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Home >> Opinion
UPDATED: 17:06, January 11, 2007
"No one can buy their way into Duke"
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Duke University was created in 1924 by James Buchanan Duke as a memorial to his father, Washington Duke. Located in Durham, North Carolina, USA, the University has grown into one of the best universities in America and even in the world. In its 2007 edition, U.S. News & World Report ranked the Duke University the 8th national top university. Duke's research expenditures are among the largest in the U.S. and its athletic program is one of the nation's elite.

Yong Tang, a Washington-based correspondent of People's Daily, did an exclusive written interview recently with Duke University President Richard Brodhead.

Mr. Richard Brodhead. The photo was taken when he was the Dean of Yale College.

Duke University President Richard Brodhead

Yong Tang: What is the most important standard for admissions? During an interview in Beijing, you said that the standard is clear: Duke prefers student applicants who are intelligent, curious and able to think independently. Why are those three qualities so important?

Brodhead: People who have those qualities -- intelligence, curiosity, creativity �C have the kind of versatility that will help them succeed in the future. The best students don't just come up with the correct answers; they think up new questions. They may start with one specialization, and then move on to another, following their intellectual curiosity. When those qualities are paired with a willingness to work hard, it means the students can quickly change directions when new challenges arise. I believe this flexibility will become increasingly important as the demands on our students �C and on all of us �C intensify in the future.

Yong Tang: Top universities in America often deny applicants who have just excellent scores and admit students whose test scores are just so-so but they have demonstrated broader interest and intellectual horizon. Why?

Brodhead: When we consider applicants, we evaluate the person as a whole, not just his or her test scores. Academic excellence is our first priority but we recognize that test scores are not the only measure of excellence. We also take into consideration whether a student has other strengths to bring to our community. An ideal Duke student would be someone who excels in academics but also is talented in other ways and has a variety of interests. That combination allows students to contribute to the intellectual and cultural life of our community in a number of ways.

Yong Tang: There is a rumor that top American universities prefer to admit students who have strong social background. For example, according to a news story, a niece of American President George Bush was admitted to Princeton University. Two sons of former Vice President Al Gore were admitted to Harvard and Princeton respectively. The daughter of film star Jane Fonda was admitted to Brown University after Fonda donated 750,000 dollars to Brown. Without strong family background, all the above mentioned admissions would not be possible. How do you think of the rumor?

Brodhead: No one can buy their way into Duke. Every student who gains admittance is well qualified to be here and has something to offer the community. Admittance to Duke is extremely competitive, which means we are unable to accept many candidates who have exceptional qualifications. As I noted before, we consider applicants as individuals, not just on the basis of their test scores, so we are always interested in someone who is not only strong academically but also has special skill as a musician, a writer, an athlete or something else. We also seek ethnic and geographic diversity within the class and give some consideration to applicants who are the children of Duke alumni.

Yong Tang: Duke has excellent sports programs. Why does Duke pay so much attention to sports? What role can sports play in higher education?

Brodhead: Duke is among a small number of American universities that seek to compete at the highest levels of both academics and athletics. We take pride in the fact that Duke students win both national championships in sports and Rhodes Scholarships and other high honors in academics. It's one of the things that sets Duke apart. Participation in intercollegiate sports helps our student-athletes learn teamwork skills, discipline, commitment and the value of working together. For the larger Duke community, our teams help build a sense of belonging and offer a rallying point for people to support the university. Although we never forget that our primary mission is academics, we think sports contribute immeasurably to the lives of our students and the community as a whole.

Yong Tang: Globalization is a reality everybody has to face in higher education today. What is your plan to make Duke a more global university?

Brodhead: You are quite right that globalization is a growing reality �C a trend we are embracing at Duke. A growing percentage of our students come from Asia and other parts of the world, and we have been expanding our collaborations with universities and other institutions around the globe. For example, our law school works extensively with Tsinghua University, Duke recently opened a medical school in Singapore and our business school collaborates with Goethe University in Frankfurt. These are just three of many such examples. If you come to the Duke campus, you'll see classical dance from India, film from Korea and contemporary photography from China, not to mention student groups from these and many other countries. One of the things I love most about Duke is its international flavor.

Yong Tang: What is the most critical challenge for American higher education today?

Brodhead: Universities as we have known them have a habit of thinking competitively, each one advertising its special strengths and hoping to leave its rivals in the dust. The reasons for competition -- for research funding, for the brightest faculty and students -- will continue to exist. But to meet the challenges humanity will face in coming decades, higher education will need to focus far less on institutional competition, and far more on institutional cooperation and partnership. This challenge will require U.S. universities to think differently about how scholarship works and to adjust their policies and habits �C not only with each other, but also with institutions across Asia and the rest of the world.

Yong Tang: Duke is nicknamed as The Harvard of the South or the Ivy League of the South. But Duke is so strong today that some Duke alumni begin to claim that Harvard: The Duke of the North. Which nickname do you prefer, Harvard: the Duke of the North or Duke: the Harvard of the South?

Brodhead: I prefer to think of Harvard as Harvard and Duke as Duke��both fine institutions with distinctive strengths.

Yong Tang: Duke is a top university but in China it is still not very well known. Why is it so and what is your plan to enhance public awareness of Duke in China and even in the world?

Brodhead: You have to remember that Duke is a much younger university than places like Harvard or Yale, yet it already has reached the very highest ranks of American higher education. It's natural that it is not yet as well-known outside the United States but this will surely change over the next few years. Hundreds of China's very best students have already discovered Duke and begun making important contributions in our classrooms, research and other activities. We also have excellent Chinese faculty. As Duke's reputation continues to grow in coming years, I'm confident that public awareness will also grow in China and other countries.

Yong Tang: If you were asked to list five prominent Duke alumni, which five persons would come to your mind? Why?

Brodhead: That's an extremely difficult question because there are so many of them. But I'll tell you some names that come to mind immediately.

Judy Woodruff may be familiar to some Chinese television viewers from her years of reporting for CNN. She's one of America's very best political correspondents, a Duke graduate who is now back on our campus teaching a course.

Melinda Gates studied computer science at Duke as an undergraduate and then went to business school at Duke. She and her husband Bill Gates have received international recognition for their leadership on global issues involving health care, education and other issues. In 2005, Time Magazine selected them and the singer Bono as their "People of the Year."

Another Duke graduate who has been a leader on global health issues is Dr. Paul Farmer. Through his work in Haiti, Rwanda and elsewhere, he has been a powerful force in bringing advanced medical research to people in the world's poorest countries.

Peter Nicholas, who graduated in 1964, started a medical supply firm, Boston Scientific, that has grown to become one of our country's most successful companies��successful not only financially but also in providing products that help save lives.

Since you asked for only five names, I'll conclude with Grant Hill, who is one of the most famous players in the National Basketball Association and also is a leader in serving the community. In addition, he's become a leading collector of African-American art, which we recently showcased in our campus museum. Grant's success illustrates Duke's ambitions in combining high-quality academics and sports.

I'm leaving many people out -- for example, I could also mention Duke graduates who lead firms such as General Motors or Morgan Stanley, who hold important positions in government, who are leaders in science and other fields or who serve their communities in hundreds of other ways across the United States and around the world.

Yong Tang: Usually the older the university the better it is. Duke University is obviously an exception. Duke was created in 1924. It is rather new compared to those Ivy League. What is the advantage and disadvantage of being so new?

Brodhead: Duke's youth is the source of one of its greatest strengths, which is its ability to quickly put ideas into action. You get the sense at Duke that everyone wants to become better. I never hear people say, ��What we have now is fine, it will last for another 100 years.' Instead, there's a real entrepreneurial spirit here. For example, we recently launched a global health institute that brings together experts from medicine, engineering, public policy, law and many other fields. We could do this because we felt free to imagine how to tackle health problems in new ways. Our youth does mean we have fewer financial resources than older schools, such as those in the Ivy League, but we've been successful in raising resources to match our ambitions.

Yong Tang: You received an honorary doctoral degree from Tsinghua University in Beijing in June 2006. The degree from Tsinghua was only the ninth honorary degree to be awarded there to a non-Chinese person, the second to a foreign university leader and the first to a scholar specializing in the humanities. Why did you want to receive an honorary doctoral degree from a Chinese university?

Brodhead: I was so honored to be offered the degree from Tsinghua University, an honor made greater by the rarity of it. I'll never forget the hospitality and warm feeling that I experienced throughout my visit to Tsinghua. As I said in my talk there, we live in a world where great universities such as Duke and Tsinghua have become more important than ever before and need to reach out and work together in new ways.

Yong Tang: You are an expert in 19th-century American literature. American university presidents usually hold degrees in natural sciences. So do you feel difficult to communicate with professors in natural sciences? How does your educational background impact your presidency?

Brodhead: Although many American university presidents do have backgrounds in the social science and natural sciences, my own background in the humanities is not a rarity. For example, my counterpart at the University of North Carolina �C our neighbor and one of America's great public universities �C has a background in music, as did the last president of the University of Chicago. I think the key question for university presidents isn't their particular disciplinary background but, rather, their capacity to learn about other fields, run the university and provide leadership. The truth is that I probably have spent more time recently learning about fields such as medicine and engineering than in my own area of the humanities. For me, that's been one of the most exciting and interesting parts of my job.

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