Winter Forum: Shots Are Fired, A Crisis Ensues and Duke Students Try to Figure Out Solutions

A three-day learning experience puts students in a middle of a global crisis

Jack Minchew, plays the role of White House spokesman during a mock press conference at the 2018 Winter Forum. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography
Jack Minchew gets grilled while playing the role of White House spokesman during a mock press conference at the Winter Forum. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography

Duke students who thought they could do a better job as White House spokesperson than Sean Spicer got a lesson in empathy at the 2018 Winter Forum.

The “Crisis Near Fiery Cross Reef: China and the United States in the South China Sea” simulation at the Fuqua School of Business on Jan. 7-9 started with news of an attack on a US naval vessel in the highly trafficked, island-dotted waters south of China, east of Vietnam and west of the Philippines.  Three U.S. casualties were reported. Within hours, the world was looking at a possible WWIII.

At one point, it was up to senior Jack Minchew to defend President Trump’s handling of the situation and to field questions from communications professionals acting as reporters.

“You had to go out there without complete information,” said Minchew, a member of the Duke Political Review from Leesburg, Va., who served on the Winter Forum’s strategic communications team. “Information was coming in so fast and sporadically. You didn’t really know the truth. It gave me a lot of respect for the people doing that job.”

Annual Winter Forum topics always involve a major societal issue. Tim Nichols, a visiting professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy and former Marine intelligence officer, led a team of more than 25 faculty and professional mentors who had planned their South China Sea crisis simulation for almost a year.

About 90 undergraduates from a variety of majors were divided into 10 teams representing different government agencies. Each team was paired with faculty mentors who have worked at the National Security Agency (NSA), Congress, departments of state and defense and other governmental organizations. Under the mentors’ guidance students analyzed information and advised the president on how to best proceed.   

Confusion was one theme. Contradictory news updates bombarded students every few minutes. Moments before publicly blaming China for an attack, a report made them question whether China was even involved. Later they learned of the possibility of a related cyberattack in Kabal that killed more than 130 US military personnel.

The CIA reported that the Philippines and South Korea were mobilizing against China. ISIS tried to take credit for American deaths. President Trump tweeted regularly from Scotland, where he was on a golf vacation. Students had to sift through reports and research and share information under tight National Security Council deadlines and multiple press conferences.

“This is much more than just a classroom experience,” said Nichols, who created a version of the Fiery Cross Reef practice scenario for members of the Trump and Clinton transition teams.

“The students have to deal with a stressful information deficit and a high complexity crisis,” Nichols said. “Success relies on critical thinking, effective and clear communication and anticipating where information should be shared and then sharing it. If the State and defense do not share information, it becomes apparent at a White House briefing, and disjointed policy recommendations are made. Unfortunately, that happens.” 

The mentors praised the students for being quick studies. By the end of the three days, they were producing better memos and messages.

The forum’s theatrical component was not lost on President Vince Price, who played a hostile reporter from Breitbart News before he closed the final session.

 “I hope you think of your entire collegiate career as an opportunity to role-play,” Price told the students. “Put yourself in places you would not ordinarily be. This is how you own your education.”

Auooluwa Balogun, a first-year Pratt student from Nigeria, said getting out of her comfort zone – and her dad’s recommendation that she try the winter forum – caused her to sign up.  “At first the topic didn’t interest me, but in fact, it’s very relevant,” she said. “I see now why the US does some of the things it does.”