May 10, 2002

Doug Duncan announces his resignation at brown-bag lunch

Doug Duncan, a senior research associate in the department of astronomy and astrophysics, discussed his recent decision to resign from the University faculty during yesterday's latest installment of the Rockefeller Chapel's brown bag series, "What Matters to Me and Why." Duncan said that he is moving to the University of Colorado at Boulder because it better conforms with his philosophy on teaching and universities.

Duncan sent out an e-mail to friends and colleagues Wednesday detailing the reasons for his decision to accept a position at UC-Boulder, including its emphasis on graduate and undergraduate teaching. Duncan compared Boulder's capital campaign to that of Chicago, noting that nowhere in Chicago's plans were undergraduates or students mentioned, whereas Boulder's campaign cites teaching, research, and service to its students as its main goals.

"I realized that I live only a finite number of years," he said. "I'd get more out of them at Boulder."

Duncan decided early on to devote his career to the education of all ages, and to specialize in the common core in the University. "I especially enjoy teaching people who think they don't like science, "Duncan said.

In Duncan's classes, he says that students have more opportunities to see principles in action and relate those principles to everyday life. He described an experiment where, instead of using the parallax method to measure the distance to small light bulbs set up in the lab, students climbed to the top of Rockefeller Chapel in order to measure the distance to the Sears Tower.

Duncan believes that everyone should have a basic knowledge of science. "A powerful tool for your life is to know what to believe and know what's going to fool you," Duncan said. He described Carl Sagan's nightmare, outlined in his book A Candle in the Dark, which tells of a future world where very few people have immense knowledge of science, and most of the world relies on astrologers and tarot cards.

Many students come to Duncan believing that they are not science people, that scientists always speak the truth, and that science is about answers. "Grab any scientists and ask them, which is better, the known or the unknown?" Duncan said. "They'll answer: the unknown. What do you poor folks get taught? The known. What do textbooks have? The known.

"I've always liked puzzles. I've always liked the unknown," Duncan said of his decision in second grade to become an astrophysicist. Duncan also serves as assistant director for humanities, arts, and sciences in the University's Graham School, and served as National Education Coordinator of the American Astronomical Society. He appears occasionally on Chicago's Public Radio Station WBEZ, FM 91.5, with Gretchen Helfrich on the program Odyssey.

Duncan said that he truly loves his work, and he encourages students to do what they love, not what will make them rich. "I've never discovered any correlation between monetary richness and how rich you feel," he said.

Duncan encourages students to maintain a sense of balance in their lives. He cited a Nobel prize-winning biologist who said to his students, "Oh, go out and jog and stay healthy, because you'll publish more if you're alive."

Duncan said that some of the University community's skepticism of the new $35 million gym and wider recruiting outlook is unfounded and demonstrates their out-of-touch-ness.

"Great universities tend to be conservative universities," he said. "But leadership requires bravery, too."

Duncan thinks that students can do more to guide their education through collective action. He believes that if students were to come together, they would be able to shift the University's focus away from research and toward education. "In my day, all the students got together and marched somewhere and said we want this,'" he said.

The "What Matters to Me and Why" series began this year, and Alison Boden, the dean of Rockefeller Chapel, hopes to continue its success with a similar series of lunchtime speakers next year. On May 28 she and Daphne Burt, the associate dean of Rockefeller Chapel, will meet in Swift 406A to plan the series, and they invite anyone in the University community to attend. According to Burt, the program attempts to invite a balanced range of people from all departments and schools, staff, faculty and students.

"Rockefeller Chapel has sponsored this series because Dean Alison Boden and I think it is really important to provide people with the opportunity to reflect on what they are passionate about in an informal setting," Burt said.