic affairs.

Here are five reasons why Baker calls DUS faculty "my favorite people on campus."


Turning Student Visions Into Reality

Duke students are crafting increasingly complex education pathways, exploring interests across majors and disciplines in ways that are exciting  but also more complicated within the curriculum.  They often need help.

"The DUS is the person to make this happen," said Baker, himself a former DUS for cultural anthropology. "Increasingly students are trying to do more, more, more, so they're really threading the curriculum needle. They're going for a major and two certificates, a major and a minor graduation with distinction.  To do this, not only does the student need good advice, but the DUS sometimes will be counted on to provide waivers, make exceptions to graduation requirements. Even if a student is working with a faculty mentor, the DUS quickly becomes the adviser-in-chief."

Ken Rogerson, the DUS for the Sanford School of Public Policy, meets regularly with undergraduate students.

"They need to know how to get help to make their dream a reality," he said. "They want to learn to change the world.  They are looking for someone to tell them what they need to do to make an impact.  The DUS can facilitate that."


Helping Students Graduate

There's a painful answer to what happens when things go wrong for a DUS.

"Students don't graduate!" Baker said.

And things can go wrong in a number of ways.  The logistics of building a department's undergraduate curriculum falls to the DUS.  Between sabbaticals and other leaves and teaching relief for administrative duties and interdisciplinary classes, departments may lack a full contingent of faculty on hand to teach all of their scheduled courses for the semester.  If prerequisite courses have to be delayed, then students' pathways to graduation become complicated.

Usually there is a solution, MacPhail said. Chemistry has avoided problems because its faculty members typically fill in gaps in the course offerings. But, particularly in smaller departments, problems do arise if a course isn't offered and a full year passes before it's available again.

Seniors who haven't paid close attention to their major requirements may enter their last semester learning they are one or two courses short, courses that might not be offered that semester. That's where DUS can use their power to modify graduation requirements. I Ideally, they have worked beforehand with faculty advisers and students to ensure they are on track from the start, said Connel Fullenkamp, DUS for the Department of Economics, one of Trinity College's largest departments.

"When things go wrong, the result isn't total chaos, but sometimes it can seem like it," Fullenkamp said. "There are tons of little things that need to happen so that our students can stay on track and make good progress toward finishing the major or minor.   If students think that they won't be able to get the classes they want and need when they want and need to take them, they start to game the system and everything spirals downward."


A Department's Public Face

Last month, the university's DUSs put on their department T-shirts to welcome the current sophomore class at Academic Homecoming, where undergraduates are officially introduced to the new department majors.

The DUSs already knew many of their new majors. While some departments rotate the role among their faculty members, most departments appoint faculty members with a long history of engagement with undergraduate education.

In fact, Baker said, an undergraduate student is more likely to know the DUS of their major department than the department chair.

"Advising students as a DUS is very similar to the advising and mentoring I do with students who take my courses," Fullenkamp said. "For me, it's one of the best parts of being a professor.  Helping students both figure out what they want to accomplish, and then helping them find a way to do it, is very rewarding.  As DUS, I get to meet even more students and coach them through their studies."


Assisting Faculty and Administrators

It's not just the students who rely on the DUSs. Those who have served in the role for several years have special experience and knowledge of the Duke curriculum that make them useful throughout the campus.

One common example: While Duke's pre-major advising system generally gets high marks from students, the transition to advising within the department major can be bumpy without an experienced DUS, Rogerson said. "It's not anyone's fault; it's just that few faculty members know the non-major requirements a student has to fill to graduate," Rogerson added.  "But the DUS does know. It's part of the job. So I get faculty members coming to me when students ask them these questions."

That expertise is invaluable to administrators as well.

"They work really hard and I appreciate the teamwork I have with them," said Baker, who works with DUSs from all undergraduate programs, including Sanford and Pratt.  "Unlike divisional deans, I have to make decisions from math to Renaissance studies, but pretty quickly I hit my intellectual limits and I have to rely on the expertise of the DUS. I hope each DUS understands in this partnership they are the stewards of each individual's major."


An Unheralded Position

There's a reason why some faculty aren't eager to take on the DUS role:  It can be a burden.

The compensation faculty members get -- a small research stipend or a reduced teaching load -- generally doesn't balance the additional administrative work that comes with the position or the pressure to deal with complaints from students, parents and even faculty members.

A DUS can play a leadership role in defining a department's academic path for talented young minds, something that helped attract Bahar Leventoglu to the position for Duke's political science department. But the position simultaneously involves "tedious and draining" work on "operational, departmental, and logistical requirements," said Anthony Kelley, her counterpart in the music department.

"The job requires a mix of vision and getting dirty in the details," said Baker, who adds that many DUSs would welcome more clerical and other support, something he hopes can change.

"We all recognize the problem," Baker said. "I wish it was valued as a premier leadership position. Oftentimes, people say, 'My rotation is coming around and I have to become DUS.'  People should see it as more than that. It is a high-impact leadership role, one with real intellectual leadership, but too often it is seen as just department service."

Below: David Boyd, associate professor of the practice in the Duke Global Health Institute, greets a sophomore at the Academic Homecoming.