Melinda French Gates, Trinity '86, Business '87 and perhaps the highest-profile member of the Board of Trustees, will retire from the Board after its May 2004 meetings.

Gates, wife of Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, wrote in an Oct. 28 letter to Board Chair Peter Nicholas and Vice-Chair Robert Steele officials that she hopes to focus her limited non-profit time in the future on the foundation's top priority of global health.

"I just returned from a trip to Africa which has all the more heightened my awareness of the plight of women and children in the developing world and emboldened my passion to help on their issues," Gates wrote to Nicholas and Steele.

"While I have more than enjoyed my time on the Duke [B]oard, it is time I retire," she continued. "I plan to travel internationally more than ever on behalf of the foundation in 2004 and beyond. Thus, traveling from Seattle to Durham four times yearly just isn't feasible any longer, especially with young children who also need my time at home."

Gates joined the Board in 1996, completing then-Fuqua School of Business Dean Rex Adams' five-year term and then beginning her own official six-year term. Upon agreeing to serve her own term, Gates informed President Nan Keohane that her service would be on a year-by-year basis.

As a member of the Trustees, Gates served on the Academic Affairs Committee and more recently as vice chair of the Student Affairs Committee.

Senior Vice President for Public Affairs and Govenment Relations John Burness said the University will miss much more than Gates' high profile.

"All Trustees are pretty equal when they get in the Board room. I think the main thing that is lost is her intelligence," Burness said. "She is really smart and tends to ask very hard questions that really focus attention, and the respect that she is shown by fellow Board members and others is a function of that."

Burness said that during her years on the Board, Gates asked tough questions about technology and was an active participant on broad academic issues like the creation of the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy and the eponymous French Science Building, funded by a $35 million gift from the Gates. She has expressed the greatest committment, however, to undergraduates, Burness said.

"She certainly has paid attention to student issues and has been a forceful advocate for student and student life questions," Burness said.

He added that if Gates expressed interest in returning to the Board at any time in the future, she would assuredly be welcomed back.

"But right now, they're taking on one of the most incredbile challenges in the world," Burness said.