Toward Duke’s Second Century

Originally appeared in Duke Magazine, Fall 2019

A century ago, in the fall of 1919, America’s colleges and universities were on the cusp of their first great expansion. Prior to the First World War, fewer than 50,000 bachelor’s degrees and 1,000 doctorates were awarded annually in the U.S.; by 1930, those numbers would more than double. In 1919, the first postdoctoral fellowships in the sciences were established by the National Research Council with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation; these new programs would revolutionize research. The 1920s would also see the consolidation of the modern research university model, laying the groundwork for the even more explosive expansion of advanced research and education following the Second World War.

Few people would have imagined then, as American universities began their rise to global prominence over the following hundred years, that Duke would emerge among its leaders. Indeed, in that fall of 1919, Duke as we know it today did not even exist. What is now Duke’s West Campus was rolling, open farmland surrounded by forest, and East Campus was Trinity College. With just 664 students and sixty-seven full-time faculty members, Trinity had been for several years teetering on the edge of financial ruin, and President William Preston Few was still working to stabilize the college’s budget. The pace of inflation, nearly 60 percent over just three years, had placed enormous pressures on faculty salaries.

President Few knew that without new resources, he risked losing what had become, thanks to generations of hard work, “a great college of arts and sciences.”

It was for that reason he turned for help to James B. Duke, the youngest and wealthiest member of the Duke family, whose brother, Benjamin, had diligently nursed Trinity College through its developmental years and whose father, Washington, had helped move it from nearby Randolph County to Durham.

Over the next five years, through countless discussions, with imagination and planning, the attempt to rescue Trinity College evolved into a bold plan to transform it—and with it, the region. James B. Duke’s 1924 Indenture of Trust simultaneously launched both The Duke Endowment, which would help develop the Carolinas by investing in higher education, health care, the rural church, and child welfare; and Duke University, which would assemble around Trinity College an enviable collection of graduate and professional schools.

In the nine ensuing decades, our ambitious university undertook bold initiatives to establish a world-renowned academic medical center and be among the first interdisciplinary schools dedicated to public policy and the environment. Although regrettably slow to admit African-American students, after doing so in the 1960s, Duke redoubled its efforts to make the university an ever more inclusive academic community.

Photo of William Preston Few

William Preston Few (above) and James B. Duke’s (below) attempt to rescue Trinity College evolved into a bold plan to transform it, kicking off nine decades of initiatives that all shared one goal—to turn Duke into a world-renowned academic institution.

James B. Duke

In the 1970s and 1980s, the strategic recruitment of leading scholars in the humanities and social sciences— sparked by Terry Sanford and advanced by his successor, Keith Brodie—elevated Duke into a nationally recognized center of excellence in areas including literature, cultural studies, and political science. Investments in local partnerships, beginning in the 1990s under the leadership of President Nan Keohane and extended by President Richard Brodhead, contributed to a resurgent and increasingly vibrant Durham. The upshot is that Duke students, faculty, and staff today do their pathbreaking work at a university that has ranked among the top ten in America for the past several decades and is widely regarded as among the world’s finest.

The decisions made by James B. Duke, William Preston Few, and their colleagues in the five years between 1919 and 1924 enabled everything that has come since.

Davidson Quad transitioning left-to-right from an early photo of Duke's West Campus to a modern photo

Notwithstanding our remarkable century of success in higher education, both as a nation and as a university, we face today a confluence of powerful currents— technological, cultural, and economic—that will again require creative and thoughtful decisions and actions, many of which are likely to have far-reaching consequences. Digital technologies have thoroughly reshaped contemporary life, spawning entirely new social practices, consumer markets, and companies, even as they have induced destabilizing tremors in many industries. Markets for labor, consumption, and capital are now thoroughly global in character, enabled by unprecedented mobility and interconnectivity, producing rapid social change and transforming the workplace.

We face generational changes as well, with students arriving on campuses in some ways better prepared than ever for research and higher learning but also demonstrating unprecedented levels of anxiety and demanding more extensive support services year over year. There are also, of course, deepening economic pressures. The delicate financial fabric of cross-subsidies that so successfully supported research universities since World War II is fraying. Global competition for the finest talent is ever more costly, even as the public’s tolerance of increases in tuition and the government’s willingness to subsidize research have ebbed. Perhaps ironically, at the very moment when long-coming academic breakthroughs in so many fields stand to improve our lives in dramatic ways, public support of higher education, the arts, and basic research has been trending downward.

Taken together, these trends suggest that the models that brought American higher education and Duke so much success over the past hundred years are unlikely to carry us through the next. We again find ourselves on the cusp of transformation potentially as profound as that which awaited our Trinity College forebears in 1919. In five short years, we will enter the university’s second century, and the decisions we make now will determine the course of the coming decades.

I invite all of us—faculty, students, staff, alumni, and friends of the university—to think together about our turn to the future, about how we can remain true to the Duke we have always been while charting our course toward the Duke we are destined to become. Let’s consider the ways Duke can not only ensure its future, but help define the new twenty-first-century model of the research university. As we do so, I suggest five areas of focus.

We again find ourselves on the cusp of transformation potentially as profound as that which awaited our Trinity College forebears in 1919.

A Focus On
Empowering our people

Jenny Tung, MacArthur Genius
Jenny Tung, Duke Researcher and winner of a 2019 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

Duke has only ever been as great as the people who study, research, work, and visit our campus. Our campus is extraordinary, but while our physical infrastructure may garner the attention, it’s our human infrastructure that demonstrates our true worth: two Nobel laureates on the faculty, forty-nine Rhodes Scholars, tens of thousands of inspiring and committed staff members, and the world’s most talented teachers and researchers. Duke’s success in its second century—as in its first—will rely on recruiting and supporting an increasingly diverse and truly exceptional community of scholars who will grapple successfully with the world’s most pressing challenges.

If we want to be the university that discovers a cure for cancer, defines the ethics of machine learning, or develops materials that underpin new technologies, we’ll need to attract the very best minds and give them the resources to execute. This will require redoubling our efforts to build endowments to support faculty chairs and provide improved financial aid for our students.

A critical first step is our new initiative in science and technology, a collaborative effort uniting Duke Health, Trinity College, the Pratt School, and the Nicholas School in building faculty excellence in select areas where Duke can be distinctively impactful: artificial intelligence and health, the creation of new materials, and cultivating resilience to advance human health and the environment. The great university of the next century will put people first, and Duke can show the way.

A Focus On
Transformative teaching

A group of students discussing a project with their instructor in Duke’s Design POD
An instructor engages with first-year students in the Duke Engineering Design Pod, a creative and collaborative learning space.

Solutions to the complex problems of the next century are unlikely to be uncovered through narrow disciplinary logics. Universities are only now beginning to realize the promise of new instructional technologies, the power of interdisciplinary, team-based and problem-focused teaching, and ways to leverage faculty research in the curriculum. We have much more exciting work to do on these fronts, but Duke is already leading the pack.

Bass Connections, our first-in-class interdisciplinary research initiative, pairs undergraduate and graduate students with distinguished faculty to collaborate on solving pressing problems: from curbing predatory lending to tracking ocean health. Our Data Plus initiative assembles teams of faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate and undergraduate students to tackle data-analytic problems posed by partner organizations. The Pratt School has launched dynamic new first-year student design laboratories and is working actively with Trinity College to reformulate our offerings in computing. With the opening of the Rubenstein Arts Center, we are infusing the arts and creativity across the curriculum.

As always, we remain committed to a liberal-arts education—classically defined as a grounding in those skills necessary for a free individual active in civic life—and we are perhaps better poised than any of our peer institutions to successfully redefine the liberal arts for the twenty-first century.

A Focus On
Building community

An outdoor concert in the new Nasher Sculture concert
Twenty-one local musicians who identify as women and/or gender nonconforming participate in a public performance in the Nasher Museum's new outdoor arts space.

At a time when social divisions seem to be widening around the globe, when the social fabric is wearing thin and tearing across our nation, our future success will hinge on our ability to summon a whole greater than the sum of our parts—our ability to cultivate a strong, healthy, inclusive, and respectful community of learners and doers. To that end, we are engaged in rethinking our residential living and learning model, focusing on giving our students the opportunity to explore a wide range of ideas and develop healthy lifestyles throughout their time on campus. We’re incorporating vibrant arts performances into university life and helping to put Durham on the international cultural map. We’re offering students the resources and support they need to truly thrive here, including a comprehensive wellness and student-health program and the finest athletics and recreation program in the country.

And most important, we’re seeking more opportunities for deeper and more meaningful engagement between students and faculty. Duke Conversations, for instance, is a student-led program that invites professors to host small groups of undergraduates for dinner in their homes.

We also have to seek ways of making a Duke education more relevant to the challenges of the world outside our gates. DukeEngage, our immersive service program, this past summer celebrated its twelth anniversary by reaching 1.6 million hours spent by students in service to communities in eighty-one countries on six continents. The great university of the next century will recognize that without robust community, our individual talents will never be fully realized.

A Focus On
Strong partnerships

The Chesterfield Building in downtown Durham
A Duke partnership facilitated the renovation of the Chesterfield Building, a former tobacco warehouse, in downtown Durham into a collaborative research hub.

Public support of higher education is unlikely to rebound unless institutions like Duke demonstrate our commitment to our surrounding communities and our role in improving the quality of life for our regions.

It’s the right thing to do: Duke wouldn’t be Duke without Durham, and Durham wouldn’t be Durham without Duke.

If you were to look at a map of our city, you would see that has never been more true. From the American Tobacco Campus to the Innovation District to the East Durham Children’s Initiative, we have partnered in developing new community resources and amenities, working closely alongside local elected officials and commercial partners to breathe new life into Durham. Among the best examples is the Chesterfield Building, which until last year was a long-abandoned and dilapidated cigarette factory downtown. In partnership with Wexford, a nationally recognized developer, we’ve turned it into a top-of-the-line facility for biomedical and clinical research, which is already occupied by NC BioLabs, Durham Tech, Duke Engineering, and numerous startups. Think of it: A factory that once produced cigarettes could now produce a cure for cancer.

Opportunities for these sorts of partnerships will abound in our second century. We should continue to seek them out, while at the same time recognizing we must prioritize the needs of our neighbors, particularly those from marginalized and low-income communities. Duke has a responsibility to use our voice in Durham not merely for development, but also to support the well-being and health of fellow residents of the city we are proud to call home. We are actively investing in public education, nutrition and maternal health, economic empowerment and affordable housing, efforts that are designed to ensure that the benefits of Durham’s growth reach all of its residents. The great university of the next century will be viewed as a critical partner in improving public well-being through creative and cooperative problem-solving.

A Focus On
Lifelong engagement

A photo of two people on stage at DEMAN Weekend
DEMAN Weekend connects students with alumni in the entertainment industry

Duke’s greatest strength and the living, breathing embodiment of our educational success is our alumni community—a university family now hundreds of thousands strong, making innumerable differences in lives around the globe. The great university of the twenty-first century will recognize that the rapid pace of technological, cultural, and economic change not only demands a broad educational foundation in the liberal arts and sciences; it also requires a capacity for continual educational and professional development—the capacity for creative adaptation and redefinition over the life span. For Duke, this means creating new and powerful pathways for continuing engagement within and across our global network long after students complete their degree programs. It means emphasizing that our students don’t graduate from Duke, they graduate into a supportive network of faculty, staff, students, and fellow alumni to whom they can turn to for help, mentorship, and fellowship no matter where they are in life.

Moving to a new city? We want the Duke network to be the first place you turn. Need to learn a new skill or seek professional assistance? We’d like to make available our faculty expertise—and, in turn, ask you to lend your expertise to our students and researchers. Looking for a new job or planning to hire someone? Explore the options offered by fellow Dukies here on campus and around the world. Should you realize a newfound interest in art history and think you missed that boat while in Durham, we’d like to be there to support your desire to learn, at any age, and especially when nobody is requiring you to take courses.

The great university of the next century will grasp that alumni, once activated and engaged in these ways, can extend by orders of magnitude the intellectual and professional capacities—not to say the collective wisdom— of the enterprise. Imagine if our global network functioned as something like our eleventh school: a Duke without walls, extended over space and time, investing continuously in developing ourselves and each other to reach our full potential, to advance humankind.

So, as we think together of where we want to take Duke in the next century, I propose that our focus should begin and end with our people, and center on our community.

One hundred years ago, William Preston Few and his colleagues began a journey of discovery that traversed from insecurity and anxiety over the future to embracing that future, as President Terry Sanford put it, with “outrageous ambitions.” They, and we, have since made incredible strides in realizing those ambitions. Today, as we reflect on the travails and wonders of the past century, we turn to ponder the travails and wonders of the next.

I am excited by the opportunities that Duke’s second century will bring us and look forward to working with all of you to deliver on our institution’s tremendous promise. Thank you for supporting the Duke we have always been and the Duke we are destined to become.

Vincent E. Price signature

—Vincent E. Price

Duke President Vincent E. Price headshot

Vincent Price was formally installed as the tenth president of Duke University, and the fifteenth president of the institution, in October 2017. Learn more about his strategic framework for advancing the university.