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Wealth and will

How do you create a place like Duke? Two weekends ago we celebrated Founders’ Day, and as I was sitting in the Chapel for the Convocation service this question came into my head. What things do you need to build something like Duke? We have had no shortage of people with a passion for teaching—an absolute prerequisite. We have had thousands of intellectually curious students with a passion for learning—another necessity. Natural born innovators and problem solvers abound among both and have helped to make the University flourish.

But there’s something else. Money. It almost seems callous to say it, but a school like Duke doesn’t become what it is without money—lots and lots of it.

In order to attract the best faculty in the world, a university must offer the best facilities and funding for research. An excellent library, fully equipped labs and enough cash for compensation are must-haves.

In order to attract the best students, the University must be able to offer plenty of opportunities for global engagement, extra funding for independent projects, the best facilities—including non-academic ones like residence halls, dining options and recreational facilities. The university must be able to make tuition affordable for those who make the cut. And then there are big scholarships to entice the most sought-after applicants.

In order to understand how Duke has become so prestigious in such short order, we need look no further than our school’s name.

The Duke family was one of the wealthiest families in America during the first decades of the 20th century. Washington Duke and his sons J.B. and B.N. made it big in the family tobacco business, later doing well in the hydropower industry too. They oversaw a tobacco firm which controlled a huge majority of the world’s market—somewhere around 80 percent--and was active all over Europe and Asia in addition to the United States.

The Dukes were wealthy. Really wealthy. But they didn’t just sit on their money.

In 1924 James B. Duke established the Duke Endowment, part of which was directed toward the newly renamed Duke University. His original donation was $40 million, well over $500 million in today’s dollars. At his death in 1925 another $67 million—over $700 million today—was added to the Endowment. And the Dukes weren’t the only ones. For instance, cotton magnate Julian S. Carr donated all of the land for Duke’s East Campus when Trinity College relocated to Durham.

Many people have played a role in bringing Duke to the prestige it can claim today. Professors, administrators, students and employees have all done their part to build this school up, and it wouldn’t be a world-class institution without them. But, uncomfortable though it may be, the truth is that Duke wouldn’t exist without money. It wouldn’t have been able to get those exceptional people were it not for the massive amounts of capital it could muster. Say what we will about inherent drive, outrageous ambition and intellectual pursuit—it takes money to run a top-ten research university.

Duke might be an example of American capitalism gone right. The Dukes were industrialists who were able to accumulate a great amount of personal wealth. They then gave much of it to worthy causes like Duke and other schools, hospitals in North and South Carolina and a number of orphanages. In the case of our University, one family’s wealth was put to use to benefit thousands and thousands more.

But don’t mistake me for a free-market absolutist—I know that capitalism doesn’t always go right. There are systemic inequalities that prevent people from making a living wage. Barriers to education, healthcare and political power along lines of race and gender are often reinforced by the “free” market. We should be honest about the faults of capitalism.

Even so, we as Duke students have to be careful lest we vilify wealth and those that have it. Capitalism should not only be associated with imperialism and colonialism, nor should personal wealth be automatically associated with greed and spoils. All of us – whether students, professors, employees or alumni—have benefited from the massive wealth of J.B. Duke, Melinda French Gates and David Rubenstein. The list could go on.

I say all of this to complicate the matter and keep it honest within the Duke context. For all of the faults we might find in a capitalist economy, we also must confront the fact that our University’s wealth began with the endowment of a tobacco millionaire. The financial aid from which many of us benefit comes from an endowment begun by one of America’s richest capitalists and continually augmented by those who have graduated and become wealthy in their own right. As we walk past the statues of J.B., B.N. or Washington Duke, we have to remember that this campus and this University may not have existed at all without a gigantic amount of capital concentrated in one family.

So how do you create a place like Duke? Money is part of the answer. But money doesn’t do the research, write the books or teach the classes that make Duke what it is. Duke’s success has come from putting a lot of money behind the people who have the drive to do these important things. The joining of wealth and will—that, it seems to me, is our claim to fame.

Zachary Heater is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs every other Wednesday.

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