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Douglas M. Knight, Fifth Duke President, Dies at 83

"The foundation Doug Knight laid enabled the university to rise in the ranks of the nation's leading universities today," says Duke President Richard H. Brodhead

Douglas Maitland Knight, who served as Duke University's fifth president during the turbulent 1960s, died in Doylestown, Pa., Sunday due to complications from pneumonia. He was 83.

"Doug Knight was a consummate gentleman and scholar," Duke President Richard H. Brodhead said late Sunday afternoon. "Duke emerged from the tumultuous years during which he served as president as a stronger institution, and the foundation Doug Knight laid enabled the university to rise in the ranks of the nation's leading universities today."

"He was a man of great wisdom and generosity, and the university community mourns his passing."

Born in Cambridge, Mass., Knight attended Yale University, where he received his A.B., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in English. He went on to teach at Yale until 1953, when at the age of 32 he was named president of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisc. In 1963, he was named president of Duke, a post he held until 1969.

Knight launched a number of impressive initiatives during his six years as Duke's president. He established the joint M.D.-J.D. and M.D.-Ph.D. degrees, a business school and interdisciplinary programs in biomedical engineering and forestry management. And during his tenure, the university brought in $195 million in gifts and grants, triple that of the entire preceding six-year period.

Knight also oversaw the addition of a phytotron and a hyperbaric chamber, and construction of a major wing for Perkins Library that increased capacity more than fivefold. Convinced that the men's and women's campuses should be better integrated, he proposed creating a transition between the two by adding student housing, now Central Campus.

Knight's tenure may be best remembered for his resignation after student protests and the 1969 takeover of the Allen Building, the university's main administrative building, by students calling for, among other things, a black cultural center and a curriculum in African-American studies. In the confusion that occurred after the students left the Allen Building, police released tear gas into the main academic quadrangle.

A different kind of controversy followed Knight's decision to transform an old science building on East Campus to become the Duke Art Museum, providing a home for a collection of medieval art donated by the widow of Ernest Brummer. Some argued the university shouldn't spend money on something as frivolous as the arts. Knight recognized the collection's importance and quietly persisted.

After leaving Duke in 1969, he became vice president of educational development for RCA Corp. and in 1971 president of RCA Iran. In 1976, he became president of Questar Corp., a manufacturer of high-precision lenses for astronomical, industrial and medical applications.

The recipient of 12 honorary degrees from colleges and universities, Knight was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to chair the National Advisory Commission of Libraries in 1966. He was a member of the corporation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member and former chairman of the board of directors of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

An avid sailor and gardener, he authored more than 10 books, ranging from scholarly works to poetry and personal recollections. Knight wrote about his years at Duke in his 1989 book "Street of Dreams" and in a 2003 memoir "The Dancer and the Dance." As a 2004 Duke Magazine profile noted, Knight explored in the latter book the struggles he encountered during the '60s and "how the forces that shaped the national debate manifested themselves during his tenure at Duke."

"My whole training and experience to this point had been based in a concept of the university and of liberal education totally grounded in mediation, critical discourse, civility, and the restraint of uncontrolled dogmatism," Knight wrote in the latter book. "Now I found that I was required to set all this aside. As a result, I spent -- overspent -- my energy where I did not want to put it, and so the action of the late Sixties was for me a divided action. I was pulled between what I knew the university needed over the decades and what the times demanded immediately."

In April 2003, the university honored Knight by renaming the president's house the Douglas M. and Grace Knight House. The house, located less than a mile from campus at 1508 Pinecrest Road, was occupied at the time by the university's eighth president, Nannerl O. Keohane, and her husband. Knight was the first Duke president to live in the house, which was completed in September 1966 under the direction of architect Alden Dow, who interned under Frank Lloyd Wright.

At the dedication ceremony, Keohane remarked that Knight "is and was a poet and scholar, and the breadth and sensitivity of his thinking informed not only his public pronouncements as the CEO of a rollicking, feisty, ambitious Southern institution of higher education, but also the work he undertook behind the scenes as a collaborative leader and administrator."

Former Duke trustee Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, the grand niece of university founder James B. Duke, also paid tribute to the Knights at the dedication ceremony. "There are no people more dedicated to Duke and to each other as Grace and Doug Knight," she said. "This is a glorious tribute to them. And it is so right."

Knight is survived by his wife of 60 years, Grace Nichols, four sons -- Christopher of Glencoe, Ill., Douglas Jr. of Portland, Maine, Thomas of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Stephen of Stockton, N.J. -- eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

The family requests people interested in memorials to make donations to a scholarship fund of their choice. The family-only funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at the First Presbyterian Church in Stockton, N.J.