As part of our Academic Equity Interview Blog series (see linked our previous posts on campus climate and mental health), we explore how Duke University, a member of the American Talent Initiative’s (ATI) Academic Equity Community of Practice, is driving campus change through their inclusive living and learning model, QuadEx. QuadEx aims to deliver transformative experiences for undergraduate students by strengthening on-campus communities, enabling intellectual exploration, and providing targeted delivery of programs and resources for overall student success and wellbeing.

Dr. Jenny Wood Crowley is the Assistant Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education. Chris Rossi is the Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs. In this interview, both share their insights on how to seize the moment to drive large-scale campus change and the importance of collaboration between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Can you walk us through the lifecycle of QuadEx? What was the impetus for this large-scale campus change, and how did Duke socialize this effort with various stakeholders, such as the student body, faculty and staff, alumni, and others? 

Chris: Prior to QuadEx, residential housing at Duke was tightly coupled with membership in selective living groups, such as national fraternities and sororities, or independent houses, which are recognized through Duke’s student government. For years, people at Duke noted the positives and negatives of this selective residential model, where a student standing in one section of a housing quad would be a part of one organization living in that section and then, move 30 feet away, suddenly be in a different organization’s space. Ultimately, we felt that this disrupted the cohesion and universal Duke experience that we were striving for.

Starting in 2018, the Next Generation Living and Learning Experience Task Force (NGLLE)—a presidential task force consisting of Duke’s Board of Trustees members, faculty members, and students—looked at questions related to the undergraduate student experience, such as housing, co-curricular opportunities, and advising structures, and one takeaway was the need to knit intellectual life into the residential experience. According to data we collected over the years, success, however defined by a student, whether it be a sense of belonging or academic achievement or by any other definition, is bolstered by at least one meaningful connection with an advisor or faculty member. We wanted to leverage those findings and actually build it into a system while also addressing problems with the housing model described earlier. We wanted to provide students with different lived experiences a space to engage in creative friction, so they can learn not just in the classroom but within the residential spaces.

These findings coincided with the start of the pandemic, so in early 2020 or so, we started the NGLLE 2.0 Group, a multi-stakeholder group consisting of students and faculty, to start putting together some of our top line recommendations. After a year of work with student organizations and lots of student feedback, we created QuadEx. QuadEx is very mission-focused. Our mission was to take what was already great about the Duke experience and make it accessible to everyone. So the mission itself was equitable from the start. Every tactical change after that has to tie back into that central statement.

Jenny: I joined the QuadEx efforts during NGLLE 2.0 efforts, and as part of the Academic Deans’ office, I specifically thought about the residential housing piece and the two-campus split between first-year students and all other undergraduate students. Our committee thought about connecting our two campuses, specifically about how we can protect the first-year experience but also give these students a landing place post-freshman year that isn’t exclusive to membership in an organization. Ultimately, we want everyone to feel like they belong at Duke and to feel comfortable where they live.

The timing for QuadEx has been critically important. Just like the rest of this country, we’ve gone through a lot in the past couple of years not just with the pandemic, but with racial reckoning and understanding what we have been as an institution, and trying to turn that into what could be and what we aspire to be. There is a communal will at Duke to make systems not just diverse but equitable, and we believe that QuadEx has received widespread positive feedback so far because of this will and the combination of strong collaboration, strategic engagement of stakeholders, and designing the model itself to be equitable.

QuadEx has been a joint endeavor between the Office of Undergraduate Education and the Office of Student Affairs. Can you share more about this collaborative effort?

Jenny: I think the successful cross campus collaboration, particularly across the Office of Undergraduate Education and Office of Student Affairs, is a credit to our leaders. Our Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Gary Bennett, and our Vice Provost/Vice President of Student Affairs, Mary Pat McMahon, are constantly working together to solve problems and rely on each other to make things happen.

I’m really grateful to the leadership at Duke for giving us the opportunity and in this experiential education space to experience QuadEx, learn from it, make it better, and hopefully have some successes along the way.

Chris: Our leaders’ explicit goal is that our teams work together so closely that you can’t tell the difference between who’s in which department. This builds a culture among team members that we define success by how well we are working together. It’s more than just putting people in the same room—it’s about bringing people together in the right way that makes it feel like we have positive momentum within the institution already.

The two groups also have enough independent gravitational pull to bring faculty, student organizations, and alumni in the right way. I think that engaging multiple stakeholders really helped with our implementation. The tight partnership of student affairs and undergraduate education, which allowed for a successful year of stakeholder engagement, makes today’s implementation more successful.

Looking back at this entire planning process and as you are preparing for implementation in the fall, has anything surprised you as you were putting this model together?

Chris: I’ve been surprised by the speed with which QuadEx has been adopted and accepted here at Duke. Across presentations to incoming first-year students and our alumni association, we received applause from both audiences. The fact that we received similar positive reactions from these two very different groups—one that’s very new to Duke and the other that has a deep, historical commitment to the institution—is really meaningful.

Jenny: Another surprise was how jazzed our faculty are about QuadEx. The model includes faculty fellows, who would be attached to each quad. When we put out a call for faculty members to nominate themselves or their colleagues to be a faculty fellow, we received 78 nominations from across different disciplines. Faculty are as hungry as our students are for interaction and to build those relationships with undergraduates, and to help build Duke into what they think it can be. They are brimming with enthusiasm, which is what we wanted.

Once QuadEx fully rolls out this upcoming fall, how do you plan to measure its success?

Chris: We already have data coming into the QuadEx project. For instance, the Resilience Project, a multi-year four-campus study funded by the Duke Endowment conducted at Duke and other private institutions in the Carolinas, looked into the positive and protective factors around student well-being and student engagement. We continue to assess some of the same metrics with the ongoing Duke Undergraduate Check-In Study (DUCkI). So we’ll look at some of the longitudinal metrics that are already in place, particularly in regards to student connection to faculty and advisors. We’ll continue to see how pre-QuadEx and post-QuadEx data line up, and find out whether students are self-reporting more positive benefits in some of these areas.

We also have two other kinds of metrics we’re trying to triangulate. Through our existing residential feedback survey and data trends on student connections, we’ll be able to observe whether we have established a home community both in students’ first year, as well as their sophomore, junior, and senior years. We’ve seen a tremendous amount of community-building and sense of belonging established in our first-year campus, and it’s our expectation that we are going to see some of those positive metrics continue into the later years with QuadEx in a way that hasn’t been seen previously.

Finally, we’re launching a new annual longitudinal study. Starting in fall 2022, students will have the opportunity to participate in interviews with staff from the Office of Assessment. We’ll explore topics like inclusion, social involvement, and faculty and staff relationships, as well as overall sense of belonging.

Jenny: We will also be measuring a sense of belonging in an academic sense to see if there are increases in honors theses, research projects, and independent study projects, among others. We’d like to leverage Duke’s liberal arts education through QuadEx, and make sure that through this model, everyone has equitable access to their faculty and opportunities that already exist. We’d like to see a significant increase in undergraduate research especially.

With all of the lessons learned about the importance of collaboration, leadership, and communication for adopting QuadEx, do you have a few pieces of advice for other institutions looking to embark in this area of campus change more broadly?

Jenny: Involving student voices is key. We don’t live in campus housing—they do. We need their voices in the room to tell us what that’s like, and involving student voices helps avoid silencing students and having blind spots in the student experience. And student experiences are not monolithic; you need to ensure you have diverse groups of students involved.

My second piece of advice is to use data. People have a real hard time fighting with facts, and so where you can gather data, do it and use it. The skeptics can be convinced.

Chris: My advice is also related to student feedback. For QuadEx, we spent a lot of time not only listening to our current students, but also the consistent experiences of former students, particularly those who didn’t feel like they had the dominant narrative or identities in the campus community. I think that helped us capture a more holistic view of student perspectives.

I would also advise other institutions to resist the urge to copy anyone else. Absolutely learn from other institutions and the principles of their process, values, or vision, but never overlook the conditions unique to your campus. QuadEx isn’t like anything other institutions are doing because it’s focused on Duke. I’m hoping that as other schools develop their own innovations and try new things, that they implement what is right for their campus and the local conditions at the time.