Thanks to a $20-million endowment gift from Bill and Melinda Gates, the University has launched a new academic program that utilizes one of its strengths-interdisciplinary studies-to help out one of its weaknesses-financial aid.

Once fully established, the University Scholars program will offer about 80 undergraduate, graduate and professional students financial and academic resources for cross-disciplinary, inter-generational academic inquiry. The program will kick off next fall with eight undergraduates and eight graduate and professional students.

"Bill and I hope this program will really attract some of the best and brightest students in the nation to Duke by letting them focus on topics that interest them, even if they don't fit neatly into a discipline," said Melinda Gates, Trinity '86, Fuqua '87 and a member of the Board of Trustees since 1996. Gates, who married the Microsoft founder, chair and chief executive officer in 1994, added that she looks forward to working with the program in the future.

Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies Cathy Davidson, who will direct the program, said specifics have not been developed, but scholars will most likely organize their studies around annual or biannual themes. A pre-existing project that might be appropriate for the University Scholars, she said, is the ongoing Oceans Connect endeavor through which scholars from a spectrum of disciplines analyze how historical and societal trends are driven by the natural boundaries of ocean basins, not continents.

Davidson said the most exciting component of the University Scholars program for her is the paradigm shift it represents in valuing intellectual thought.

"The selection criteria for this program will be, quite simply, intellectual inquisitiveness and creativity, not past accomplishments or traditional markers of success, although University Scholars will possess these qualities as well," Davidson said.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Dean of Trinity College William Chafe developed the idea last December when President Nan Keohane asked top administrators to devise creative projects that the Gateses might be interested in supporting. He noted another way in which the program is avant-garde: its interdisciplinary nature.

While interdisciplinary studies are not new for the University, the area received a boost last year with the establishment of Davidson's vice provostship. Now, this program, when added to well-established interdisciplinary projects like the first-year FOCUS program, puts Duke on the academy's cutting edge, Chafe said.

"Typically, you burrow into a traditional discipline and advance by getting narrower," he said. "Our goal is to create a different paradigm in which we provide legitimacy and reward and reinforcement for those who are most anxious to break out of those barriers and ask new questions and bring to bear on those issues multiple perspectives."

In an interview with The Chronicle, Melinda Gates noted that although she and her husband have donated mostly to technology-related projects in the past, they try to ascertain an institution's greatest needs when considering a gift.

In the case of Duke, that need was endowed financial aid. With 45 percent of Duke undergraduates qualifying for financial aid, the University spends about $30 million per year in undergraduate support from its own funds. Because of its relatively small endowment of $1.4 billion, a surprising $24 million of that support must come from its annual operating budget. The University hopes to improve this situation through the ongoing Capital Campaign.

As other universities with larger endowments begin to allot more money to financial aid, this goal becomes even more important for Duke.

"As we get into the campaign, I think you'll see a very heavy emphasis on raising general financial aid as a way to address the more fundamental issue of our competitiveness in [the area of financial aid]," Keohane said. "I hope that one of the things [the Capital Campaign] will allow us to do is to take some of the pressure off our budget, in the ways that places like Princeton have been able to do, with slightly more generous accommodations for people who have difficult situations."

The University Scholars program, however, is not exclusively for those who qualify for financial aid. Program designers estimate that the average award to participants will be about $15,000, with the actual amount varying depending on the student's need.

Participants who do not qualify for aid receive a small award, possibly an independent research grant, said Vice Provost for Budgets and Planning Jim Roberts.

Like other University merit scholarships, undergraduate candidates will be chosen by the admissions office, and a faculty selection committee will choose the scholars.

"In selecting University Scholars, the faculty committee will do its best to identify an exceptionally diverse group of people with exceptionally bold intellectual interests," Roberts said. "Economic and ethnic diversity are intrinsic goals of the program and will be prominent in the selection process."

The Gateses have donated to several schools, including the University of Washington and Harvard University. In the mid-1990s, they established the William H. Gates Foundation, which has a broad mission, and the Gates Library Foundation, which provides computer and Internet access to public libraries in low-income communities.

Melinda Gates, who lives with her husband and young daughter in Medina, Wash., retired from her position at Microsoft in 1996 to devote more time to her family and philanthropic roles. In an effort to maintain her status as a private figure, Gates has had virtually no contact with the media since her marriage in 1994, but she decided to take a more public role in this gift because of her commitment to Duke as an alumna and trustee.

Responding to critics who have said the Gateses have not been generous enough, most of whom spoke out prior to the establishment of the two foundations, Gates noted that she and her husband work very hard at being as thoughtful and creative as possible in their giving.

"We have a support staff, particularly for the foundations, but I want to stress that all our decisions are made jointly, between two people, and we make them at home. We try to think about what's needed, and how we can be thoughtful, and how through our giving we can encourage others to give. Some people say we got started late, but we have said over and over that by the time we pass away, we will have given away the majority for our wealth, and for now we're just trying to do that in thoughtful ways," she said.

The Gates' gift is among the largest in the University's history. Last April, J.B. Fuqua donated $20 million to the business school and the Duke Endowment gave the University $30 million to support financial aid. Prior to last year, the largest gifts included $20 million from Peter and Virginia Nicholas and several grants from James B. Duke.