Duke faculty wants a word with campus bosses about student life

Signaling interest in keeping closer tabs on the institution’s student-affairs operation, Duke University’s version of a faculty senate has begun moving to set up a committee to offer “advice and guidance” to the campus administration on matters that affect student life.

The initiative from Duke’s Academic Council comes in the waning months of outgoing President Richard Brodhead’s tenure, and by the account of council Chairwoman Nan Jokerst follows queries from student groups that reached its executive committee over the past two years.

The council’s new “student affairs committee” is supposed to include eight professors drawn mostly from schools and departments that cater to undergraduates, plus the presidents of the undergraduate and graduate student governments.

“Though we are mindful of the fact that [as] faculty, our bailiwick is academics and student affairs is not our responsibility, nevertheless it’s clear that student life affects student education and therefore we should have a voice in that to the extent that it’s appropriate,” said Emily Klein, a Nicholas School of the Environment earth-sciences professor and member of the Academic Council’s inner-circle executive committee.

In setting up the student-affairs panel, the council to some degree is turning back the clock, as it once had advisory groups to deal with such issues. But they went by the board after Duke named a biology professor, Steve Nowicki, its dean of undergraduate education in 2007.

There was then an “expectation that Steve’s office would take over having a faculty advisory board, but to my knowledge, there is not one,” Klein told council members as she explained the proposal earlier this spring.

She and Jokerst indicated that the executive committee at times has found itself caught between students groups and the administration the past couple of years. The undergraduate student government came to it with requests for help in 2015 and 2016, and graduate-student groups likewise brought to it such issues as “dental care and access to Duke facilities [they thought] the faculty may be able to help with,” Jokerst said.

On the flip side, the executive committee and the Academic Council had some questions of their own, about such matters as the April 1, 2015, “noose incident” outside the Bryan Center and the April 2016 sit-in at the Allen Building, Klein said.

Combined, those prods and pressures sparked interest in resurrecting some sort of a student affairs advisory panel. Conversations with administrators ensued, and ultimately Nowicki, Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta and Provost Sally Kornbluth all lent the idea their support.

At least on Kornbluth’s end, however, support comes with a caveat. Speaking to the Academic Council, she underscored that the panel’s role is strictly advisory.

“What we don’t want is students getting an answer they don’t like in one place and then going to another place to advocate,” Kornbluth said. “I think it should be really an open dialogue between the administration and the faculty committee. Otherwise, it will fall apart.”

But the Academic Council, elected by Duke’s professors, isn’t the only high-level group on campus that wants to know more about what students affairs is up to.

The University Priorities Committee, a panel of professors and administrators appointed by Brodhead that works with him on budget issues, recently filed its 2016-17 annual report and in it said there’s need for “improved communication” about capital-construction planning for student housing.

Many professors on the University Priorities Committee were “caught off guard” by “the magnitude of student housing needs and costs” that accumulated as Duke put money into its academic programs, the report said.

The issue also goes to a quirk of Duke’s current personnel lineup, which is that Nowicki and Moneta, in reporting to Kornbluth, work for a provost whose academic roots until 2014 were in the university’s School of Medicine. While it’s Duke’s research powerhouse, the med school’s involvement with the undergraduate side of the house is limited because it doesn’t offer any bachelor’s degrees.

Kornbluth’s predecessor, former Provost Peter Lange, came to the job from Duke’s political science department, which offers the full range of degree programs for undergraduates and graduate students.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg