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Students from the 1920s and from the 2020s
Virtually everything about the appearance of the Duke student body has changed since 1924, but the dreams that inspired them remain lofty. Photo by Duke Archives/Chris Hildreth


We celebrate Duke's centennial by honoring what came before and imagining what the future holds

Tallman Trask III, executive vice president for a quarter of Duke’s century, captured a central element of Duke’s story. “Duke in fact became a great university,” he suggested, “in part because it looked like one from the start.” 

Others agreed. Coming across Duke on a driving trip not long after it was built, British author Aldous Huxley called West Campus, “The most successful essay in neo-Gothic that I know.”

A small, Southern college announced – at least architecturally, with a soaring chapel and West Campus built to mirror the gothic quadrangles of Oxford or Cambridge – its intentions to shake off its regional limitations and take its place among the great universities of the world. This shows, to say the least, ambition.

Probably no other word is so thoroughly – and so fairly – associated with Duke. “The startup university,” Richard Brodhead called it, and he was Duke president (2004-2017). Nan Keohane, Brodhead’s predecessor (1993-2004) called it “hungry, in a good way.” And of their predecessor, Terry Sanford, Sue Wasiolek ’76 M.H.A.’78 asked, “How many times has ‘outrageous ambitions’ been quoted?”

A lot. President Sanford (1970-1985) famously spoke those words in his final address to faculty in 1984. He described leaps the institution’s leaders had taken, none of them in service of becoming a part of some Ivy League or other external validator. Instead, he said, Duke advanced using “its own peculiar resources and creative capabilities.” He urged Duke to pursue clear thinking and a love of justice, to do no less than “enlarge and perpetuate the search for truth.”

“All of these goals,” he concluded, “are worthy of outrageous ambitions.” 

As if to reward those ambitions, a few weeks later Duke appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine representing a story titled “Hot Colleges: And How They Get That Way.” Since then, Duke has constantly been one of the most difficult schools to get into, nearing the top of every college ranking. One way a school earns that distinction is ambition, which has been part of Duke’s DNA from the outset. It all started, perhaps, when William Preston Few had an idea for Trinity College. 

Few, president of Trinity from 1910 (and of Duke from its 1924 inception until 1940), came to Trinity as a professor of English not long after it moved to Durham. Few had his Ph.D. from Harvard, where he had encountered a lot of new ideas about what a university should be. Trinity already depended on the philanthropy of tobacco baron Washington Duke, who had financed Trinity’s move to Durham. Few developed friendships with Duke’s sons James Buchanan “Buck” Duke and Benjamin Newton Duke

The story that J.B. Duke, looking to use his enormous fortune for good, tried to get the family name on Princeton is entirely mythological. Duke was looking to help educational institutions, but he wanted to support them in his native Carolinas. After years of discussion, Few eventually sent Duke a letter outlining Trinity’s change into an “expanded institution to be named Duke University.” The result was the complex 1924 Indenture of Trust, called by Duke historian Robert Durden “a lawyer’s joy and a layman’s nightmare.” The Indenture not only organized (and funded) the new university but created the Duke Endowment, which funds not just Duke but other universities as well as health care and religious agencies in the Carolinas. (In November, the Endowment made a gift of $100 million to Duke in honor of its centennial.)

Ambition radiated from Few’s letter: The new university was to include “a coordinate college for women, a Law School, a School of Religious Training … a School of Business Administration, a School of Engineering … a Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, and, when adequate funds are available, a Medical School.” If you’re keeping score, Duke has reached every one of those goals, though women no longer have “coordinate” status and since 1972 have been fully integrated into the university at every level.

In fact, Keohane sees that as “one of the reasons Duke is distinctive. The fact of having had a woman’s college, and therefore not becoming co-ed belatedly, as so many other great universities did.” 

“After 30 years here, I finally have landed on a way to present Duke: My current way of saying this is that Duke represents the apotheosis of the classical American college experience.”

Christoph Guttentag, dean of admissions

Distinctive things started happening fast in 1924. The Indenture notes that education is, “next to religion, the greatest civilizing influence,” and the Divinity School in 1926 became the first of Duke’s new graduate professional schools. Even without adding graduate programs, building two college campuses at once (East served as the Woman’s College until 1972) wasn’t easy. When word got out about the changes as Trinity became Duke, land near what is now East Campus became very expensive. It was Few, walking the hills west of town, who wrote to Duke that he “realized that here at last is the land we have been looking for.” And also the land that became Duke Forest. “That has made us really unique, in terms of the character of the land on which the university is located – and is surrounded by the Duke Forest.” So said Norm Christensen, who came to Duke in 1973 as a botanist. He became the inaugural dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment in 1991, one of the first such schools in the nation. He built his career on that forest, but he sees in the Nicholas School more than just a happy combination of the School of Forestry and the Marine Lab (both started in 1938) and the department of geology. He sees it as something fundamental: “Duke’s willingness to try to do things to be different.”

Brodhead entirely agreed that a “let’s try that” spirit distinguishes Duke. “Places need mythologies,” he said. “The idea that Duke made itself, had the idea, ‘Well, that’s great, but what if we became something else?’ We don’t want to become the evolved version of what we already are. We’d like to stop and say, ‘What’s the best thing that the university could be?’” He mentioned the Duke Global Health Institute, which he floated as an idea in his 2004 inaugural address – and two years later it existed. 

That spirit of innovation, of interdisciplinarity, is often seen as beginning in the early 1990s with Keohane’s time at Duke, but it probably started with Sanford, Brodhead said, referring both to the president and the School of Public Policy that now bears his name. “When it was founded [as an institute in 1971; it became a school in 2009], it had two faculty members and two classrooms,” he said. “But the whole point was, it was about economics, statistics, political science, and real-world experience in the challenges of policy. It understood problems of policy aren’t single-disciplinary problems. They need smart people to bring the piece of the puzzle that they understand and put something together.”

Willingness to be what was needed, not what it had traditionally been, helped Duke face some of its significant issues, as well. Keohane noted that women have been included from the outset. But Duke didn’t admit its first Black undergraduates until 1963, and students have often had to fight to have their voices heard. Just the same, the main quad is now named for Julian Abele, the Black architect who designed it. And when in 2019 Duke invited back the Black students who in 1969 had in frustration occupied the Allen Building, it had the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture and the department of African & African American Studies. More, at that time the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, the leader of the health system, the leaders of graduate and undergraduate education, the leader of the chapel, and the leader of academic affairs were all Black. 

The combination of interdisciplinarity and real-world focus has created some of what are now Duke’s signature programs: Duke Engage and Bass Connections, both of which connect students, professors and local or distant community groups addressing real-world problems. 

Ambition; creative adaptability; the highest level of challenge and scholarship. “After 30 years here," said Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Cristoph Guttentag, “I finally have landed on a way to present Duke: My current way of saying this is that Duke represents the apotheosis of the classical American college experience.” Academics, beautiful campus, diversity, social life. Oh, and one more thing: “Athletics.” When students see a Duke men’s basketball game, he said, they are “watching something that is the best in the world. Basketball like this is as good as it gets.” More, by tenting before big games or by sitting with the Cameron Crazies, students don’t feel they’re just watching: They’re helping create it. “I believe the appeal of basketball had to do with the notion that you could actually be a part of a thing that was being done as well as it could be done.”

David Rubenstein ’70, who has served on the board of trustees (including as chair) and whose philanthropy has led to several West Campus buildings with his name on them, points something else out: It’s not just basketball – it was Coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Coach K initially had a view that he wouldn’t put a banner up unless everybody had graduated,” he said. Duke was about more than just winning; Duke Basketball stood for something. But Rubenstein said what he appreciated most about Duke is that when he attended, he was just another kid – who came to Duke because it made him his best scholarship offer. Since then, he has worked to keep the scholarships coming for further generations. It’s hard to imagine, looking back from Duke’s well-resourced position, that in the 1950s the Duke name became a “peculiar handicap,” in the words of President Arthur Hollis Edens (1949-1960): The initial Indenture and additional donations by the Dukes were “such as to encourage the uninformed public to believe that Duke University never would require additional capital.” It is safe to say that, since then, Duke has informed the public.

Nobody reading this magazine believes Duke will ever stop needing additional capital; it’s how a nonprofit university works. That’s every university. But the reinvention to meet problems that are not just unexpected but unimagined? The capacity to combine departments, groups, disciplines, and create something new? The first-rate sports? That’s Duke. And from that position, after a century, it’s fine to take a moment to look back and say, “Well, that’s great.”

Then you go back with Richard Brodhead to that defining mythology, that ambition. And you ask, “But what if we became something else?”

The Way Forward

Could the future of Duke be found in a hole in the ground?

In an unassuming Central Campus parking lot, collaborators from the Pratt School of Engineering, Sustainable Duke, Duke Facilities and the Office of Information Technology are gathering data from a borehole that plunges 700 feet below Durham to determine if the water used to heat and cool Duke’s buildings can be stored deep underground. The process of aquifer thermal energy storage is already saving energy for Dutch and German cities, notes Manolis Veveakis, professor of civil and environmental engineering. Duke’s campus has the heating and cooling needs of a small city, says Casey Collins, director of utility and energy services. Aquifer thermal energy storage, though still in the feasibility study phase, could put a dent in the monetary and environmental cost. “We would burn a lot less natural gas,” says Collins. “Burning less natural gas means our carbon footprint goes down. That's where the rubber hits the road.”

There are no guarantees – Veveakis, for example, has to do a lot of analysis this year to see if the aquifers below Duke are viable for thermal energy storage – but this team’s work fits into the larger mission of Duke’s Climate Commitment, that of a carbon-neutral Duke and a carbon-neutral world. Indeed, Duke’s priority initiatives, including climate, nestle within the university’s strategic vision for the future. This vision comprises multiple elements, all designed to position Duke to continue to lead by example: By empowering bold thinkers, transforming teaching and learning for the 21st Century, creating an inclusive and equitable campus community, partnering within Durham and North Carolina, and engaging a global Duke network of alumni and friends. Duke President Vincent Price says there is no institution more prepared to make a positive impact than Duke will be in its second century.

“In a complex organization, I think people orient toward the highest missions,” says Price. “We have to be clear about what those missions are. That's what's exciting about the centennial. What a gift to a large and complex organization, to have a moment that causes all of us together to pause, contemplate the past, think about the present, talk about the future. If there's anything that will advance a complex organization, it’s something like our centennial.”

“I wouldn’t trade places with anybody anywhere. We’re an institution that can honestly say our best years are in front of us.”


Admittedly, Duke, which formed from Trinity College 100 years ago, is young compared to other top-tier universities. Harvard, for instance, will mark its 400th anniversary in 2036. Oxford’s origins date to 1096. Even as he watches the odometer turn over, Duke Provost Alec Gallimore says the university’s youth is one of its strengths. Its global reach, its leadership in research and academics, its accomplished alumni, its championship-nabbing Blue Devils – all these came about within a relatively short span of time. Duke is not so locked into its traditions that it can’t pivot and adapt.

“We caught up to the pack,” says Gallimore. “We might actually be ahead of a bunch of the pack members. We’ve got to keep going.”

The Allen Building’s stately board room looks out across Abele Quad, crossed here and there by students as the fall ’23 semester winds down. On the wall, portraits of past university leaders peer over the shoulders of Gallimore and Price.

“I hope people look back on us at this moment in time and feel we did the right things,” says Price. “I’ll be fine if they find fault with us, so long as 50 years from now we are in a much better place.”

Unlike many of its peer institutions, Duke is in the diverse Southern city of Durham, says Abbas Benmamoun, vice provost for faculty advancement and co-chair of the Racial Equity Advisory Council (REAC). Yes, this means the university bears the weight of America’s racial history, but it also stands on the front lines, positioned to engage on the most pressing social issues facing the country today. Look at North Carolina, Benmamoun says. The state is a microcosm for national and international phenomena such as changing demographics, climate impacts on minority communities and the urban-rural divide.

“It’s happening here in our backyard, here in the Triangle area,” says Benmamoun.

Duke can’t continue to make progress on racial, ethnic and gender equality without looking in the mirror and asking tough questions, which it did in the 2021 campus climate survey. The survey of students, faculty and staff was undertaken by REAC after the council was created in 2020 with the mission of coordinating the key elements of the university’s anti-racism commitment. If students, faculty and staff in any area were made to feel like they didn’t belong, Duke needed to know. The goal, Price says, was to replace that with a sense of authentic belonging. A follow-up survey is planned for 2024.

Modern Duke can point to its diverse student population and improvements in hiring of faculty and staff. Still, many of its employees of color are in lower tier positions, says Kim Hewitt, vice president for institutional equity and REAC co-chair. For them, Hewitt envisions clear advancement opportunities and on-ramps to higher tier jobs.

“The more diverse we become as an institution, the better we get at problem solving,” says Price. “A world of problems is also a world of opportunity for an organization devoted to problem solving.”

The university president describes a future riddled with complex challenges. The world is more complicated than it has ever been, offers Matt Hirschey, director of Duke’s Center for Computational Thinking.

“Technology is part of that complication,” he says.

Duke students – the people who will create and inhabit the future – arrive digitally literate. Their learning process includes platforms such as YouTube or TikTok, Hirschey says. It’s not a criticism, but an observation. He intends to meet them where they are.

“If you think about the pace of technological change, universities are perhaps more necessary than ever to help society make good use of those technologies,” says Price. “It's not as though those technologies are out there in the world. They are here at Duke,” where, for example, industry-leading work is being done in the areas of artificial intelligence and metamaterials.

Hirschey and emerging technology ethicist Nita Farahany are co-conveners of Duke’s third university-wide course, UNIV103: Let’s Talk About Digital You, which launched this spring. Like UNIV101 and UNIV102, which focus on racial equity and climate change, the new course delves into a topic every Duke student needs to know before they graduate and enter the world, Hirschey says.

“Students absolutely need to understand the technologies and implications of using those technologies to be digital citizens of a datacentric 21st century that we live in,” he says.

Hirschey is speaking over Zoom, new technology to many four years ago but now commonplace. Emojis float unbidden across his screen mid-sentence – tech quirks interrupting the expert as he talks about understanding new tech so we can discuss its ramifications – and Hirschey finds himself laughing.

“My computer does this,” he says, still grinning. It’s not an apology, but an objective statement: Look what this technology just did.

UNIV103 will position Duke students to enter a complex future, rich with technology, but to also understand the things technology can’t do. Take notes with pen and paper rather than a keyboard, Hirschey offers, and you’ll remember more of the material.

“Our interaction would be much more meaningful if we were sitting across from each other,” he adds. It’s not a Duke truth, but a human truth.

Like the teams looking at storing water underground, Hirschey drills holes in the surface to see what lies beneath. There are storm clouds on the horizon, as Price calls the challenges of the era. If Duke is to truly, effectively educate responsible digital citizens in a rapidly shifting digital landscape, it will take courses like Hirschey and Farahany’s.

And if Duke is to live up to its Climate Commitment, it will take interdisciplinary teams testing wild new technologies in the hope that tomorrow can be that much greener.

What happens to the world happens to Duke, after all. Gallimore and Price don’t see a distinction, and there is nowhere they would rather tack into the future than at the helm of a world-class research university.

I wouldn't trade places with anybody anywhere,” Price says. “We're an institution that can honestly say our best years are in front of us.”