Duke University

  • Education
  • 1924

Though his success in business took him far beyond the borders of his native state, James Duke never truly left North Carolina. The longtime owner of Southern Power, and American Tobacco, Duke made clear his fondness for his home region when he donated $40 million to the Duke Endowment in 1924. All giving was to concentrate on educational institutions, hospitals, orphanages, and Methodist churches in North and South Carolina. The largest share, 46 percent of the endowment, was designated to support education, and of this, $6 million was set aside for the creation of “an institution to be known as Duke University” in honor of his father.

“Education, when conducted along sane and practical, as opposed to dogmatic and theoretical, lines, is, next to religion, the greatest civilizing influence,” wrote Duke. While his endowment could have been used to start a new school, Duke offered Trinity College, of which he had been a longtime supporter, the option of expanding into the wider mission he envisioned. Trinity accepted, adding schools of law, medicine, and divinity, building a new campus, and changing its name. Less than one year later Duke gave the university an additional $7 million to finish its bold expansion.

Duke was a careful and attentive donor, who enjoyed details like laying out the university grounds, and who left clear instructions and documentation for his endowment on precisely how to hoped to assist his region of birth. Of his college he said, “I want it to become a great university.” And today it is, standing as a top-tier institution alongside schools that have been developing two or three times longer.