Drawn by Courtney Fehsenfeld
Wills Rooney is a senior at Duke majoring in self-directed program called “Market, Society, and Personalism,” which basically means he was too Aristotelian for the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics program. He runs cross-country and track, writes for The Chronicle, and was formerly a student director of the Catholic Center. Department Of met Wills in an abandoned Divinity School classroom to talk theology, mozzarella sticks, and why the hell he has an “s” at the end of his name.
Just a friendly reminder: this is a real interview. Like, these are real quotes from the real Wills Rooney.
Department Of: What’s up with the “s” at the end of your name? Are you just too good for the name Will?
Wills Rooney: I’ve been a Wills since basically day 1. I had a couple of identity crises throughout my early life. In second grade, my name tag on my desk was changed from “Wills” to “William” and then I decided halfway through that term, I wanted to go back to “Wills”. When I came to Duke, I didn’t know how to introduce myself, because I was deciding for life: who am I going to be? But then my roommate was named William. I tried to call myself “Will,” but by November, I realized, this is not right. This is not who I am. This is not who I’ve been. So “Wills” it is.
DO: So, to be perfectly honest, the only thing I know about you is that you invite me to Catholic Center events on Facebook alllllllllllllll the time. So naturally, the question to ask is: who is your favorite Pope and why?
WR: Ah, excellent question! Saint John Paul II. Saint John Paul the Great is definitely my favorite pope. He’s a big spiritual hero for me. In very casual terms, just an absolute all-around legend.
[Insert Wills talking for 15 minutes on the biography of Saint John Paul II. In lieu of reading a transcription of this portion of the interview, Department Of recommends “Witness to Hope” by George Weigel or the Wikipedia page for Pope John Paul II.]
WR: He was smart. He was pastoral. He was charismatic. He was so caring. He was a real talent and overcame so much. He means a lot to me spiritually, as well.
DO: So what exactly does a Board of Trustees meeting look like? Because when I picture it, I picture the war room from Dr. Strangelove.
WR: It’s a pretty impressive room. I mean the Board is entrusted with the fate of Duke University. Pretty big thing. It’s real role is to guide the university forward administratively through the ages. A young trustee is an advocate for the undergraduate experience. Not an advocate for policy agendas.
DO: What do you think is the most pressing issue facing the Board of Trustees in the coming year?
WR: I think curricular review is the biggest thing right now and the issue most directly affecting the student experience. I really do think a solid curriculum will help make classmates become friends, which is a phenomenon, at least in my experience, you don’t see that often. If we can get an integrated curriculum, then we’ll have a more integrated social environment. Then I think a lot of the social issues we encounter on campus, whether it be stratification or, really, segmentation. Duke is statistically diverse, but it’s not truly integrated.
DO: So, if I hear you correctly, you’re telling me that the most pressing issue is NOT the frequently cheese-less mozzarella sticks at The Loop?
WR: No. I actually don’t get those that often. That would REALLY dismay me if that were the case. I’m a big mozzarella sticks guy. I would be deeply disappointed. And Javon is a great guy at The Loop. I knew if I got cheese-less mozzarella sticks, I’d go right back to him and he’d hook me up with a whole new batch.
DO: In DukeToday articles, you have been called a “young man of deep conviction, curiosity, and compassion,” “an absolute pleasure to have in class,” and “Catholic.” What do you say to such accusations?
WR: Well, I’m very honored to have them. Those are all things I aspire to be, certainly. Every single one of them, even the Catholic part. I once heard someone call himself a “practicing Catholic, because it takes practice,” so I like to imagine myself as a “practicing Catholic” in the fullest sense of the phrase.
DO: So about that BSA endorsement, I saw there was a statement, but, to be honest, tl;dr. Can you explain that to me?
WR: Basically, if you are a member of the executive board of an organization and you are in the Young Trustee race, your organization shouldn’t be having an endorsement meeting.
DO: Isn’t the Young Trustee supposed to be representative of the student body? And you’re not part of BSA, I’m assuming…so wouldn’t it behoove you to meet with them to hear about how they want to be represented to the board if you were elected?
WR: I’m happy to meet with BSA, just not in the context of an endorsement. Likewise, I am happy to meet with the IFC board. BSA emailed me about an endorsement meeting, not a meeting to express how they want to be represented.
DO: So Mi Gente recently published an article in The Chronicle in which they stated they would no longer participate in Latino and Latina student recruitment until Duke responds to their demands. What do you think is the Board’s role when confronted with such things?
WR: I think activism in order to be effective needs to be performative. Performative in the sense that the action needs to be indicative of what the group’s values are. I think the general framing of demands in an antagonistic, pretty aggressive, and disrespectful way is rude. It disregards and degrades the dignity of the Board. These students feel disregarded. Sure, it’s not good. But in owning and affirming your own dignity, you treat others with dignity. The approach in trying to hold the university hostage is not productive. Look, I’m not in Mi Gente, obviously, though I know some people who are. I don’t know how much they’ve reached out to the university in the first place. But I think that general demand approach is not prudent. That being said, it is fair for Mi Gente to say we don’t feel honest recruiting Latino students to come to Duke given our current situation. I laud them for that.
DO: You say demands are not productive, but we’ve seen demands be used productively in previous activist struggles. What do you think it says about Duke when people are more upset about the violation of politeness than the violation of other students’ safety on campus?
WR: I’m not talking social decorum. I’m talking moral decorum. Look, Martin Luther King very much championed a peaceful social justice. Thanks for calling me on saying demands are not productive. What I mean is demands can be productive within a proper moral framework. In that sense, I don’t think people are getting angry just because of social decorum. I think the substance of the demands frustrate people.
DO: It seems that part of your role at YT will be helping to make decisions as to how to reply to these demands…especially demands about curriculum and whether and how to include critical race theory or gender studies into the curriculum. How are you going to approach such decisions?
WR: Critical race theory and gender studies are predicated upon a Nietzschean and Freudian view of the human person, which more fundamentally needs to be critiqued itself on the philosophical level. Because those disciplines are complicated, but what is most complicated is the assumptions about the human person and the reality upon which they are based, which is that existence precedes essence. I certainly do not subscribe to it. It is fundamentally incompatible with any moral truth. That’s where dialogue ceases to begin.
DO: Wouldn’t taking a class on those things create the space for people to be critically engaged with them?
WR: There’s a place for them in the curriculum. Is it something that I would require? No, because it’s a different level in terms of the nature of disciplinary inquiry. If we’re taking John Henry Newman, who wrote about the university in 1852, at his word, we can’t begin without something in first principles.
DO: Newman wrote about the university in the 1850s. But it seems to me that the university is a very different place now in 2016. What do you think he doesn’t know about the university? How has the university changed?
WR: Scientific knowledge has changed and the emphasis our society puts on it has very much changed. It means our university has a large amount of its resources dedicated towards the furthering of scientific knowledge. In the humanities and liberal arts, you aren’t really pushing back frontiers of knowledge. You’re constantly addressing the same timeless questions. What Newman offers is a model of curricular guidance for liberal arts, because the human person is the same as it was in 1852, as it was in the medieval ages, as it was in the classical period. The human condition is the same.
DO: But who is considered a human person has changed.
WR: Well, yeah. In a technical sense.
DO: Which member of the Board of Trustees do you make your best friend?
WR: Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, would be cool. I’d be very interested as a student-athlete to ask about the relationship between the NCAA and the NBA. He’d also probably give good insights into the philosophy of sport.
DO: So what you mean is you want free tickets to basketball games?
WR: Mmmmmmmmmaybe. I’m not a die-hard fan of any NBA team. But I tell you what, it wouldn’t be bad to go to a NBA game.
DO: Earth, round or flat?
DO: Are you thinking profile pictures or cover photos?
DO: Bold move. Are you paying a graphic designer or just fiddling with Photoshop?
WR: I have a buddy.
DO: Drake or Meek Mill?
WR: [pauses for a long period of time]
DO: Young Money or Young Trustee?
WR: Young Trustee.
DO: Worst thing you had to do for frat pledging?
WR: Uhhhhhhhhhhhh. Just sucking up to guys.
DO: Pro or con Duke’s new hoverboard policy?
WR: I’m not for it. Let the hoverboards loose!
DO: Would you rather run for a C1 or get to class late?
WR: Run for a C1. I run cross-country and track, so I’d rather run for a C1. And I like class.
DO: Do you have any go-to jokes at a party that you tell?
WR: Man, these are tough questions.
DO: The party-joke is a lost art form.
DO: What is your favorite comedy publication?
WR: I know I’m talking to a hometown crowd, but definitely Department Of. You had that, uh, article. About politics? It made me laugh.
Be sure to vote in the Young Trustee election on February 9 and 10. After all, the vast majority of Duke students don’t, so your vote will count extra, as if you’re in Florida!
Note: This post has been edited with a correction to the year Newman wrote and with an additional quote from Wills to better express his sentiments.