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Richard Brodhead: What Students Have Learned From Facing Disruption

Duke President Emeritus Richard Brodhead speaks at DKU commencement.
Duke President Emeritus Richard Brodhead speaks at DKU commencement.

Chancellor Feng, colleagues from Wuhan, Duke and Kunshan who built this venture together, faculty, parents, DKU Class of 2022: what an honor to speak at DKU’s first undergraduate graduation. On a happy day in August 2018 I spoke to you as you entered college—do you remember? After eight years spent planning and building, we had a campus, we had faculty, and that day we acquired the last ingredient needed to bring DKU to life: brilliant, talented students, students with a pioneering spirit who, from all the universities they could have chosen, were attracted to this new school’s promise of global education and 21st century learning styles. Four years later, you did it! You rose to every challenge, you have made DKU known around the world with your achievements, and now you are ready to set off for a bright future. Well done!

But let’s be truthful: although you reached the finish line, the road was not as straight or smooth as we had in mind. Since China began emerging as a global superpower, we have all known that there would be elements of competition and cooperation in its relation with the United States. DKU was conceived at the high water mark in the spirit of cooperation: a joint venture university is the perfect image of this ideal of engagement across bounds of difference. Since then, as you know, relations between these powers have become much more competitive, more distrustful on both sides on multiple fronts. But then, geopolitical estrangement was suddenly compounded by a much more literal separation. As the COVID virus circled the world, economies and population centers shut down, doors were slammed closed to prevent the spread of infection, cross-border travel was terminated, and, having harmlessly traveled to celebrate a holiday, DKU’s students and faculty found themselves continents apart, unable to rejoin the community they had so recently created.

In years before the pandemic hit, “disruption” was a high word of praise in American business circles. People talked as if familiar businesses were suddenly dull and dumb, entrepreneurs were coming to disrupt everything, and we would soon live in a disrupter’s paradise of continual innovation. COVID reminded us that “disruption” is not always such a positive thing—that disruption is, well, VERY DISRUPTIVE! Did a university ever have a harder start in life than DKU?

In fact, the answer is yes. I went to Yale, a university founded 320 years ago. Yale is world-renowned now, but at the start it had only a handful of students who had to live in their teachers’ home in a remote rural town. When the first rector died, the college had no leader for a decade, and students found the housing and teaching so bad that they threatened to leave. Eventually this college with 30 total students disintegrated into three minuscule groups offering instruction in three widely separate towns. It did not have its own building for 17 years. Our other speaker, Westlake President Shi, attended Tsinghua. Not long after Tsinghua became a full-fledged university, it had to pack up and flee the Japanese invasion in 1937, temporarily merging with three other schools to form a university in exile in Kumming.

My point is this: universities have never existed outside of conflict and disruption. With their serene expanses of lawn or water, university campuses look to be places of undisturbed reflection. But universities live in history, not outside it, so they necessarily partake of history’s tumultuous changes. So far from being fragile blossoms that can only grow in protected places, universities have survived all manner of challenges that might have seemed fatal to them—and preparing people who can survive and thrive in change is one of their key missions.

Which brings me back to you, Class of 2022. Things did not work out as you expected when you arrived at DKU in pre-COVID days. Our ceremony this evening (and morning) puts the matter starkly: I am addressing some of you live in Durham, some of you by video in Kunshan and elsewhere, forced apart on the day you should have celebrated together. I do not underestimate the disappointment and frustration you must have felt. I’m sorry for it. But I tell you with confidence, these disruptions will not keep you from gaining the benefits you sought when you chose a college.

You came to DKU not to gain narrow mastery of a subject but to develop broad capacities and strengths of mind. You chose a university that aims to make students active participants in the work of understanding, not passive recipients of what others already know. You chose a place based not on solitary achievement but collaboration with others across a broad array of cultures, in which you can learn how others see, and how to build together what no one of you could build alone. You came here, in short, to develop yourself into someone who could be an active shaper of the life of your times, in the many fields where global societies need creative intelligence.

And the disruption? That was regrettable, but that was an education too. When nothing could continue as planned, you did not just throw up your hands or go home and cry. Drawing on the collective ingenuity of the DKU community, you envisioned Plan B, then if necessary Plan C, or even Plan D. You used your imagination to figure out how to pursue an unchanged goal through ever-changing circumstances that threatened to thwart your journey toward that goal.

This will be not the least valuable strength you built in the past four years. The world you will to have your lives in isn’t going to be a steady state. It will be scene of endless transformation, full of upheaval and permutation, where even the best plans grow quickly obsolete while the future can’t be known with certainty until it appears. Who can succeed in a world like that? Men and women who combine deep reserves of knowledge with well-developed skills of creative adaptation, plus courage and tenacity and commitment to their goals.  Thanks to both what we did plan and what we never could or would have planned during four years at DKU, you are such a person today.

I have often heard that the Chinese attach high importance to luck or good fortune. On the day of your graduation, I wish you luck—as we say in the USA, I wish you all the luck in the world. But luck is an external and a fickle ally, and your education has given you something better than luck. It has given you the inner resources to help make better outcomes for yourself and others whatever challenges life throws at you. Every part of the globe needs good people to make a better world for all. Go do your part. Thank you and congratulations.