Largest gift ever: Nicholases donates $72M

An eleventh-hour, $72 million gift from Peter and Ginny Nicholas, co-chairs of the recently concluded Campaign for Duke, pushed the final campaign total to a record $2,361,205,387, President Nan Keohane announced Thursday.

 The Dec. 31 gift was the largest the University has ever received, providing a grand finale to a campaign that secured the fifth largest sum in American higher education history and the largest for a university in the South, according to figures from The Chronicle of Higher Education. $2 million of the Nicholases' gift will go toward the renovation of Perkins Library and $70 million to the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.

 "It seems like it's a perfect capstone," Keohane said. "Even though the gift was to the Nicholas School in particular, it was given in the spirit that the Duke community as a whole has the ability to make a much bigger impact on environmental concerns in the world, and it elevates us to a whole new level about the things we're able to do."

 William Schlesinger, dean of the Nicholas School, said he was "delighted" with the Nicholases' gift, which he said would help the school secure a spot as one of the best of its kind in the world.

 Although the fate of the money has not yet been determined, Schlesinger anticipated that a portion would be allocated for the creation of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. The new institute, Schlesinger said, would focus on "translating science and policy analysis for the public sector," providing opportunities for media, policy and business leaders to learn about current projects and possible policy options.

 "We already have the science and analysis within the school, but mostly it has been up to individual professors to make sure that information was translated to the people that needed it," he said. "The new institute will make it an institutionalized process so we can streamline the process of taking our research and applying it in corporate or government sectors."

 Schlesinger added that the Nicholases' most recent gift will allow the Institute to attract top scholars to the University as visiting faculty and consultants for specific environmental issues.

 "It is our hope that the Nicholas School can be the preeminent school of its type in the world, and indeed we believe it already is the only really fully programmed school in a major research university in the world," Peter Nicholas wrote in an e-mail.

 Before any of this can take place, however, Schlesinger said the Nicholas School must be unified under one roof. Currently, the school is spread out across campus, from the Levine Science Research Center to Old Chemistry to buildings in the Duke Forest.

 "As it is now, it's hard to interact, so it's important to get all of the school in one place that's recognized as the Nicholas School," Schlesinger said. "When that's done, we can think about putting in things like the Nicholas Institute."

 The Nicholases will be in discussions over the next few months with top University administrators--including Schlesinger, Keohane, Provost Peter Lange and President-Elect Richard Brodhead--to determine exactly how the $70 million gift will be spent. No site has been selected for the Nicholas School's new building yet.

 The $72 million gift is one in a line of major contributions from the Nicholases to the University. During the Campaign for Duke, the couple donated almost $130 million. Nearly $100 million of their gifts were in support of the school of the environment and earth sciences, named the Nicholas School after the Nicholases endowed it with $20 million in 1995. Their 1995 gift was then one of the largest the University had ever received for academic programs, second only to the founding gift in 1924 from James B. Duke.

 The Nicholases' other gifts throughout the Campaign for Duke have gone to support programs at the Fuqua School of Business, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, the Divinity School, the Medical Center and intercollegiate athletics.

 Keohane lauded the Nicholases for their leadership throughout the campaign--something she said the University had counted on from the beginning.

 "Early in the campaign, we all knew the chairs would make an enormous difference. If we got the right chairs, the campaign would be a success; if not, it would be an uphill battle," she said. "The first names that came to everybody's lips were Pete and Ginny Nicholas. When they said yes, everything fell into place and we thought, 'Alright, we're on our way.'"

 Even before the campaign, the Nicholases proved themselves committed to the University from which they and their three children had all graduated. Ginny Nicholas has volunteered over the years as an admissions adviser, chair of the executive committee of the Duke Annual Fund and reunion class chair. Peter Nicholas--a University trustee since 1993 and the current chair of the Board of Trustees--has been a charter member and chair of the Trinity College board of visitors, a reunion class chair and a member of the Duke University Health System Board. He is also a member of the Fuqua's Board of Visitors.

 Throughout their intense involvement and monumental contributions to the University, however, Keohane says the Nicholases have deflected attention from themselves.

 "The great thing about the Nicholases is that, although they're happy to have their name on things, they're not interested in a lot of recognition," she said. "They don't like to have the spotlight keep shining on themselves, but would rather use their generosity to highlight the things they know to be important. We'll certainly thank them, but they're not expecting any big statues on campus because that's just not in their nature."

 And although the Nicholases' Dec. 31 gift provided a final bang for the campaign, Peter Nicholas seemed to confirm Keohane's estimation of the couple's character as he once again took the focus from his own contributions to those of the countless donors who have supported the campaign since its inception.

 "We obviously wanted our gift to be included in the campaign totals, but the fact that it came at the last hour is only a coincidence," he wrote. "The campaign's success was assured long before our gift was made."


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