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A Quiet Leader: Adam Beyer PPS’18 Receives Sanford Leadership Award

May 10, 2018

by Jackie Ogburn

If you voted on Duke’s campus during the 2016 election, you have Adam Beyer to thank. And, if you have read the Duke Chronicle any time over the past four years, chances are good you read one of his dozens of stories, on everything from inchworms to sexual assault policies.

Beyer is one of two Terry Sanford Leadership Award winners this spring. He doesn’t fit the usual mold of a student leader at Duke. Reserved and soft-spoken, he listens first, then offers his take on the task and issue at hand.

“For Adam, listening and questioning are simply daily practices that come naturally to him.  He cares deeply about the health of our democracy and about engaging his peers in political participation,” said Alma Blount, director of the Hart Leadership Program.

As president of the Duke Democrats during his sophomore and junior years, Beyer focused on registering Duke students to vote and securing an early voting site on campus.

“There are a lot of weird complications in registering students to vote in North Carolina, but it’s so important that they do. Duke students live here and engage as members of the Durham community all the time,” he said.

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  • Adam Beyer leaning on an early voting sign

    He Rocked the Vote

    As president of the Duke Democrats during his sophomore and junior years, Adam Beyer focused on securing an early voting site on campus. He also registered students to vote. "I personally registered hundreds of students, maybe close to a thousand,” he said. In the general election, Gov. Roy Cooper received more than 3,000 votes from Duke students, almost one-third of Cooper’s 10,000 vote margin of victory.

Regarding the on-campus voting site, it was not their first preference, he said. “I let other people handle the negotiations with the administration.” Instead, as the person who knew a lot about the legalities and history of voting, Beyer worked behind the scenes on strategy. When the early voting lagged behind the same 2012, Beyer appealed to Duke students’ competitive instincts through a social media campaign, which produced an immediate spike. He also acted as the “on-call” back up.

“If people couldn’t go out to register voters, I did. I personally registered hundreds of students, maybe close to a thousand,” he said.

In the general election, Gov. Roy Cooper received more than 3,000 votes from Duke students, almost one-third of Cooper’s 10,000 vote margin of victory.

Understanding the process

Beyer came to Duke with a strong grounding in political campaigns. His mother, Natalie Beyer, ran her first campaign for Durham School Board in 2010.

“That’s when I learned about Durham’s political scene and about poll working,” he said. He had also worked on Sen. Kay Hagan’s 2014 reelection campaign. “It was hard to see her lose by such a small margin,” he said.

Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was what first sparked Beyer’s interest in politics. As a viola player in his middle school orchestra, he attended the inauguration on a trip organized by the orchestra teacher. They went as spectators, not performers.

“It was really inspiring to be there at that historic moment, although I had never been so cold in my life, from being outside for about six to eight hours,” he said.

Advocacy vs. Journalism

Beyer has been careful to draw lines between his political work on campus and his journalistic work at the Chronicle by declining to do political reporting, although he says, “I’ve covered more student protests than I can count.”

At the Chronicle, Beyer has held one of the top editorial positions and served as digital strategy director during his senior year. It was where he learned to lead a staff, he said. “I’ve spent four nights a week in the office putting the paper together,” he said.

He helped with the paper’s transition to a mostly digital format as the print edition was reduced to three days a week.  As director, he supervised a 10-member team and managed the social media and website content.

One of his last articles, “Don’t Take the Chronicle for Granted,” co-authored with the incoming digital director, points out the importance of the paper to the Duke community: It’s the only organization that consistently pushes to hold the university accountable, and records Duke’s history as it happens.

“It’s real journalism,” he said.

Majoring in public policy

Beyer was drawn to major in public policy “because it’s action-oriented, but I think it’s important to ground that in another discipline,” he said.

He took lots of public policy courses that had a history focus, such as Bruce Kuniholm’s class on Middle East policy from 1945 to the present, and Robert Korstad’s ethics class on poverty in Durham. By his senior year, he realized he could complete a second major in history with a capstone class on African-Americans in the Soviet Union.

Beyer’s interest in politics led him to be part of the pilot group of Hart Leadership/POLIS Political Engagement Project, taught by Alma Blount and Steve Schewel, who later became mayor of Durham. As part of the project, he interned with Congressman David Price’s office, where he created a memo-tracking system.

”From his year with the Hart Leadership Program,” Blount said, “I observed Adam quietly, steadily, help groups locate purpose and deepen their capacity to work together in creative ways.  It doesn’t seem to matter at all to Adam whether he gets credit for a group’s breakthroughs, or not. His focus is to help shape conversations in productive directions.”

After graduation, he will be looking for a job the intersection of politics and journalism. Asked about running for office, Beyer said, “It’s not something I’d ever rule out, but I’d want to feel qualified and deeply embedded in a community first.”