In this issue of MEDICUS, special In Conversation With guest host Duke-NUS Dean Thomas Coffman speaks to the presidents of Duke-NUS’ parent universities—Duke University and the National University of Singapore (NUS). In this two-part special, Duke President Vincent E Price and NUS President Tan Eng Chye share their perspectives on how the pandemic has impacted university communities, what the future of learning and higher education will look like and how they cope with the responsibilities and demands of leading a top global institution.
Thomas Coffman: It has been 16 years since Duke University and NUS began their partnership to establish Duke-NUS as the first and only graduate entry medical school in Singapore. Could you share your reflections on the history of Duke-NUS and what you might see as the role of the School going forward?
Vincent Price: Duke-NUS’ history, in many ways, mirrors the ascendancy of Duke University and the National University of Singapore, which both rose quite rapidly over the last half century to become leading universities in the world. The Duke-NUS model was unique for Singapore with its graduate-level programme and academic medicine partnership with SingHealth, allowing the School to lead the way in advanced education and translational and clinical research excellence.
It has been one of our most successful global ventures and I’m very bullish about the future of Duke-NUS. The future will present challenges for academic medicine as we move towards a population health and preventative care model, where health systems essentially take responsibility for a patient all the way. But Duke-NUS is clearly ready to meet those challenges and seize them as opportunities. As successful as Duke-NUS has been so far, I believe its biggest impact has yet to come.
Thomas Coffman: Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been impressed by how Duke has managed to keep going, avoiding major outbreaks on campus, advancing research and delivering care. Could you share your reflections on what has made these possible?
Vincent Price: The pandemic has illustrated, in powerful ways, that our individual health is dependent on community health. What has carried Duke through so successfully is the strength of our community. It’s also demonstrated the value of being a university with a world-class academic medical centre.
One of my deepest fears was that, by bringing students from around the country to Durham, we might propagate an outbreak. So, we asked them all to sign on to the Duke Compact, a set of behavioural expectations that stressed the need not just to protect yourself but also protect members of our community, including our neighbours in Durham. And our students really did step up. Rates of transmission throughout the fall were markedly lower on the campus than in the rest of the community.
We also had a bit of a head start because of the work that was taking place at Duke-NUS and our experience with Duke Kunshan University in China. After making the initial transition to virtual learning at Duke last spring, we laid the groundwork for a very successful academic year. Nearly all of our students were on campus throughout, taking a mix of in-person and remote classes. We successfully carried out our research mission. We even managed to compete in intercollegiate athletics, winning seven Atlantic Coast Conference championships—more than any other school in the ACC!
It required enormous efforts from thousands of people from the faculty to housekeepers and food service workers to the staff at our Human Vaccine Institute who ended up doing upwards of 25,000 PCR COVID surveillance tests every week throughout the year.
This year, Duke was even able to host its Commencement in person at the Wallace Wade Stadium where multiplatinum-selling singer-songwriter, actor, producer and philanthropist John Legend (centre) delivered the keynote address.
Thomas Coffman: That’s a tremendous effort. How do you keep your community motivated?
Vincent Price: I like to remind people that this is not the first time Duke has faced a pandemic. When we were still Trinity College, the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 swept through Durham, severely affecting the College. But they stayed in operation. And it was during that period that the leadership of Trinity College talking with James Buchanan Duke laid the groundwork for Duke University.
Similarly, this time round, we did not stay in any state of suspended animation just to deal with the pandemic; we found ways to push through. The key is focusing on teamwork. Outstanding interdisciplinary teamwork—that’s what made the difference over the past 18 months.
Thomas Coffman: While the Duke community has demonstrated resilience, the pandemic has exacerbated mental health concerns. How is Duke approaching mental wellness?
Vincent Price: We have been acutely sensitive to the mental health concerns of our students, faculty and staff. The first strategic decision we made was to retain—and we very successfully retained—employment for our faculty and staff even when we went into a reduced operational mode. We also implemented a salary increase programme for the least well-paid staff members. We also put in place new programmes last year that made it possible for students to access mental health services and counseling online regardless of where they were.
Thomas Coffman: One thing we encourage our staff to do is to pay attention to their life outside of work. So, I’d be interested to hear how you unwind from the massive and all-encompassing work of being university President.
Vincent Price: It may be massive and all-encompassing, but it’s a lot of fun. My wife and I enjoy long walks with our two dogs—a labradoodle name Cricket and a goldendoodle named Scout. Another thing that I indulge in is construction and home renovation. My wife and I have a place out West that is a fixer-upper, and so we’ll spend some time there this summer and I’ve got lots of nice projects to undertake there.
President Price chats with two first-year students who pet Scout as Cricket looks on during A Taste of Duke picnic on the East Campus Gazebo Lawn in August 2017
Thomas Coffman: That part doesn’t sound like so much fun to me because I can’t even hammer a nail. But NUS President Tan Eng Chye and I share your enjoyment of nature walks. Thinking about the future of education, what are your thoughts about the role of virtual learning and should it be retained beyond the pandemic?
Vincent Price: We’ve been trending in this direction for a long time through innovations such as flipped classrooms. Duke-NUS has been a pioneer on that front, and we’ve adopted some of those curricular innovations here at Duke. But fundamentally, Duke and NUS are high-touch in-person residential experiences and I don’t see either of our institutions changing that approach.
However, the transition to an online model has opened the eyes of a lot of our faculty and students. These technologies provide opportunities for just-in-time on-demand access to educational materials that support stronger individual pacing and a mastery learning model of teaching, and there is enormous value in that.
And it’s been invigorating to see our faculty come up with innovative ways to integrate online and digital experiences with their courses and research. We’ve also seen it (technology) transform student life. It’s transformed how we manage the university and the way we engage with our alumni. During the pandemic, we’ve begun developing lifelong learning in a serious way, substantially increasing virtual programmes and launching our lifelong learning institute.
All of these are tremendous opportunities and I fully expect that we’ll see them embedded in a lot of what we do.
Thomas Coffman: While the pandemic has resulted in new opportunities to engage with people regardless of location, it has hampered physical mobility. Has this affected interest from international students?
Vincent Price: Applications from international students grew tremendously this year at Duke, which is contrary to predictions. Likewise, the interest of Duke students in studying overseas has also grown. And I’m confident that leading global institutions like Duke, NUS and Duke-NUS will continue to see very strong interest from students and faculty alike.
The global pandemic really has drawn attention to the need for deeper global engagement and I think our students feel this palpably and are drawn to it.
Thomas Coffman: Picking up on this idea of wider engagement, Duke has long led the way in interdisciplinary education, so can you share your views on how interdisciplinarity will influence education?
Vincent Price: We have devoted a lot of time and effort to reinventing a modern interdisciplinary experience for students. For a research institution in particular, there’s an opportunity to fuse discovery with the educational enterprise by inviting every student to think of their education as a journey of discovery and themselves as researchers from day one, actively engaged in research.
We have enormous flexibility in our curriculum and students are encouraged to work across departmental boundaries to combine their interests and translate those interests into action. We do this also through programmes like our intensive Data Plus summer programme or Bass Connections, which brings together undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs and faculty in team-based learning and research projects, usually with outside partners as well.
Two years ago, we launched a major science and technology initiative, which incorporates data-intensive approaches in every field and infuses computational thinking across the curriculum of the entire university. And now, we’re preparing to launch a university-wide programme to address climate change and sustainability. This will bring climate literacy to students at every level and in every field because any working professional will have to grapple with these issues. We’re also committed to addressing enduring social and racial inequities and equipping our students to work effectively with people of diverse cultures and backgrounds.
We want to make interdisciplinary teamwork, an appreciation for diverse people and perspectives and a willingness to take on big challenges the hallmarks of a Duke education and our graduates.
Thomas Coffman: That’s fantastic. One of the successes of the pandemic has been the mobilisation of research across academic and commercial areas. What is your view on the role of university-based research in addressing a global crisis?
Vincent Price: Since the latter half of the 20th century, universities have become engines of new products and services, with an appropriate focus on knowledge that can be translated into new practices. And the public does—and should—have an expectation that their investments in these research institutions will deliver value and impact. But we also have a duty to foster unguided scholastic inquiry in basic science as well as the humanities. It is often accidental or seemingly minor discoveries that trigger the next leap. If public demands for outputs and accountability become excessive, we will run the risk of strangling the long-term value proposition.
Thomas Coffman: Any last thoughts you’d like to share?
Vincent Price: The pandemic, I think, offers us an opportunity to focus less on what we’re missing and more on what we have. We have a little more time with family. We have a lot more time with dogs, for those of us who have dogs in the household. So, let’s be more content with the slower pace. And express your appreciation for all of the folks who helped us get by. I would like to see us retain that same respect and admiration for each other beyond the pandemic.
Thomas Coffman: Thank you, President Price, for sharing your insights with us.