The Launching of Duke University, 1924-1949

The Launching of Duke University, 1924-1949

by Robert F. Durden

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In this rich and authoritative history, distinguished historian Robert F. Durden tells the story of the formation of Duke University, beginning with its creation in 1924 as a new institution organized around Trinity College. As Durden reveals, this narrative belongs first and foremost to Duke University's original President, William Preston Few, whose visionary leadership successfully launched the building of the first voluntarily supported research university in the South. In focusing on Duke University's most formative and critical years—its first quarter century—Durden commemorates Few's remarkable successes while recognizing the painful realities and uncertainties of a young institution.
Made possible by a gift from James B. Duke, the wealthiest member of the family that had underwritten Trinity College since 1890, Duke University was organized with Few as president. Few's goal was to turn Duke into a world-class institution of higher education and these early years saw the development of much of what we know as Duke University today. Drawing on extensive archival material culled over a ten-year period, Durden discusses the building of the Medical Center, the rebuilding of the School of Law, the acquisition of the Duke Forest and development of the School of Forestry, the nurturing of the Divinity School, and the enrichment of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
It was also during this period, as Durden details, that such treasures as the Sarah P. Duke Gardens were created, as well as some near treasures, as seen by the failed attempt to start an art museum. Although the story of the birth of this University belongs largely to William Preston Few, other people figure prominently and are discussed at length. Alice Baldwin, who led in the establishment of the Woman's College, emerges as a fascinating figure, as do William H. Wannamaker, James B. Duke, William Hanes Ackland, Robert L. Flowers, Justin Miller, and Wilburt Cornell Davision, among others.
Although impressive growth occurred in Duke's formative years, tensions also arose. The need to strike an institutional balance between the twin demands of teaching and research, of regional versus national status, combined with continual shortages of funds, created occasional obstacles. The problem of two sets of trustees, one for the university and another for the Duke Endowment, loomed largest of all. As Few himself said, during these early years Duke successfully embarked on a long journey, for it was not until after World War II that Duke University consolidated the growth begun in the inter-war years.
An important contribution to the history of Southern higher education as well as to Duke University, this book will be of great interest to historians, alumni, and friends of Duke University alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822398455
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 03/12/1993
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 588
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Robert F. Durden is Professor of History Emeritus at Duke University.

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The Launching of Duke University, 1924â"1949

By Robert F. Durden

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9845-5


The Origins of the University Idea at Trinity College

* * *

When the trustees of Trinity College named John Franklin Crowell as president of the small, struggling institution in 1887, they undoubtedly did not realize what the long-range consequences of their action would be. Not only would the Pennsylvanian, who was only twenty-nine years old when he took the job, succeed in moving the institution some fifty miles eastward, from its rural isolation in Randolph County to the booming factory town of Durham, but he also had even more ambitious ideas about transforming the little college into a university.

After attending school in New Berlin, Pennsylvania, young Crowell went to Dartmouth for a year, transferred to Yale in 1880, and, after receiving his undergraduate degree there in 1883, spent a year in Yale's divinity school and another in its fledgling graduate school before serving as a school principal for two years.

Crowell's ambitious hopes for a "Greater Trinity," a university-type institution, were way ahead of their time and doomed to failure. Since Trinity was not yet, in fact, a strong liberal arts college, Crowell's talk of professional schools and other features of a university suggest a certain naiveté and lack of realism on his part. Yet the fact that he brought such ideas with him to Trinity points up an important truth about American higher education in the late nineteenth century.

Although the term "university" was, and is, used with notorious looseness in the United States, there is widespread agreement among historians that the nation's first authentic university—what would later on in the twentieth Century be known as a research university—opened its doors in 1876. The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, deliberately modeled itself on the German universities that were then widely hailed as the best in the world. The training of graduate students, through relatively small seminars where research was the principal concern and the new doctor of philosophy degree the goal, was the prime mission of Johns Hopkins, and its example quickly influenced the whole pattern of American higher education.

While other forces were also at work, the Johns Hopkins example inspired a select group of American institutions to transform themselves, gradually and in varying fashions, into research universities. In the Midwest and Far West, several state-supported universities—most prominently Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California—emulated Johns Hopkins and added to their historic mission of teaching that of the advancement of human knowledge through research as one of their primary purposes. In the Northeast, several of the nation's oldest educational institutions—especially Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Pennsylvania, and Columbia—bestirred themselves to meet the new competition and by around 1900 were widely recognized as belonging in the top group of research universities. Joining the five state-supported universities and the five Ivy League institutions, five important new, voluntarily supported universities were launched after the Civil War: Cornell in 1868, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1865, Johns Hopkins in 1876, Stanford in 1891, and Chicago in 1892. These fifteen institutions, according to a prominent historian of American research universities, "fully embody the emergence of research as a fundamental goal in American higher education."

Twelve of the fifteen institutions named above were among the fourteen founding members of the Association of American Universities. Its creation in 1900 was an important milestone in the emergence of the American research universities, for the leading Ph.D.-granting institutions of the era not only thereby declared their equality with the much older European universities but also set about strengthening the standards for the doctorate and guaranteeing the value of the best American degrees against "cheaper" domestic and foreign competition.

Although Johns Hopkins is in the border State of Maryland, the revolution that transformed the top echelon of American higher education in the late nineteenth century virtually bypassed the South. This happened primarily because deep, widespread poverty gripped the South for many decades after the Civil War. The large amounts of money that research universities required—from state governments, wealthy alumni, or philanthropists like John D. Rockefeller and Leland Stanford—simply did not exist in the vast area between the Potomac and the Rio Grande. Consequently, just as public schools in the South generally lagged pitifully behind those in most other parts of the country, the colleges and universities in the region remained distinctly weaker than the nation's best.

Yet individuals, such as John F. Crowell at Trinity, began the process of transmitting the ideas and aims of the educational revolution long before certain southern institutions themselves could be recognizably transformed. Individuals comparable to Crowell no doubt acted as key transmitters or conveyers at state-supported universities in Charlottesville, Virginia; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Austin, Texas, as well as at various other ambitious institutions in the South. Trinity College, when it moved to Durham in 1892, was a far cry indeed from a research university; nevertheless, it slowly began to reflect important changes wrought by Crowell and other transmitters like him and to move toward acquiring genuine strength as a liberal arts college.

Certainly one major academic advantage that Trinity College derived from the move to Durham was that, since most of the former faculty members proved unable or unwilling to leave Randolph County, Crowell had to recruit a largely new faculty. Since he did so at the new graduate-training universities in the East, Trinity quickly acquired a young, well-prepared faculty with advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins, Yale, Cornell, and one or two other institutions. Contact with these enthusiastic, relatively cosmopolitan professors soon inspired such recent and promising Trinity graduates as John Spencer Bassett and William Ivey Cranford, who were serving as instructors in the college, to go themselves for graduate study at one of the major universities.

Armed with the new Ph.D. degree from Johns Hopkins, John Spencer Bassett returned to teach history at Trinity in 1894 and within less than a decade, according to one historian, "acquired a reputation as the South's foremost scholar in the field of history." More important than his professional reputation, however, was the impact or influence that Bassett had on Trinity College.

Even more directly than Crowell, perhaps, Bassett may be seen as an example of the transmitter par excellence of many of the ideas and values of the research university. Unlike some university-trained scholars who became so enamored of research that they disdained teaching "mere" undergraduates, Bassett apparently did not lose his zest for the classroom, though with a teaching load of at least fifteen hours per week—and sometimes more—plus other duties, his schedule would be considered cruel and intolerable by later standards. That he managed to keep a personal touch and to relate with his students is suggested by a former student who recalled that Bassett was the only member of the small Trinity faculty who "believed that Jesus Christ had died for freshmen too."

Neither the amount of his teaching nor its apparently caring quality was as significant as the fact that Bassett, bringing to Trinity the methods he had learned at Johns Hopkins, required his students to write research papers based in part on original source material in the library. Rejecting the timeworn class routines that involved a near-sacred textbook and student memorization of data from it or from the professor's lectures, Bassett was among a small group of pioneers at Trinity who believed that undergraduates, no less than graduate students, needed to be trained in analytical, critical thinking and the writing of clear, correct English.

If such an approach was to be used, however, there were obvious implications for the college library, and Bassett was one of the first in a long line of Trinity faculty members who put library development at the top of the institution's list of priorities. Bassett's predecessor at Trinity, Stephen B. Weeks, who was also a Johns Hopkins Ph.D., led interested students and faculty to organize the Trinity College Historical Society in the spring of 1892. Its object, as stated in its constitution, was "to collect, arrange and preserve a library of books, pamphlets, maps, charts, manuscripts, papers, paintings, statuary and other materials illustrative of the history of North Carolina and of the South; ... [and] to encourage original work in the field of Southern history and to promote the study of the same by means of lectures and publications." Weeks left Trinity before such an ambitious program could be effectively started, but Bassett, recognizing the potential in the organization, proceeded vigorously to utilize the historical society and pursue its aims. "There is reason to believe," one presumably impartial historian concludes, "that no local historical association ever succeeded better in effecting its program than the society at Trinity College."

Using the historical museum with its miscellaneous artifacts and relics to catch the interest of the students and the public, Bassett had a more serious purpose in mind for the manuscripts and other historical documents that he and other members of the historical society went after: they were to form the nucleus of a research collection. In 1898, four years after Bassett's return to Trinity, he proudly informed his mentor at Johns Hopkins that whereas Trinity had previously owned no documentary collection, it now possessed over two thousand documents, and he had been promised a fireproof vault in which to keep them. In addition to Bassett's many other duties, the trustees named him "manager of the library," though in 1898 the college also acquired its first full-time librarian, Joseph P. Breedlove.

John Carlisle Kilgo, who succeeded Crowell in 1894 as Trinity's President, declared in 1901 that the library was "the one department that measures the future development of the college." This was hardly a commonplace view among college presidents in that era, especially in small, church-related institutions, and it was almost certainly an insight or policy that Kilgo himself acquired from Bassett and other young university-trained Ph.D.'s on the faculty. A native of South Carolina and a graduate of Wofford College, Kilgo was a spellbinding and controversial Methodist preacher who quickly earned the admiration and confidence of two groups that were vitally important to Trinity College: the faculty and the family of Washington Duke.

Benjamin N. Duke, Washington Duke's son, had given $1,000 to Trinity in 1887 and become a trustee of the school in 1889. He and especially his father played central roles in moving the college to Durham three years later. Once there, the chronically poor condition of the college's financial situation did not improve, as President Crowell had hoped, but drastically worsened. Washington Duke, having retired from the family's tobacco business in 1880 at the age of sixty, left most important business and Philanthropie decisions and negotiations to his son Ben Duke. Moreover, all of the dissension and wrangling that both preceded and followed the college's move to Durham led Washington Duke, for a time, to regret his involvement with Trinity. Yet since the family had become entangled with it, Ben Duke, together with his sister, Mary Duke Lyon, and his younger brother, James B. Duke, agreed to extend emergency financial assistance that would at least keep the college in operation, even if on a spartan basis that was a far cry indeed from the ambitious program that Crowell had envisioned.

Kilgo's arrival on the scene soon brought a dramatic change in the college's situation, for not only did Ben Duke consider him "a very strong man in every way" and one "admirably fitted for the position he holds," but Washington Duke was equally captivated by Kilgo and again became keenly interested in the welfare of Trinity College. In 1896 he offered to give it $100,000 for endowment, a princely sum in that era, if it would "open its doors to women, placing them in the future on an equal footing with men." Since the college had earlier enrolled women as students, although on an irregular and nonresidential basis, and since Kilgo and others on the faculty were sympathetic with the idea, the college promptly accepted Washington Duke's offer. The residentially separate or coordinate college for women that Crowell had proposed and that Kilgo preferred would have to wait for another generation and larger resources; but beginning in September, 1897 a small number of women entered Trinity College and lived in the first dormitory for women, the Mary Duke Building.

While Washington Duke gave yet another $100,000 to the college's endowment in 1898, with additional large gifts in subsequent years, Ben Duke began to make annual contributions to Trinity's operating budget and to meet specific needs as they arose. Serving on the executive committee of the college's trustees, Ben Duke, both before his father died in 1905 and afterward, served as the family's chief agent for a wide range of Philanthropie activities in North Carolina, with Trinity College always at the top of the list.

There is no documentary evidence to prove the case, but there is a strong probability that Ben Duke, possibly aided by his father, persuaded his younger brother, James B. Duke, to make his first sizeable gift to the college in 1900. Having moved to New York City in 1884, James B. Duke, who was known only to family and a few intimate friends as "Buck," never again lived in Durham—though he maintained close ties with his family, especially his father and his brother Ben. What a later generation would know as a "workaholic," J. B. Duke was primarily involved in the giant American Tobacco Company, which he helped to create in 1890 and long led as president. That task left him little time or taste for the endless letter-writing and conferring with Methodist preachers, college administrators, and others that Ben Duke endured. At any rate, J. B. Duke agreed to give Trinity a handsome library with a capacity of 100,000 volumes and $10,000 for the purchase of books to go in it. Thus the concern of Bassett and others for Trinity's library resources reached, via Kilgo and Ben Duke, to the youngest, and eventually the richest member of the family.

Support from the Dukes provided the financial security that Trinity College had always desperately but vainly sought. The college, by national standards, was a long way from being affluent. But by comparison with most other educational institutions in the poverty-stricken South at that time, Trinity was fortunate, and it could gradually begin to build toward the academic strength that it coveted. Enrollment climbed from 150 students when Kilgo became president to 197 by 1903, when the new library was dedicated. Since income from the tuition of $50 per year amounted to little more than 10 percent of the college's total income, the significance of the support from the Dukes is readily apparent. The endowment income and the annual gifts from the Dukes were such, in fact, that Kilgo proposed and got in 1900 the establishment of fifty tuition scholarships to be awarded on the basis of ability and character and twelve graduate student awards for those seeking the master of arts degree.

While a strong library was essential if Trinity was to become the academically vigorous college that Kilgo, his faculty, and their benefactors envisioned, Bassett may also be used to illustrate another development at Trinity that reflected the practice of the research universities more than it did that of the typical small college of that time. A prodigious researcher himself, Bassett published, among other works, pioneering studies of slavery in North Carolina and of antislavery leaders in the state. Both subjects were then rather novel, and Bassett's critical, scholarly stance even more so. Since historians, unlike major novelists or poets, write in sand, Bassett's scholarship has long since been washed away by the tides of revisionism. More enduring, however, was the example he set of scholarly investigation and of the careful search for truths about the South's past, a past which had to be painfully stripped of romanticism and evasion before it could even begin to be understood.


Excerpted from The Launching of Duke University, 1924â"1949 by Robert F. Durden. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents Preface Chapter 1. The Origins of the University Idea at Trinity College Chapter 2. Building on Two Campuses: "The Most . . . Beautiful Educational Plant in America" Chapter 3. Crisis in University Governance Chapter 4. Strengthening the Arts and Sciences: The Natural Sciences, Mathematics, and Engineering Chapter 5. Strenghtening the Arts and Sciences: The Social Sciences and the Humanities Chapter 6. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and Other Essentials for Mind and Spirit Chapter 7. Duke Students at Work and Play in the Jazz and Big Band Era Chapter 8. The Woman's College, 1925-1947: Could Separate Be Truly Equal? Chapter 9. One Recumbent Too Many: Duke University and the Ackland Museum of Art Chapter 10. Theological Education at Duke University, 1925-1950 Chapter 11. Building a Medical Center from Scratch Chapter 12. The Rebuilding of Duke University's School of Law, 1925-1947 Chapter 13. The Serendiptious Acquistion of Assets: The Duke Forest and School of Forestry Chapter 14. From Few to Flowers, World War II, and the Leadership Crisis of the Late 1940s Chapter 15. The Resolution of the Leadership Crisis and the Finding of a New President Appendix 1. Original Faculty of the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Health Services Appendix 2. A Note on the Sources Notes Index

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