After more than a decade without confirmation, a record $70 million pledge made to the Nicholas School of the Environment in 2003 has been paid in full, administrators say.
The pledge — the largest in the University’s history at the time — was made by Peter Nicholas and Ginny Nicholas, both Trinity ‘64, when the pair were co-chairs of the Campaign for Duke and Peter was chair of the Board of Trustees. It directed $2 million to Perkins Library and $70 million to the Nicholas School.
Duke was initially supposed to receive the gift by the end of 2008. But for years, the full pledge remained unpaid, leaving some to wonder when the money would arrive.
William Schlesinger, former dean of the Nicholas School, said the school had not received any of its $70 million portion of the pledge when he left the University in 2007. He cited his frustrations with the unpaid pledge as a major reason he chose to leave the University.
“There was no indication [Peter Nicholas] was going to pay it off,” Schlesinger told The Chronicle in June.
Not receiving the pledged money on time “paralyzed” the Nicholas School, according to Schlesinger.
“When you get a pledge of that magnitude, then other donors say, ‘Oh, gee, I don't really need to give money to the Nicholas School,” he said. “So it kind of made fundraising difficult.”
In 2010, much of the donation still had not been paid, though Peter Nicholas affirmed to The Chronicle that his family planned to fulfill the pledge in “due course.” At the time, top administration declined to comment on the status of the pledge.
Peter Nicholas died May 2022. Following his death, Toddi Steelman, Stanback dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment, confirmed to The Chronicle that the pledge has been paid in full. Steelman did not answer whether it was fulfilled before Nicholas’ death.
“To the best of my knowledge, the Nicholas Family has made good on their $70M gift,” she wrote in an email to The Chronicle. She also mentioned that the Nicholas family made an additional $25 million pledge in September as part of the Duke Climate Commitment.
Schlesinger said that sometime between 2010 and 2015, the Nicholas family paid $30 million of the pledge. He also said the schedule for paying the rest of the pledge was reset, and is not sure of the timeline in which the pledge was paid off after 2015.
Schlesinger acknowledged that Nicholas’ company, Boston Scientific Corporation, in which he served as CEO and chairman of the company until 1999, had “come on bad times” during the financial crisis in 2008.
“I think he had nowhere near as much money as he thought or anybody else thought he was going to have, which may have been of course why he was slow and paying up,” Schlesinger said.
The Chronicle reached out to Nicholas’s three children, Peter Jr., J.K., and Katherine, for comment; none responded at time of publication.
How the pledge was used
In 2010, The Chronicle reported that few of the Nicholas School’s announced plans for the pledge had been realized as originally conceived.
The Spring 2004 edition of “Duke Environment” outlined what the $70 million was to be used for. Goals included creating “eight to 10 positions to link environmental study with other Duke disciplines such as business, law, medicine, and engineering;” maximizing the Nicholas Institute’s “public outreach, media, and information technology, including establishing Duke Environment Journal;” and building Nicholas Hall, a “green building” that would “show Duke’s commitment to sustainable environmental practices.”
After nearly two decades, most of these goals have been reached.
Steelman stated that the Nicholas School has “four endowed chairs funded from the Nicholas family,” as well as “several secondary and some joint positions that have connected the School with other units on campus,” including the newly merged Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability, the Pratt School of Engineering, Global Health Initiative, Duke Law, Duke Forest, Duke Kunshan University and the Divinity School.
Steelman cited examples of these joint positions, including ones held by Martin Doyle, who directs the Water Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute and the Water Resource Management Program in the Nicholas School.
The Duke Environment Journal was never established, but Steelman cited the Duke Environment Magazine, which “complements any additional communications that the Nicholas Institute uses to share and report their own analyses and research.”
Steelman also affirmed the creation of Nicholas Hall, which was completed in 2014 and is a platinum LEED certified building. It was renamed and rededicated in 2019 as Grainger Hall due to a $20 million gift from the the Grainger Family Descendants Fund.
The 2004 Duke Environment piece also included plans for the creation of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, a new arm of the University intended to provide “high-quality and timely data” to address environmental problems.
In 2005, it was established from a gift from the Nicholas family, according to Brian Murray, interim director of the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability.
According to Schlesinger, the Institute was originally going to be established within the Nicholas School, but Peter Nicholas decided he wanted the Institute to be separate from the school.
The $70 million pledge was meant to be split between the school and the Institute, but Schlesigner said it was unclear how the pledge was intended to be split. Murray did not comment on how the $70 million pledge was intended to be split.
“My understanding is that the family has fulfilled all of their commitments. I know they have to the Institute,” Murray wrote in an email to The Chronicle.
In June 2021, the Nicholas Institute and the Duke Energy Initiative announced they would merge into an institute to play a key role in Duke’s efforts to target climate change. The merger was introduced as the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability in August 2022.
Editor's note: This story was updated Friday afternoon to include information about Nicholas' company Boston Scientific Corporation.
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Katie Tan is a Trinity junior and managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.