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Duke Forest and an Exciting New Venture

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One of the overarching themes that Duke University stresses in its academic programs and uses to distinguish itself from other leading universities is “interdisciplinarity,” both within Duke and through partnerships outside of Duke. Nowhere was that more evident than at a fascinating seminar we attended yesterday at Geneen Auditorium at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, where Fuqua Dean Doug Breeden was joined by Bill Schlesinger, Dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, and Robert Iger, President and CEO of The Walt Disney Company.

The triumvirate announced an exciting new venture that will raise the profile of Duke Forest while garnering increased recognition and support for the research that the Nicholas School is doing on global warming and that Fuqua is doing on corporate social responsibility. Disney is pledging $18 million over a three-year period that will support (a) the construction of a visitors center in Duke Forest, (b) aerial walkways so that visitors can walk the canopy of Duke Forest much akin to the eco-tourism walkways through Costa Rica’s rain forests, (c) tram rides designed especially for children, the elderly, and the disabled who cannot utilize the walkways, and (d) general operating costs. After the initial three years, it is hoped that admission fees will not only make the new visitors center financially self-sustaining but also generate income to support further academic research by Fuqua and the Nicholas School. Iger, however, hinted at possibly more support by Disney in later years.

A highlight of the new visitors center, said Iger, will be a "Tree of Life," similar to the renowned centerpiece of Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Another highlight of the center will be “Virtual Earth,” where visitors can adjust climate variables such as rates of warming, accumulation of greenhouse gases, and industrial output and then witness the melting of the polar ice caps and resulting flooding of islands and coastal cities around the globe. An outdoor cafe and play area where children can greet and meet Disney characters in an enriching learning environment are also planned. Community outreach and interactive seminars will further advance the educational mission of the center. Groundbreaking for the center and ancillary attractions is expected no later than the end of October, pending state and federal regulatory approval.