Arts & Sciences Council

Dean's Addresses


Valerie Sheares Ashby
Dean of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
September 8, 2016

Thank you to members of Arts & Sciences Council for the opportunity to speak with you today. I am grateful to each of you who serve and participate in order to keep Trinity moving forward. Welcome the 2016 Academic Year.

First, let me say that it was such a thrill to welcome the Class of 2020 to Duke on Tuesday, August 23. If you have never witnessed move in day, you have missed a real treat.  Many thanks to Vice President Larry Moneta’s entire team in Student Affairs and Residential Life for making that transition to Duke as smooth and as welcoming as possible for the class of 2020 and for their families.  I hope you have also had the chance to view some of the fun, high energy New Student Program videos developed by Student Affairs. Our first-year students have had a first rate introduction to campus and Duke’s many support centers, and this is an important foundation from which to launch their academic engagement with us.

The entire week of welcome is a reminder of why we are here--to deliver a world class liberal arts education in a research environment. To cultivate students who will leave Duke committed to sharing their knowledge, to continued learning and to leadership and service to society. That’s who we are. And that is what you do really well.

What a pleasure it is to have a new group of eager and imaginative undergraduate and graduate student colleagues to join with us in this mission. If you participated in or watched convocation, you undoubtedly share my appreciation for Vice Provost Steve Nowicki’s thoughtful “Know Thy Selfie” message, encouraging students to engage deeply in the opportunities Duke has to offer. It is equally as exciting that this class includes the first cohort of Washington Duke Scholars. Congratulations to Steve and his team on launching this effort.

The other inspiring event of last week was the Trinity New Faculty Orientation. We welcomed a brilliant, committed group of new colleagues to Art, Art History & Visual Studies; Asian & Middle Eastern Studies; Economics; Education; English; History; Political Science; Psychology & Neuroscience; Sociology; Statistical Science and Theater Studies. I encourage you to reach out to these new faculty members, to invite them to dinner in your homes, and to help them become deeply rooted in our research culture. 

Humanities Division

Not only is change happening with faculty and students, but also within the Trinity Deans staff.  We welcome art historian Gennifer Weisenfeld as she begins her first semester as Dean of the Humanities.

I am already pleased with Dean Weisenfeld’s efforts and plans for the humanities for the coming year. We are mindful that Duke’s rankings and reputation have been significantly bolstered by the university’s serious commitment to the humanities.  Our departments are outstanding. Our faculty are national and international leaders, and the education that they deliver to our students continually places us in a leadership position with our peer institutions. We are deeply committed to keeping our excellent humanities departments and programs leading and strong in the years to come. This requires attention and intention.

Gennifer is beginning her efforts with a commitment to build an engaged humanities team of major stakeholders across Trinity to unify the message and enhance the visibility of the humanities on multiple fronts. She will continue to actively partner with the Franklin Humanities Institute to craft support for the direction and priorities of the humanities, including pursuing new funding opportunities that build on our already extraordinary track record of success. We hear you that we need more proposal support for the humanities, and so does our Vice Provost for Research. This is why we are now in the process of searching to fill the newly created position—Director of Research Opportunities— based at FHI, who will take a lead role in coordinating complex projects across university units, including identifying, facilitating, managing and submitting new interdisciplinary research proposals. At the same time, Gennifer is also coordinating staff from multiple offices to assist across the board with grant identification and management both pre-award and post-award.

She is actively engaged with undergraduate admissions to ensure that prospective students are exposed to the vibrant academic paths we have to offer in the humanities.

We will also continue to cultivate Duke’s signature brand of humanities interdisciplinarity in our undergraduate and graduate programs. One example of this work is the collaboration with Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies Ed Balleisen through the new National Endowment for the Humanities grant that aims to enhance humanities doctoral training opportunities.

This is also an energizing time for the Arts, with the new performance building construction proceeding rapidly. Gennifer is committed to partnering with Vice Provost Scott Lindroth as he spearheads efforts in the Arts, ensuring that everyone is discussing the dynamic synergies of the Arts and Humanities.

Academic Affairs

We also welcome mathematical physicist Arlie Petters as Dean of Academic Affairs and Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.

Arlie is already looking at the Academic Affairs infrastructure decanally and technologically to enhance its role as an intellectual catalyst. For example, he is exploring how new technology can enhance Academic Affairs’ administrative interactions with students.

Arlie also seeks to strengthen the role of the directors of undergraduate studies. He will consult with them as the academic stewards of departmental majors and undergraduate instruction. With plans for our new curriculum coming together, there is opportunity to thoughtfully review our Trinity majors for excellence.

He intends to explore developing STEM pathways in close partnership with directors of undergraduate studies, chairs and Dan Kiehart, divisional dean of the natural sciences. Arlie is also interested in expanding elements of the successful Cardea Fellows Program to broadly include STEM students—not just those in the program itself. The Cardea program enhances students’ academic competitiveness by forming learning communities that help establish a critical foundation in the natural sciences.

He looks to broaden research opportunities for all undergraduates—especially in the humanities and social sciences. Arlie will work in collaboration with the Gennifer Weisenfeld, dean of the humanities, and Linda Burton, dean of social sciences, to create more faculty-mentored research opportunities for students in these fields.

And, he and his team are already working to create a vibrant, online undergraduate research journal to showcase our students’ signature work. The journal will capture Duke’s ethos—creating a venue to express the richness of our students’ academic experiences, from bring global to local work, to service learning, to curricular and co-curricular work.

This year our advising system incorporates a new structure that organizes advising by dorms. Advising remains a critical part of what we do, and Arlie is partnering with Vice Provost Steve Nowicki to roll out plans initiated by Lee Baker, the Academic Advising Center and Steve. First-year students are supported by a network of advisers and an academic dean assigned to them based on their dorm. The academic dean will then support those students for their entire time in Trinity College. This continuity will encourage the deeper relationships that we know students want and need.


Finally, we are delighted to welcome Chris Clarke as Senior Assistant Vice President for Trinity College and Graduate School Development. Although Chris did not officially start his position until August 1st, he has already begun his listening tour with departments.

As you know, we are coming to the end of the DukeForward campaign. Chris is now leading an effort to better resource the needs of Trinity College post campaign. He is implementing changes to the structure of the Trinity Fundraising Team to more closely serve each division of Trinity and our departments. The goal is both to sustain the excellence we already have and to enable growth in new areas as identified in our evolving strategic plan. Chris will ensure that the needs and focus of Trinity College are clearly understood in relationship to the needs of the larger university.

He is working now to deepen relationships with Duke's nearly 200 frontline fundraisers and more tightly connect those individuals with our divisions. He plans to invest in enabling their work on our behalf by providing clear thought leadership on our needs, and new content that can be used to shape giving opportunities for both individual prospects and charitable foundations.

In addition to these new efforts, we will continue building and supporting the social sciences and the natural sciences.

Social Sciences Division

The Social Sciences continue to be led by sociologist Linda Burton. In the coming year, Linda plans to convene scholars working in common thematic areas to enhance collaborations and to bring visibility to what are deep areas of strength in the division. Just like Duke social science is known for population studies across the life span, we want to cultivate reputational visibility in other areas as well. For example, we are conducting an extraordinary breadth of interdisciplinary research on race, inequality, culture, and health disparities. Several of our newest hires work in this area, including Tyson Brown in Sociology, Elika Bergelson and Sarah Gaither in P & N, Adam Mesytan, in History, Melanie Manion in Political Science, in Adam Rosen in Economics, and Martin Smith in the Program in Education. Other research areas that bridge our departments and divisions include Africanist studies and Mid-Eastern studies.

Linda plans to invest heavily in supporting and mentoring the faculty at all stages of their career to secure federal and private funding. Additionally, she wants to energize efforts to help individual social science faculty advance in leadership roles in their professional societies, both nationally and internationally. For example, Eduardo Bonilla Silva has just been elected President of both the national American Sociological Association and the Southern Sociological Association. She plans to engage departments in nominating faculty for highly competitive honors and increase our faculty’s leadership in national associations.

Natural Sciences Division

In the Natural Sciences, under the leadership of Divisional Dean Dan Kiehart, we are poised to aggressively seek excellence on all fronts. Dan, in collaboration with Larry Carin, Vice Provost for Research, is co-chairing Provost Kornbluth’s Quantitative Initiative – a multi-million dollar investment in new faculty who might impact all the Natural Sciences and Big Duke as well. Indeed, our first hire (of an estimated 5 to 7 hires) has brought Peter Hoff to the Statistics Department at Duke. Peter‘s research focus is on analysis of networks, social and otherwise and how to make sense of them.

In addition, a donor’s generous gift, most easily described as for “Physics Plus,” is initially designed to upgrade the infrastructure of imaging on campus, which will benefit students and faculty in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, the Pratt School and the SoM.

A similar gift to A&S is focused on computation and has three main goals: to increase the attraction to and retention of women in Computer Science and Engineering; to champion a new curriculum in mobile computing and computing systems; and to graduate computer scientists and engineers with “can do” skills that are immediately applicable to industry. The gift has supported the launch of the Duke Technology Scholars Program or D-Tech for short. This is an immersive experience that provided 12 internships for undergraduate women in tech companies. For these women, the experience was game changing – several received job offers and the vast majority of them were convinced to pursue their computer science or computer engineering degrees and seek careers in the tech industry following graduation.

The Natural Sciences continue to address additional, acute needs for “infrastructure” such as teaching and laboratory space, experimental capabilities, and “collision spaces.” Additional space and/or the renovation of existing space are required for virtually all of the natural science departments.

Finally, Dan looks forward to working with his colleague Arlie Petters and our departments on curriculum changes that foster excellence in the delivery of STEM education to all Duke students.

Strategic Planning for Trinity College of Arts & Sciences

Having had the opportunity last year to begin to make my rounds at Duke with faculty, staff, students, parents and alumni and to learn the ethos and landscape that is Trinity College, my goal this year is to dedicate more time to chairs of departments and to faculty as we continue to address the questions that we introduced last year: 

  • What is unique about my department or where should we be preparing to lead?
  • What is going to drive the very best faculty, students and staff choose to come to Duke? How can we advance through commitment to our overall mission of teaching, research and service such that our colleagues remain here as leaders in their fields and examples for a new generation of scholars?
  • How will the curriculum, research and civic engagement, centers, institutes and other experiences at Duke contribute to or be an integral part of this conversation and goal of excellence through the next decade.

As you know, each department worked on its own strategic plans over the last year and a half. There is tremendous value to thoughtfully evaluating strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats; these exercises allow us to make the right decisions on how to sustain areas of excellence, where to shift gears, and where to invest moving forward. This year we will delve more deeply into those plans as part of the overall Trinity College strategic planning process, which parallels the university’s own planning process.

Undergraduate Curriculum

With more than two years of discussion and revision, a vote will take place in A&S Council this year on a thoughtful renewal of our undergraduate curriculum. This is an important moment for us as a university—one where we seek to keep the best of Curriculum 2000 and open ourselves to new innovations and possibilities. I deeply value the free and open inquiry and exchange that now brings us to this important opportunity.  After 16 years, it is time for us to transform our curriculum knowing that it will shape our departments, faculty and students in the years to come. It is not trivial to make such a change, I know. But we all recognize that our students today are very different from those in the year 2000. They have literally grown up with technology and social media as a seamless part of their lives.

It is not the Duke ethos to rest on what was, but instead to lead. Duke is already a leader in undergraduate education, and that makes it even more exciting to see what we are going to create together for our new curriculum.

Our guiding principle in developing our undergraduate liberal arts curriculum is to help students craft a coherent educational experience across their four college years. We must frame for students an intellectually captivating introduction to Duke’s scholarly community, and make sure that our introductory and gateway courses are of the finest quality. We must continue to ground student education in both general knowledge of human cultures and the physical, and natural worlds. And, we seek to build on those introductory experiences to provide meaningful pathways within a disciplinary or interdisciplinary field in which they can pursue what the higher educational community calls “signature work,” whether that work is a capstone, an internship, community-based research fieldwork, or graduation with distinction.

Our goal is not that students just take in information, but that they are engaged partners in discovery, and they are able to make meaning of information to become equipped to lead productive and satisfying lives.

I am grateful to the entire Imagining the Duke Curriculum committee under the leadership of sociologist Suzanne Shanahan. I appreciate their efforts to listen across the college to all concerns and aspirations for the education that we will deliver to our undergraduates.

Leadership & Excellence

As you recall from my address last year, the three high level strategic organizing themes for Trinity College are Leadership & Mentoring, Excellence, and Diversity. I will speak now on Leadership & Excellence

Investment in growth of our own people is a high priority. In addition to the mentoring of assistant and associate professors that began last year, this year we will assess more clearly the needs of associate professors and begin to reach out to hear your perspectives on the needs of our professors of the practice. We will also begin identifying and developing colleagues for future leadership opportunities. Cultivating a leadership pipeline is critically important as we will have 12 departments looking for new chairs next year. The preparation of colleagues for leadership not only as chairs but also in other capacities is vital to the health and advancement of the college and our departments. Moreover, we see this as a form of preemptive retention because we plan to keep our best talent here at Duke.  We hope to retain faculty members who seek a broader, fulfilling leadership opportunity, if such an opportunity could exist at Duke.

This discussion is also happening at the Provostial level and will be a part of the responsibility of the Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement position for which a search is now underway. We will begin our efforts within Trinity this year and will partner with the new vice provost’s office in the coming years.


Broad ranging diversity efforts in Trinity are underway. The Trinity Diversity Advisory Committee (TDAC), composed of faculty and staff, began their conversations and planning in the spring semester. While we are still in the planning stages of several activities, I will highlight a few that are underway.

First, we recognize the desire of both faculty and staff to be better equipped to productively engage with issues of race, identity and inequality. To that end, we asked Ben Reese, vice president of the Office for Institutional Equity, to lead Implicit Bias Workshops for the Trinity Dean’s staff. More than 90% of the staff members voluntarily completed that training, and several departments have followed suit to make the training available to their own staff.

In addition, every faculty search committee has and will continue to participate in the Implicit Bias workshop prior to the beginning of all faculty searches. And since we understand that culture change comes from shaping expectations, our amazing new group of Trinity faculty concluded their new faculty orientation last week with the implicit bias workshop, again led by Ben Reese. I must tell you that the feedback and conversation that happened among those new faculty members was inspiring.

We are continuing the Teaching for Equity Fellowship program. This is a year-long series of workshops that provide faculty with tools for addressing issues around identity, race and racism in our classrooms. We launched this as a pilot program last year in response to direct feedback from our faculty.

In the 2015/16 academic year, 14 Trinity faculty participated in the pilot that was generously supported by the Provost’s Office through the Duke Human Rights Center in the Franklin Humanities Institute. In their assessment of the experience, our faculty found tremendous value in what they learned. They became attuned to implicit assumptions about values, standards, and cultural norms attached to racial and other identities and learned how these factors might affect the classroom experience. They gained specific skills and strategies to create a classroom culture that benefits all our students whether the topic is philosophy, music, sociology or physics. They gained a renewed desire for free and open inquiry, and a newfound appreciation for the opinions, views and history that each one of us brings to the classroom. The new cohort of 20 faculty members was just chosen and began the program in August. We anticipate expanding to two cohorts beginning in the Fall of 2017.

TDAC will continue discussions this fall with the hope of introducing a format for conversations with first-year students in the dorms, perhaps with Academic Deans, faculty, staff and peers on topics of diversity and inclusion, the meaning of the liberal arts experience and the breadth of ideas and people that one might engage at Duke.

On another front, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Samuel Dubois Cook Society on the Duke campus. Dr. Cooke was the first African American faculty member to join the Duke faculty in 1966. In collaboration with the Office of Institutional Equity, we will launch a yearlong celebration commemorating the 20th year of the Cook Society. While this celebration is directly tied to the first African American faculty member on Duke’s campus, our intention is that the activities of this year will be the start of ongoing broader faculty community building among all faculty at Duke.

This fall a group of faculty and students will also assess and propose ideas for Asian American Studies at Duke. Two leading scholars in the field will visit campus to participate in these conversations, and to work with the group to propose a path forward. This model is one that we will likely follow for other groups with whom we are currently working and seeking creative ideas that span academic and student affairs.

And you will see us partnering more closely with the Office of Student Affairs in ways that foster more awareness and interaction.

Finally, I have an exciting announcement for the upcoming year:

First, Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Chicana or Chicano American poet laureate will be visiting Duke.  There will more details on the events that will surround the visit and presentation soon. We will partner with Program in Latino/a Studies in the Global South on these efforts.

As I hope that you can see, our goal is for students, faculty and staff to have a sense of belonging at Duke. Period.

I will end this address where I began. What a thrill it is to begin a new academic year. Yes, we will have challenges, some known and others unknown, but our mission and our colleagues and students continue to energize each one of us in the Deans office. Every day, we seek to provide a superior liberal arts education, attending not only to students’ intellectual growth but also to their development as adults committed to full participation as leaders in their communities. Together we seek to advance the frontiers of knowledge and contribute to the international community of scholarship. We are committed to promoting an intellectual environment built on a commitment to free and open inquiry. And we have the privilege of seeking to promote a deep appreciation for the range of human difference and potential. We willingly acknowledge the obligations and rewards of this mission, and we to choose to re-commit every year to learning and freedom. To truth and progress.

When we work with our eye on this mission, Duke is at its very best. If we focus on these goals, Duke will continue to be unrivaled. When we remain committed to these efforts, we will attract and retain those who want to be a part of a university that does not become discouraged by its challenges or complacent with its accomplishments.

Thanks so much for your patience, partnership and encouragement this year.