Duke Endowment Chairman Neil Williams isn’t kidding when he calls himself an involved alum.
The head of the Charlotte-based foundation that just gave Duke its largest philanthropic gift in its history, who graduated Trinity ’58 and Law ’61, served on the Board of Trustees from 1980 to 1993 and was the Board’s chair from 1983 to 1988. And prior to January when he became the Duke Endowment’s chairman—a philanthropic foundation started by James B. Duke but separate from the University—he had served on the organization’s board since 1997.
Still, Williams had trouble filling out his NCAA tournament bracket. Family matters complicated things.
“My daughter is a vice provost at Ohio State University, so I have... basketball issues,” Williams said with a laugh. “My Final Four does include Duke... but you’ll have to wait and see [who I selected as the champion].”
But the Duke community does not have to look any further than the Duke Endowment’s most recent gift to see Williams’s loyalty to the school. The endowment’s $80 million pledge announced March 7 will renovate Baldwin Auditorium, the West Union Building and Page Auditorium. Williams, who said perhaps Duke’s strongest quality is the University’s rich tradition of setting the stage for students to build relationships with each other and faculty, hopes the funds will continue the University’s rich tradition.
“I hope the Duke Endowment grant will help encourage something that already happens but can get better—encourage the interchange of ideas and thoughts between students,” Williams said. “Some of the best education we can get comes from relationships with peers.”
During his own undergraduate years, Williams, who considers his roommates some of his most meaningful friends from college, was a student government officer and sang in the Duke Chapel Choir. He said one of his “cheeriest” memories as a Duke student was realizing the vastness of the University’s libraries when conducting independent research as a senior history major.
“From a personal standpoint, I have a long and close relationship with Duke. It has been quite literally the most important source of education in my life,” Williams said. “Having an opportunity to continue to work with the University in a different way is something that I value very deeply.”
As chairman of the endowment, he said his biggest goal is to fulfill James B. Duke’s dream for the foundation when it was established in 1924 with a $40 million gift. Now more than eight decades since its creation, the Duke Endowment has given $1.2 billion to the University—making it the school’s largest benefactor.
“It is the translation of [Duke’s] dream into the realities of today that is the continuing obligation of the endowment trustees,” Williams said.
Provost Peter Lange said Williams’ commitment to the original mission of the Duke Endowment makes him a “wonderful” leader, adding that he understands the important relationship between the two institutions. Lange also noted that Williams played a significant role in the establishment of DukeEngage as well as assisting former Duke Endowment Chairman Russell Robinson with the creation of the Financial Aid Initiative, which raised more than $300 million in an effort to make attending Duke more affordable.
President Richard Brodhead said Williams’ role as the Duke Endowment’s chairman is one of the “millions of roles” that he has played with the University.
“Neil Williams is a wise and generous-hearted man who has been a great friend to the University throughout the years,” Brodhead said.