Opinion

Duke's real victory: Balance beyond basketball, academics

April 6, 2015: Duke players celebrate their 68-63 victory with the championship trophy over Wisconsin in the NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament championship game in Indianapolis.

April 6, 2015: Duke players celebrate their 68-63 victory with the championship trophy over Wisconsin in the NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament championship game in Indianapolis.  (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Duke’s victory in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game Monday night is undoubtedly a feather in the cap for the university, the players and coach Mike Krzyzewski. But there is a much greater victory in this story that should serve as a lesson for many other premier universities.

Truly committed students recognize the importance not only of academics, but also of athletics, fine arts, community involvement and other disciplines. They’re what give a university the recognition it strives for, and it’s the students – not the alumni and not the endowment – who create it.

At the Ivy League colleges, at Duke, at Stanford and at many other top universities across the country, there is a relentless focus on the importance of academic standards. These institutions have clearly raised the bar, as well as the anxieties of students aspiring to reach the top. But too often, in the drive to excel academically, key elements in individual development get left behind. And those are the ones that have the greatest impact on who we become.

Truly committed students recognize the importance not only of academics, but also of athletics, fine arts, community involvement and other disciplines. They’re what give a university the recognition it strives for, and it’s the students – not the alumni and not the endowment – who create it.

In his annual address this year, Duke’s president, Richard Brodhead, emphasized what he described as a shared fate among academics, athletics, medicine and the university’s hometown of Durham, N.C. What many people don’t realize, Brodhead said, is that medicine and health care were built into the founding vision of Duke University. In fact, Duke’s medical center, which provided health care to Durham residents, was a key anchor for the university in its early years.

Why does all this matter? Because over time, the under-arching focus on health and wellness at Duke extended beyond the medical school to become an investment in holistic wellness and the importance of a healthy balance in fostering academic success.

Duke’s focus on creating a world-class athletic program was one of the best investments it ever made. While its endowment didn’t come close to Harvard’s or Stanford’s, it invested heavily in cultivating an atmosphere of collegiality among students who were striving to succeed academically.

It turned out to be a great bet, because while universities rely on endowments and alumni contributions to sustain their growth, no investment is greater than the returns Duke gets from the graduates who have imbibed the spirit and value of what it has created.

Every university has its challenges, of course. None is perfect. It was unsettling, to say the least, when someone tied a noose to a tree outside a major campus building at Duke last week. But even in the face of such an atrocity, the university, characteristic of its proactive approach, embraced an opportunity to rally a diverse student body to come together as one.

What was particularly special about Monday night’s NCAA final was the talent of the Duke freshmen, whose focus and execution were impeccable. The Blue Devils lost in the first round last year. This year it was the freshmen who took them all the way.

As a parent of an outgoing senior at Duke it's been my observation that the true strength and merits of an academic institution do not rest on grade-point averages, yield ratios or size of endowment. While many students aspire to graduate from a premier university, their academic excellence should not be what defines them.

Truly committed students recognize the importance not only of academics, but also of athletics, fine arts, community involvement and other disciplines. They’re what give a university the recognition it strives for, and it’s the students – not the alumni and not the endowment – who create it.

Congratulations to Duke for demonstrating that you can have your cake and eat it, too.

Dr. Sreedhar Potarazu is an acclaimed ophthalmologist and entrepreneur who has been recognized as an international visionary in the business of medicine and health information technology. He is the founder of VitalSpring Technologies Inc., a privately held enterprise software company focused on providing employers with applications to empower them to become more sophisticated purchasers of health care. Dr. Potarazu is the founder and chairman of WellZone, a social platform for driving consumer engagement in health.

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