PUBPOL 290: Who's in Charge at Duke?: Leading at Duke in the 20th Century

Spring 2024

Instructor: Andrew Nurkin

Who decides what kind of place a university is? Who sets the boundaries of what can be said in a classroom? What does it take to get a name on — or off — a building? Who controls the student experience, and which groups of people have access to that experience in the first place? How do wealth, politics, and religion define an institution whose mission is the pursuit of knowledge? And to what extent can we imagine a university as a community? Ultimately, these are all questions about who has power — whose voice and labor count — in an institution. As the history of Duke demonstrates, the answer to this question has always been, and remains, contested.  

This course examines the contexts, contours and consequences of leadership flashpoints at Duke between 1900 and 2000, each of which shaped the University we have inherited in 2024 and which we will transmit to the students, faculty, staff and community who come after us. In each case, students will consider the contested stakes and competing visions for what Duke University would become, asking how each major constituency — students, faculty, administration, trustees, donors, alumni, staff, the United Methodist Church, and residents of Durham — influenced the outcome of choices about the very nature of the institution. In the process, students will study how leadership functions in a complex institution with multiple nodes of power and often conflicting priorities, and ask to what extent we understand Duke as both an institution and a community. Through collaborative research projects on topics of their own choosing, students will co-create a multi-year inquiry into Duke history and reflect on how they experience the long tail of past decisions in their everyday lives now. 

Students will spend substantial time working with primary source and archival materials as we seek to understand the nuances of each leadership moment from the perspectives of those who were involved and impacted at the time. Working in groups, students will then collaborate on a public exhibition that will interpret their research and document how we continue to feel their effects in 2024.

Inspired by Duke's centennial, this course begins a new multi-year project that aims to explore whose voices and labor count in the construction of Duke as an institution and community. This project begins from the premise that universities, by their nature, are always contested communities in which the tension between allegedly shared values and materially divergent interests is negotiated through the interplay of different forms of power and potentially competing definitions of leadership, labor, justice and worth. “Who’s in charge at Duke?” seeks to understand this interplay in the context of our institution, resisting the temptation of a definitive institutional history in pursuit of a meaningful and nuanced interrogation of who — and what — Duke is.

  • HISTORY 290
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