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Gary G. Bennett portrait
Gary G. Bennett Photo by Chris Hildreth

Gary G. Bennett

Dean, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences

By GARY G. BENNETT, Dean, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences

I was early in my graduate studies at Duke when my faculty adviser asked that I deliver a lecture while he was away. Unfortunately, I showed up late. The next day, I discussed the situation with my adviser, and I’ll never forget his response. Showing the kind of disappointment that can wield an even greater impact than red-hot anger, he said that teaching is “the most important thing we do.”

My adviser was a field-leading scholar. He created new concepts, authored countless articles, earned many millions in grants, was president of our professional organization, and had even written popular books. (One of them landed him an interview with Oprah Winfrey.)

Nonetheless, showing up for those couple dozen students – being fully present for them, disseminating knowledge, and helping guide their exploration of our field – was paramount. That was his guiding ethos. It is also Duke’s.

Over the last 100 years, we have become a global university with many strengths. We are an engine of innovation, a top-tier health system, an athletics powerhouse, and a critical partner in the growth and development of our region. However, I am most proud that we still prize that most essential and consequential attribute of higher education: the connection between scholar and student.

As an alum, I certainly bleed Duke Blue. But I chose to join the Duke faculty for a different reason. While many university brochures make the claim, I knew Trinity College of Arts & Sciences to be a place where I could – and indeed, would be expected to – prioritize teaching and mentoring while also pursuing distinction through research. While I have since had the great privilege of contributing to my field and to Duke’s undergraduate experience in a host of meaningful ways, nothing is more important to me than what happens in our classrooms.

To wit, I remember teaching a Focus course several years ago when a first-year student asked a question for which I had no answer. When it later occurred to me that we had the data that might reveal the answer, I invited that student to work with my research team. The end result of that invitation was a scientific publication that featured both our names. 

Our connections are not limited to the research realm. One of my great joys is engaging our students as whole, developing people. Just last fall, I opened a magazine to see a former student dressed in medical scrubs and posing confidently with her trainees. Looking at that image, the conversations we had about courses, life challenges, and her anxieties about achieving that dream of becoming a physician flooded my memory.

I am not alone in valuing these experiences. My colleagues in Trinity share my commitment to further enhancing the undergraduate experience in meaningful ways and ensuring that we extend the very best of what Duke offers to all of our students. We hope more undergraduates will participate in research alongside faculty mentors and feel a greater connection between where they live and how they learn. We want them to engage fully with our liberal arts model – one that is ideally suited to produce the creative and strategic leaders our world needs.

As our faculty members imagine a new undergraduate curriculum, they aim to equip students with critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills that will serve them well in their first jobs and fourth careers. However, our true task is to also ingrain in our students the tools required to create a good life, while contributing to the common good.

In Trinity, we will always be invested in creating new scholarship, leveraging new technologies, imagining new futures, and finding new ways to encourage those in our community to learn and to engage in constructive ways. We must also ensure that some things never change.

Our fundamental commitment – for as long as I lead Trinity College – will be to the student experience. And we will continue to recruit and retain world-class scholars, like my graduate adviser, who also believe that teaching, connecting with, and supporting Duke students is the most important thing we do.