David Rubenstein, Trinity ’70 and chair of the Board of Trustees, will speak at this year’s commencement ceremony.
Rubenstein is co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, a private equity firm he co-founded in 1987. Today, the firm manages $162 billion in assets, making it one of the most successful investment firms in the world. Rubenstein said that he was honored and excited to give this year's commencement address, adding that he will “unveil the DaVinci Code of what it means to be a Duke graduate.”
“In return, I look forward to offering some thoughts on life to the students who have worked so hard to get to get their degrees, the family and friends who supported them, and their faculty mentors,” he said in a Duke Today release. “Most importantly, I recognize the obligation of a commencement speaker to be brief.”
Rubenstein is a philanthropist who has provided funding to national landmarks, as well as projects at Duke.
“David has a very interesting sense of money,” said President Richard Brodhead. “He grew up in a family that didn't have money. Later, it turned out that he was good at making money. But money as such doesn't interest David. He doesn't have expensive hobbies. He doesn’t have a fancy lifestyle. He just takes pleasure in thinking of ways to give money away and seeing the difference that it makes."
At Duke, Rubenstein graduated magna cum laude and was elected Phi Beta Kappa. His former professor, Thomas Spragens, now professor emeritus of political science, noted that Rubenstein stood out in his class "as one of the brightest kids."
"He was always on top of things," Spragens said. "If there was a question he'd ask, it was a good question. If I was trying to get students to respond to something, if he responded, it showed that he had done the work and thought about it."
After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School in 1973, Rubenstein worked as a lawyer— chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments and an adviser for the Carter Administration—before co-founding The Carlyle Group. He returned to Duke as a member of the Board of Trustees in 2005.
Last May, the Harvard Corporation announced that Rubenstein had been elected as a member of its board. The Harvard Corporation is one of two governing boards at Harvard that performs the duties of a board of trustees. He will assume responsibilities at Harvard after leaving Duke at the conclusion of his Board of Trustees term in 2017.
“To say that he's going to Harvard, there's a sense in which he will always be at Duke and part of Duke,” Brodhead said. “Certainly, this is my last year as president and his last year on the Board. We have enjoyed doing things together and I just thought it would be a great thing for Duke and a good moment to do this.”
Donations Rubenstein has given to Duke include $13.6 million to Duke Libraries, $15 million for the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program and $25 million to fund the Arts Center. As a result of his contributions, some buildings have been named after him—most notably the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Sanford School of Public Policy's Rubenstein Hall
In April, the University announced that the Washington Duke Scholars Program would be renamed the David M. Rubenstein Scholars Program after Rubenstein contributed $20 million to endow the scholarship program for first-generation, low-income students. Rubenstein himself was the first member of his family to attend college.
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“As for his generosity to Duke, David is very clear about this—he's had a great life, but it was off the springboard of a great undergraduate education, and he was able to get that because of a scholarship at Duke,” Brodhead said.
Outside of Duke, Rubenstein has given donations to fund repairs or provide upgrades for national treasures such as the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. In addition, Rubenstein purchased historical documents—such as the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence and Emancipation Proclamation—and gifted them to the National Archives for public display.
“Basically, he's put together the kind of documentary history of the evolution of the concept of freedoms in this country,” Brodhead said. “Then all over Washington, everything you look at as part of the commonwealth of this nation, David was really the sole mover in taking the lead to support it.”
As a financier, Rubenstein’s line of work is different from speakers in recent years. Past speakers include men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski in 2016, General Martin Dempsey—Graduate School ’84—in 2014, businesswoman Melinda Gates—Trinity ’86 and Fuqua ’87—in 2013 and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey in 2009.
The background of the speaker did not matter as much as the passion the speaker would put into speaking to Duke students, Brodhead said.
“There are people who will speak at ten commencements in the same year, and that's not something that I've ever wanted here,” Brodhead said. “I want somebody who's going to take Duke seriously and the Duke commencement seriously, and I know David will.”
Brodhead said that he believed Rubenstein would deliver an inspirational speech, citing his track record as a “funny and incisive” public speaker.
“He has a very intriguing mind. He’s very witty, but at the same time, he thinks very deeply about things and the depth of that thought comes through as well,” Brodhead said. “He gave the Founder's Day address about five years ago and I think everybody agrees that there's never been a better one in the history of the University.”
Likhitha Butchireddygari contributed reporting.