Duke University was created in 1924 with a gift from James Buchanan Duke to Trinity College, but it traces its roots back further to 1838 as a subscription school in rural North Carolina. Under the leadership of nine previous presidents, the university has grown to be universally regarded as one of the leading research universities in the world.

richard h. brodheadRichard H. Brodhead, 2004 – 2017

Richard Brodhead, former dean of Yale College and the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of English at Yale University, was Duke University’s ninth president and the fourteenth person to lead the institution since its founding as Union Institute in 1838.  His election was announced by the Board of Trustees on December 12, 2003, and he took office on July 1, 2004. Brodhead made globalization a major strategic priority for the University, and oversaw creation of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in partnership with the National University of Singapore. Duke Kunshan University, a joint venture institution created by Duke University and Wuhan University in China, opened in August 2014, offering degree and non-degree academic programs for students from China and around the world. Under his leadership, Duke also launched a number of innovative initiatives in undergraduate education.

nannerl keohaneNannerl Keohane, 1993 – 2004

Nannerl Keohane became president on July 1, 1993, coming from the presidency of Wellesley College. She was the first woman to serve as Duke’s president and among the first women to oversee a leading U.S. research university.

Under her leadership, the University’s international reach extended through new study abroad opportunities, international education, and Duke Clubs abroad. A reorganization of undergraduate life brought all first-year students together on the University’s East Campus. Major new programs in genomics, photonics, and ethics were established, and the creation of the Duke University Health System enabled Duke to broadly distribute comprehensive health care in the Research Triangle region. The student body and faculty became more diverse and a Women’s Initiative promoted dialogue about women’s experiences at Duke. The successful $2 billion Campaign for Duke supported new scholarships, research, and academic programs, and helped build facilities for engineering, art, business, science, divinity, public policy, medicine, nursing, libraries, athletics, and student life. A concern for public service resulted in the establishment of the Neighborhood Partnership, which has strengthened Duke’s ties with its Durham neighbors. Duke also increased its collaboration with other universities in the Triangle area during her tenure.

 Keith Brodie, 1985 – 1993

Dr. Brodie (1921-2017), the James B. Duke Professor of Psychiatry, served as Duke’s Chancellor from 1982 to 1985 and was named to succeed Terry Sanford. During his tenure, applications to Duke’s graduate and undergraduate programs increased greatly as the school became a nationally-known research university.

Academic initiatives included the establishment of an Institute of Statistics and Decision Sciences and a new School of the Environment. Interdisciplinary planning was a hallmark of the period and a new science building, the Levine Science Research Center, brought together faculty from varied disciplines. Other capital projects added a dormitory, a building for policy sciences and public affairs, medical research buildings, and the campus wide network, DukeNet. Duke made efforts to increase the number of African-Americans in academia with a Black Faculty Initiative and a Program for Preparing Minorities for Academic Careers. Increased faculty participation in the governance of the University was made possible by the establishment of the President’s Advisory Council on Resources. During Dr. Brodie’s tenure, Duke became known as a school that welcomes people of different races, cultures, and ethnic groups.

  • Keeping an Open Door: Passages in a University Presidency by H. Keith H. Brodie. Duke University Press, 1996. (catalog record)
  • President Brodie’s presidential records are restricted for 25 years from the date of their creation. Contact the Duke University Archives for more information.


Terry Sanford, 1969 – 1985

In 1969 the Trustees took a bold step in electing as President someone from outside the academic community. However, Terry Sanford (1917-1998), known as the educational governor of North Carolina and one experienced in dealing with the then all too common politics of confrontation, proved to be a wise choice. Retiring in 1985, his tenure as president was exceeded only by the terms of Craven and Few, and by Kilgo by only a few months. Whether in additions to physical plant, in increased participatory governance with the addition of students to campus committees, or in fund raising with the Epoch Campaign and the Capital Campaign for the Arts and Sciences, Sanford’s years at Duke were impressive. His approachability, the openness of his administration, his emphasis on honor, and his assimilation and use of the history of the institution were most appreciated. But perhaps the most surprising fact is that 37,700 Duke degrees were awarded over his signature. In 1985, that represented 55% of the active alumni of the University! We frequently note how young Duke is but it is very much part of an older, distinguished institution. It is not uncommon to discover President Hart quoting Kilgo, Sanford quoting Few and Crowell, and Few acknowledging the influence of Craven.


Douglas M. Knight, 1963 – 1969

In 1963, Douglas M. Knight (1921-2005), the President of Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, was persuaded to come to Duke University. New beginnings and unique building projects characterized his tenure. The conversion of a science building into an Art Museum, construction of a hyperbaric chamber, a phytotron, and the largest nuclear structure laboratory in the Southeast added new dimensions to research at the University, as did the launching of the first ship built specifically for oceanographic research. In addition, new undergraduate and medical school curricula, interdisciplinary programs in biomedical engineering and forestry management, joint M.D.-J.D. and M.D.-PhD. degrees, and a new School of Business Administration were started. Most significantly the major Perkins Library addition made it possible to double every library service and increase capacity some five times over. That so much was accomplished in a time of increasing national conflict and student confrontation at Duke was remarkable.

  • The Dancer and the Dance: One Man’s Chronicle, 1938-2001 by Douglas M. Knight. Separate Star, 2003. (catalog record)
  • Street of Dreams: The Nature and Legacy of the 1960s by Douglas M. Knight. Duke University Press, 1989. (catalog record)
  • Collection guide for Douglas M. Knight’s records at the Duke University Archives.


Julian Deryl Hart, 1960 – 1963

In 1960, the fourth man to be elevated from within the institution, J. Deryl Hart (1894-1980), became President. Since 1930, he had had a distinguished career as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Surgery, and he was highly respected as one who took great interest in the affairs of the University.

His special task as President was to deal with the affairs of administration, and to that end he organized the Provost group to share in governance of the University; guided the adoption of new Bylaws which replaced the University Council with our present faculty legislature, the Academic Council; expanded the role of the University Planning Committee; and in various ways significantly redefined the responsibilities of the Offices of Institutional Advancement, Development, Business, Legal Counsel, Registrar, Undergraduate Admissions, and Architect. Believing “academic excellence is the greatest single asset a school can have,” he emphasized support for faculty as well.

During his three-year tenure the number of distinguished professorships doubled and faculty salaries achieved an “A” rating from the AAUP. Another noteworthy accomplishment was the amending of the admissions policy affirming equality of opportunity regardless of race, creed, or national origin.

  • A Backward Glance: A Report on Duke University, 1960-1963 by J. Deryl Hart. Duke University, ca. 1963. (catalog record) (digital copy via DukeSpace)
  • Collection guide for J. Deryl Hart’s presidential records at the Duke University Archives.
  • Collection guide for J. Deryl Hart’s records and papers at the Duke University Medical Center Archives.


Arthur Hollis Edens, 1949 – 1960

To deal with the enormous problems facing private universities in the post-war period, the trustees next turned to a native Southerner, an experienced educator, and an executive with the Rockefeller Foundation, A. Hollis Edens (1901-1968). That he was the most youthful president in forty years and strikingly handsome added to the excitement on campus.

Momentous changes occurred quickly. With inflation rapidly eroding purchasing power, the University launched a capital gifts program and a national development campaign. Edens noted that upon entering the field of fund raising Duke faced a “peculiar handicap.” He stated, “Never before had we sought sizeable sums from either alumni or the general public. Indeed, the magnitude of James B. Duke’s Indenture had been such as to encourage the uninformed public to believe that Duke University never would require additional capital.” Through the success of this campaign, Duke University began to build its own endowment and expand its programs.

Academic units such as the Center for Commonwealth Studies and the Center for the Study of Aging date from this time. Formal participation of the faculty in governance began in 1952 with the formation of a University Council and the consolidation of several committees into an Undergraduate Faculty Council. Additional accomplishments included the establishment of the James B. Duke Endowed Professorships, the organization of a student union program (the Duke University Union) to enhance student life, and a vigorous defense of academic freedom during the McCarthy Era. Though not so well known because he chose to work behind the scenes, Edens also assiduously sought to have the segregated admissions policy of the University changed.

  • Collection guide for A. Hollis Edens’s records at the Duke University Archives.
  • Collection guide for A. Hollis Edens’s personal papers at the Duke University Archives.


Robert Lee Flowers, 1941 – 1948

At the death of President Few, Robert Lee Flowers (1870-1951) was named President. A graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy, Flowers had first been employed as instructor in mathematics and electrical engineering when Trinity was still in Randolph County. As an engineer, one of his first responsibilities was to wire the new buildings in Durham for electricity.

“Professor Bobby Flowers,” as he was affectionately known by students and alumni, served the institution the longest and in the most varied capacities. For over sixty years, his thoroughness and wise counsel as Professor, Secretary, Treasurer, Vice-President, President, and Chancellor served the institution well. His experience and stature were welcome because the demands of a world at war and the strains of transition to a peacetime economy dominated every aspect of university life during his presidency.

  • Collection guide for Robert L. Flowers’s records at the Duke University Archives.
  • Catalog record for Robert L. Flowers’s personal papers at the Rubenstein Library.


William Preston Few, 1924 – 1941

When Kilgo was elected a Bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, the trustees elevated a Professor of English and the first Dean of the College, William Preston Few (1867-1940), to the Presidency. Few had a B.A. degree from Wofford and a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Like Kilgo he was greatly respected by students. One wrote admiringly, “He was a model of prudence. To Dr. Few I owe about all the balance I may have in my make-up.”

Perhaps unique in the history of higher education in America, he also had the time—30 years as President—and the money—the largesse of the Duke family. His most spectacular accomplishments were helping to nurture the concept behind The Duke Endowment to fruition, and overseeing the transformation of Trinity College into Duke University.

Just as Few often emphasized that Duke University owed its rapid development to the strength of Trinity College, the stature of the University today is due in large measure to the ideals and talent of William Preston Few.