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Duke's 5th president leaves mixed legacy

Before Douglas Knight came to Duke, he wanted to make it a place “of high civilization and great service.”

For six years, he served as the head of this University, but his quest to carve out a visionary future was stalled and ultimately cut short by the political unrest that overwhelmed American universities in the 1960s. Not until 40 years later, when time and reflection had healed the shock of his Duke career, would Knight return to walk across campus. Now he never will again.

Knight died Sunday afternoon at his home in Doylestown, Pa., of complications from pneumonia. He was 83.

His family is still finalizing details, but a funeral service will likely be held Thursday in Pennsylvania. The University is also planning a memorial service in Durham.

The path of Knight’s life was something of a maze to him, and at many turns he felt trapped by the forces changing around him. A visionary risk-taker in his administrative life, he found himself exiled from Duke and the academic community he considered a sanctuary during his first 50 years. Seeking a way to combine his commitment to liberal education with his understanding of the need for active knowledge, Knight turned to industry. Time and continual reflection finally allowed him to find solace in a job as president of Questar Corp., a manufacturer of high-precision lenses that are used in medicine and astronomy.

In his 1963 inaugural address, Knight imagined Duke’s future: “May men say of us in years to come that, every man according to his talent, we made it a place of wit, of wisdom, of high civilization and great service.”

A poet throughout his life, Knight was an academic charged with leading the University as it became a battleground of cultural and political struggle. The racial turmoil on campus masked a behind-the-scenes power struggle between the Board of Trustees and The Duke Endowment, which largely supported the University.

Knight became caught at the epicenter of the simultaneous struggle to elevate Duke from a regional gem into the upper echelon of American universities. Driven by an acute sense of the University’s future needs, he laid the groundwork for Duke to extricate itself from the financial control of The Duke Endowment while taking the first steps toward addressing the unrest that characterized the social reforms of the ’60s.

“He did all the right things in terms of building programs,” said Dr. William Anlyan, who served as chancellor of the Medical Center during Knight’s tenure. “Buildings come third to recruitment and retention of faculty and students, and he went about it in the right way.”

Many of the projects Knight undertook echo in the values of the University today. He began Duke’s first major fundraising campaign—the Fifth Decade Program—and more than tripled the annual rate of donations to the University. When Ernest Brummer’s widow offered the University much of her husband’s collection of medieval art, Knight created the Duke University Art Museum to house it. Several members of the Board of Trustees resisted what they saw as a frivolous expense, but Knight was adamant about the important role art plays in education.

Concerned with the social role of universities, Knight encouraged faculty to be more involved in society’s problems, and he reserved apartments near Duke Hospital for low-income housing. On an academic front, he expanded the curricula of many of the professional schools and and pioneered several interdisciplinary programs. He founded the business school.

Ultimately, though, Knight is remembered for the controversy surrounding the racial struggles during his tenure. He stepped into Duke’s presidency just as racial tensions exploded to the surface here. With a mixture of timidity and empathy, he met with students who staged a vigil at his house in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The students carried 11 demands, including the creation of a black dormitory and a full department of African-American studies. When Knight invited 250 students into his home and spent the night negotiating with them, the community and many on the Board of Trustees criticized his “permissiveness.”

The tension on campus escalated sharply, with students holding vigils and demonstrating for greater social awareness and racial equality.

Thoughtful and proper, Knight considered universities asylums of civility and critical discourse, and the unrest that characterized academia in the ’60s upset him profoundly. He respected students’ demands but was deterred by their methods. His health broke down, and he grew tired of living his life in fear of what might come next.

“He was very sensitive to trying to please everybody, and those were very tough times,” Anlyan said. “He could not rest at night if he had not tried to please everybody he saw.”

In February 1969, a group of black students took over a wing of the Allen Building, reiterating many of their demands from the earlier vigil. Knight called in local police to help quell the students and Durham residents who had encircled the building. His reaction drew criticism from some alumni and trustees. With the Board ready to fire him, the unrest on campus became too much for Knight and he gracefully offered his resignation.

“It was a very damaging time for him, and it hurt him terribly. And when he left I just can’t say how really torn up he was, and many of us also were,” said former Duke trustee Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, Woman’s College ’38. “But the marvelous thing about Doug Knight was his ability for forgive.”

Born June 8, 1921 in Cambridge, Mass., Knight’s father died when he was five years old. Under his mother’s care, he moved several times a year, attending 13 different elementary schools and skipping several grades. At 14, he enrolled in Phillips Exeter Academy, graduating a year later. Knight earned an A.B. from Yale University in 1942 and went on to earn his M.A. and eventually his Ph.D. in English.

He taught 18th century literature at Yale for six years before he was approached in 1953 to become president of Lawrence College, now Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisc. There he was credited with increasing the geographic diversity of the student body and revamping the curriculum. While at Lawrence, Knight demonstrated a blend of aptitude and ambition that appealed to Duke as it strove to elevate its own reputation.

After leaving Duke, Knight recoiled from academia. He became vice president of educational development for RCA Corp. and in 1971 president of RCA Iran. In 1976, he became president of Questar.

Throughout his career, Knight was perhaps best known as a teacher, continuing as a professor throughout his administrations at Lawrence and Duke. Even working at Questar, he found a way to teach courses in the great books through his affiliation with the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

An avid writer, Knight published more than 10 books, including a memoir and an account of his time at Duke. He used his writing as a way to work out much of the conflict in his life.

His son Christopher said it took his father 15 years to move beyond his tumultuous tenure at Duke and he was “happiest at the helm of a boat or a tractor.” Not until former President Nan Keohane reached out to Knight did he return to the University that affected him so deeply. Keohane named the president’s house Knight House in his honor.

Knight needed the affirmation to feel comfortable at Duke again, said William Griffith, a close friend who served as dean of student affairs. “I think at that time he realized that some of the things that he had done here were so important,” Griffith said. “We were together about four weeks ago, and he had a really great love for Duke.”

Knight is survived by his wife of 60 years, Grace Nichols, four sons—Christopher, Douglas Jr., Thomas and Stephen—eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.