President Brodhead Welcomes the Newest 'Citizens of Duke'

President tells students at convocation they will be rewarded by being active in their education

Deans Christoph Guttentag, Steve Nowicki and President Richard Brodhead join the convocation procession. Photos by Jared Lazarus/Duke Photography

Twenty-twenty signifies perfect vision. And you, Class of 2020, make the perfect sight. For us, you embody the renewal of this university, the surge of energy that will lift us to new heights. On your side, this ceremony marks a great transition. As of today, childhood is over and high school far behind. By the powers vested in me, I now proclaim you a student at Duke. Or let me reach for a stronger word: I now proclaim you a citizen of Duke. Let’s think what difference that word makes.

A citizen is more than a resident. A citizen is a member, someone who fully belongs. Belongs to what? We don’t speak of people being a citizen of their families or a citizen of a club. Citizenship means membership in a social entity that’s big enough to contain lots of people you don’t personally know. The word derives from the Latin civitas, city, which also gave us the words civic and civil. When a city-state was the largest effective social unit, a citizen was a member of a city. Nowadays, citizenship mostly refers to membership in a national community. Your entering class contains citizens of seventy countries.

Citizenship brings privileges, like the right to vote or the right to serve on a jury, and it brings duties too, which vary from place to place. If you are from Switzerland or Singapore, you may already have performed national military service. If you’re a naturalized citizen of the United States, you have pledged to support and defend the Constitution.  

This sounds pretty simple, but as this summer taught us, the concept of “citizen” can be quite contentious. I was in England on the day of the Brexit vote. It was going to be close, but those in the “Remain” camp were feeling confident, until, in the early hours of June 24, the count revealed that the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union, without anyone knowing exactly what that would mean.

The European Union is a remarkable creation of the second half of the 20th century in which a score of nations, on the continent where the strife among sovereign nations has engulfed the world in world war not once but twice, concluded to join in a supra-national entity, giving up some separate rights to win the benefits of a larger union. Under the Treaty of Maastricht, citizens of EU nations also became citizens of the European Union, entitling them to the free flow of peoples and economic activity across national borders. The union that has brought peace and prosperity to a once war-ravaged Europe was a work of hope, but fears always shadowed that hope. This June, the majority of British voters decided that their fears of lost sovereignty and an influx of “outsiders” outweighed the benefits of an open community.

We know such hopes and fears closer to home. The United States, a country whose culture and economy owe their dynamism to the continual inflowing and intermingling of peoples, is going through one of its periodic bouts of nativism, marked by the will to raise barriers against immigrants and to define citizenship by who we exclude.

Now, the history of citizenship is a fascinating subject, but if I have the word on my mind, it’s because of you. Here you are today joining Duke Nation. What does it mean to be a citizen of Duke?

Citizenship always entails some definition of who’s in and who’s out and how a person can become included. In most countries, if one or more of your parents was a citizen at the time of your birth, then you are a citizen by jus sanguinis, by right of blood. In a few countries, most of them in the Western Hemisphere and the United States prominent among them, you also become a citizen by being born in this country whatever the status of your parents. This is called jus soli, citizenship by right of soil.

So what determines citizenship of Duke? There is only one way. You may have been born in Duke Hospital, but that did not get you in. You may have had a parent who went here, and we welcome that continuity when it occurs, but no one has a hereditary right to attend Duke. No one is admitted to Duke who has not passed through a searching assessment that starts with tests and grades but goes much further, asking how you took advantages of opportunities you had and whether your achievements evince real curiosity and intellectual engagement, which are very different from the mere knack for “doing well.” Plus we consider the sum of your involvements to see if you have the will to live up to the full measure of your talents, with the hard work that entails, and if you have an inclination to use your gifts for the benefit of others.

You are here today because, in your own way, under your own circumstances, you demonstrated the promise that Duke seeks. If you’re proud thinking you alone really deserve to be here, you shouldn’t be. Each person here passed the same test as you. If you’re anxious because you think everybody belongs but you, don’t be. You have proved yourself just as fully as any other new arrival. You are entitled to citizenship because you earned it the only way it can be won: by being a person of promise eager to live up to your full potential.

So, what privileges does this new citizenship bring? That’s an easy one. Duke offers opportunities for self-discovery in virtually every known form—academic, artistic, athletic, entrepreneurial, social, spiritual, local, global. You will never hear of a university where more things are on offer to undergraduates. Your admission is your ticket to explore every opportunity this university affords.

And the duties? That’s where modern concepts of citizenship often fall down. As I noted, there are countries where national service is compulsory. This country has no such requirement: within my lifetime Americans have gotten out of the habit of being asked to sacrifice anything for the larger good. Did you know that in Australia, voting is obligatory? Here it isn’t, and since it’s optional, the primal democratic right, the right of citizens to choose their government, has undergone partial atrophy from lack of use.

You can decide how well citizenship as passive enjoyment of goodies has served the larger society. But I’m here to tell you, passive citizenship has no place at Duke. For this place to work, you have the responsibility to participate. Let me name four ways.

First: Going to a university whose programs are being copied around the world won’t do you any good if you don’t try to learn about those programs, see which ones might serve you, and make an effort to participate. But second, enrolling in programs is just the start. Duke exists to transmit the store of human understanding, but our real work is continually to increase that store. We take truths that seem final and challenge them, interrogate them, with teachers and students partnering to achieve an ever fuller understanding. But this only works if you participate: if you pitch in, join the discussion, ask your question, share the part of the truth you’ve been gifted to see.

Third, at a place so rich in talent and perspectives, every classmate and every social interaction could enlarge the understanding you’ve achieved to date. We have just rebuilt this university’s great common spaces including the Marketplace and West Union because we know that in a great residential university, informal personal exchange, the unstructured interaction of teachers with students and of students with their fellows, is the essential medium of education. But to get this benefit, you have to have the courage to enter into conversation with strangers, and not just superficially, but risking the deep sharing in which deep understandings are forged.

Fourth, students have told me that they went through rough patches here at first. Is that surprising? No real world ever guaranteed perpetual, stress-free bliss, and if it did, no human ever grew except by seeking and facing up to challenge.  These same students have shared that hard days got easier once they found a mentor, an upperclassman or a member of the faculty or staff who would take an interest in them and cheer them on. There is no university where more people are willing to play this role for you. But to find your natural advisors you have to reach out, to do your part to make the connection.

Take seriously your responsibility to be active in your education, and this place will give what you came to find. But there’s one more thing Duke citizens have to do: you have to help create the atmosphere in which everyone can have the same rich experience. Any way you could victimize someone, or humiliate someone, or silence someone, or exclude someone takes away that person’s rights and robs you of their contribution. Every way you learn to respect others, listen to them, and encourage their participation builds their power and equips them to teach you.  This is not a care some of you owe to some others. It’s the care each of you owes to all.

Students recite the alma mater during the convocation.

My friend Dean Guttentag lifted your spirits with pleasantries, and here I am, loading you down with expectations. My excuse is, you actually need to visualize and embrace the commitments I’ve described: lower your expectations when you arrive and you will lower the quality of the experience you take away.  A government website I consulted says that “citizenship is a unique bond that unites people around civic ideals.” I’ve asked you to bond around the aspirations Duke is built on: the ideal of individual personal development, the ideal of education through community, and the ideal of the active, ongoing pursuit of truth.

So let’s do this right—this could be fun. Have you ever seen a citizenship ceremony? If not, you can watch a thousand online. Raise your right hand. Do you solemnly swear to pay allegiance to the values of this university by living up to them in your daily life? If so, please signify by saying Aye. Congratulations! You are now a citizen of Duke.

Click here to read the talk by Dean Steve Nowicki: "Know Thy Selfie."