10/16 Duke's new website evaluated

So far all information that we've gotten about the new university website -- still accessed via www.duke.edu -- is pap parroted by PR people. It's time for someone to actually sign on, to use the site, and to report back on this new resource.

√ Enter Fact Checker :

Fellow Dukies, we have a disaster on our hands. And I am not going to just state that conclusion, I will take you step by step to it.

I am going to start with the part of the site that presents President Brodhead. Not because this is my main comment, but because I do not want this to be lost as it is very important.

Brodhead has been reduced to just one of the people profiled under "Executive Leadership." Previously he had his own separate page, which included the following, either up front or via links:

A) A welcome to Duke from the President. I cannot find this; check out other universities, for they all they routinely have this.

B) A comprehensive biography of the President. This is truncated on the new website. Even information deemed as important in the academic world as honorary degrees -- listed in the 3rd and 4th paragraphs of previous editions of Brodhead's on-line biography -- is gone.

C) There is no longer a link presented to you for his speeches and other messages. If you happen to know these are posted somewhere in the web, you can search the A-Z link, but that is not the point.

I am not invited to read them. I read them faithfully, for they are both forceful and elegant, and to my mind his written words are one of the great contributions he has made to Duke.

Footnote: one of Brodhead's latest essays provides very meaningful and valuable insight into Duke and universities in general today; it is deeply hidden in the website of Duke Magazine and well forth ferreting out. Whoa whoa. First, finish reading today's Fact Checker all the way through.


D) Starting with Nan Keohane, the President's quarterly reports to the Trustees were posted. Brodhead's staff discontinued this -- and apparently wiped out the archive of Keohane's reports too. For a brief time, we got instead a quarterly report from the VP for news and public affairs. Alas, that too is gone. Not that these were critical, but they did add to the sum of information available to those of us who care about Duke, information that now is missing.

E) There is no longer any reference that I can find to President Brodhead's open door for students. As I have stated previously, it may be buried, I cannot find it. These periodic sessions have had a curious course: two years ago they were a feature in Brodhead's remarks at the freshman Convocation. More recently there has been no mention.

Let's finish with Executive Leadership before we move on to something more important.

There is a curious pecking order for the top leaders and their pictures. Executive Vice President Trask is in the number two spot. Yep, the guy in charge of things like the campus cops and cleaning the dorm bathrooms on weekends snuggled his way up.

Trask is also the head bean-counter, and careful Fact Checker readers will recall that just precisely one year ago, he pronounced Duke "financially secure." Speaking loudly and clearly, he cited "diversification of investment portfolio" and "prudent stewardship of our resources" that put us "in position to allocate substantial resources in pursuit of the goals outlined in Making A Difference, the University’s $1.3 billion strategic plan," which is to say the new Central Campus.

Kaboom. 25 percent loss of our assets. Who doesn't know that the dream of Central Campus is now dead. As for diversification, Duke had a greater percentage of its money tied up in private equity and hedge funds than any other university I can find.

All this means the Provost, our chief academic officer, is now bounced down to #3, and the Chancellor of the entire medical universe at Duke is #4. Hmmm

The list of Executive Leadership continues, but without pictures beyond numbers 1-4. This is very, very carelessly prepared. Examples: In presenting the vice presidents, where is the athletic director? In listing Deans of the schools, where is Levi from Law?

OK Dukies close that out and let's go back to the home page, www.Duke.edu

As soon as you open this, you get a large thematic picture. This picture will be one of eight that are rotated in this position.

I assume the purpose is to send a Duke greeting and get you to think warmly about the place. But at first impression, do any of these shout DUKE to you?

A) A picture of a man in wading pants in a marshland, with some sort of meter in his hand.

B) A man and woman standing knee-deep in water -- a rather pretty setting in fact -- looking at something in his hand.

C) A picture of eight people, presumably diversified students, in a tree and on rocks, looking far and wide over the mountain landscape.

D) A picture of a little boy in front of a crowd of people spread across a lawn, Lucky Strike cigarettes water tower in background (somehow this conjures up in your mind Duke and Durham).

E) A close up picture of a male student actor, his head buried (almost) in the bosom of a female student actor.

Readers, check out the rest of the pic yourselves. These pictures should be iconic -- the Chapel, Baldwin Auditorium, James B Duke's statue with his holding a vulgar cigar in front of the Chapel. Mind you, the pictures that are in use are good photographs -- but not in this context.

The fundamental questions that the web designers should ask are: Who is coming to this site? And what are they seeking? Who can we attract?

In the case of Duke, "who" is easy: we're either students, parents, faculty, employees, alumni, fans of Duke athletics, visitors or other supporters.

Some of these have links across the top of the home page. Oh oh. Alumni. Unlike the old home page, you have to scroll deep, way down, to find alumni demoted to a position right next to tourists coming to Durham.

You see, the thematic pictures are so big that the business of the homepage -- the real estate as they say -- is pushed away. That's annoying and bad. The links should be across the top, or preferably down the left hand margin.

The crown jewel of Duke is medicine. I have previously told how Dr. Dzau is minimized. Now suppose you are a patient, seeking help at Duke.

Yes Medicine is listed on the top of the home page. But like all the major links, a menu does not drop down letting you move directly to an area you desire. Rather, you must click to reach the Medicine homepage, and then navigate from there to one of the choices, for example "Find a doctor." Extra steps, extra time.

Please consider www.yale.edu for good organization of Medicine within a university website, easier to understand and to navigate. Duke has a morass.

Aside from the personal elevation of Trask, mentioned above, there is another shift in the pecking order of university governance that is surprising. Right after Executive Leadership, we find the link to Academic Council, the faculty's senate.

This link is on top of the one to the Board of Trustees. Why it's enough to make you believe faculty have achieved a true secure position in the governance of the university, that the Christie Report of 1972 has actually come to life.

And now the Board of Trustee website. It's better than what we used to have, which was nothing. It should include the e-mail addresses so stakeholders at Duke can contact each Trustee -- and since the official website does not include them, in an upcoming post, Fact Checker will give all of them to you!

My flat evaluation: the Trustee website is an insult to anyone seeking to understand the board and keep abreast of its actions.

Now, let's really drive the organized mind crazy. Let's explore some links and what happens.

A) Let's go right to the top of the homepage, where it says About Duke, and then click in further to Quick Facts. Aside from the history of the University, much of this information is out of date. At this point in the 2009 fall semester, we should not be reading statistic after statistic from 2008.

B) Ah hah, in the same location, About Duke, you see a link to Financial Reports. Yes, you heard that the bottom fell out of the endowment and you'd like to see how bad it is. That link takes you to Financial Services, which has more confusion than a circus has clowns.

On the left, try Reports and Documents. More confusion. Try Financial Reports. Which opens out to a spectrum of choices, most of them blocked because Duke's leaders are withholding this information from you.

There is one selection for Duke University Financial Reports, and alas, click that and you get warm. Not hot -- just warm for this so called annual report is a year out of date.

Which is to say 2008-09 is still not posted even though that fiscal year ended last June 30 and even though schools like Harvard and Yale made this information available to stakeholders more than a month ago. In the case of Harvard, personally presented to the community by President Faust.

Footnote: I should also note that the separate Duke Management website -- these are the people who invest our moolah -- has been cut down to nothing. You cannot even find out the value of the endowment there anymore, though in fairness, and Fact Checker is indeed fair, this information is now in the annual Financial Report, when Trask gets around to it. But I digress.

Now, leave the main Duke home page and go to Duke PR. www.news.duke.edu

Click on Annual Report (more comprehensive than the financial reports alone) and you get the 2006-07 edition. Yes it is outdated, but rejoice my friends, you have found the last one that the Brodhead administration bothered to write. Another valuable source of information -- mailed to every alumnus for generations and in the tradition established by William Preston Few very detailed -- is gone.

Oh while you are on the Duke PR home page, http://www.news.duke.edu/ check out the university Calendar, reached illogically by clicking on the employee newspaper Duke Today.

This is about as sloppy an effort as we can get. Even high profile events, like the Oct 23rd re-dedication of the memorial to Dukies killed in battle, are not listed. Shame on the way administrators are handling this aspect of an important occasion after a half century of neglect of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.

The calendar is clogged with events that recur; this is not to single out anyone, but one example is the daily Catholic mass. There should be some distinction drawn between major announcements of events, and the routine, so someone using the Calendar does not have to wade through so much boilerplate.

Next, maps. Not a bad effort to help everyone see Duke from this perspective and get around. You must remember two things:

First, that on some of the maps only some of the buildings are identified. Do not think a building does not exist if you do not see it at first glance. Try changing the resolution.

Second, these are the only maps that I can find on the entire internet where the + is on the bottom of the slider and the - is at the top. In other words, to move in on the map you click + on the bottom of the slider. Does an upside-down cartographer work in Trask's department?

Finally, though I recognize the University finds it impossible to impose uniformity on the faculty, even though they are employees here to do the university's work, there should be a requirement that each faculty member's website be updated each semester.

The website of one of my favorite professors states, "Not teaching Fall 2007." I can only presume he's done something in the two succeeding years.

And for each faculty member there should be:

A) a list of courses taught THIS semester, a complete list. This information will reveal how little time our professors spend in the classroom, and how many of them have arranged to be obligated to show up at mid-day only two or three times a week.

B) Faculty office hours should be uniformly posted too. Disclosure: someone has suggested to Fact Checker that professors be telephoned during these posted hours to see if they can actually be reached. hmmmm

C) all publications and professional activity within the past five years should be posted. Yes for one professor publication is still "pending."

Now here are a couple of positive suggestions for additions to the website:


An update of the Strategic Plan. Three years old, you are given a document focused on the dream of constructing Central Campus forthwith. Surely there is some new overview of where we are heading.

Second, the website should spell out details of the effort to save $125 million out of the annual budget, including a running total with itemized accounting. Where do we stand? Just like the development office posted a thermometer to show the rising total for the Financial Aid Initiative, we should have constant totals for savings.

And for the life of me I cannot see how the 295 employees who took early retirement add up to anywhere near the savings that administrators claim for this year or for succeeding years, and I would like to see a step by step calculation posted on the website.

Third, with specific reference to the new Keohane Quad dorm, Dean Nowicki should post not an essay that summarizes his briefings, but all of the raw information he has, including plans, correspondence etc.

And a timetable. I want to see how Steve -- as he told the freshmen to call him -- can pull off this neat trick: consulting with students beyond the Campus Council, letting their ideas jell, hopefully consulting too with other stakeholders at Duke like alumni, distilling the best ideas, honing them, communicating with architects, having plans drawn, getting plans into the hands of the Trustees for their input, getting changes made, getting final approval from the Trustees, letting general contractors see the plans and formulate bids, letting subcontractors do the same, evaluating bids, awarding contracts and starting construction -- all of which Steve wants to do by this spring. Five months, Steve?

Fact Finder wants a step by step timeline before commenting further.

OK readers, enough, eeeee-nough. You've explored with me a website that does not cut it.

For a first rate job, remember √ Fact Checker has a site archiving all these musings:


No comments:

Post a Comment

Please send comments directly to Duke.Fact.Checker@gmail.com if you want a response. The on-line form is anonymous and we cannot get back to you.

We hope with transfer to a new website in the near future to have open discussion. FC also welcomes Guest FC columns, a complete essay that will be posted just like our own.