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David Rubenstein: 10 Thoughts on the Making of a Great University

David Rubenstein channels the spirit of James B. Duke in his Founders' Day address.  Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography
David Rubenstein channels the spirit of James B. Duke in his Founders' Day address. Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

When President Brodhead asked if I would deliver this year's Founders' Day Speech, he fortunately did not ask me how many Founders' Day speeches I had actually attended.

But in this place of worship, I feel compelled to be transparent. I spent four years here as an undergraduate, and never attended a single Founders' Day speech. No doubt a youthful indiscretion. But in the forty plus years since graduating, I also never managed to attend a single Founders' Day speech. I call this a mid-life indiscretion.

What accounted for these indiscretions?

In my first week as a freshman, a test was given on University history and traditions. The test was given orally, and those who gave it had thick Southern accents. So thick that I -- a lifelong resident of Baltimore -- honestly could not fully understand what they were asking.

Or at least that was my reasoning as I tried to explain how I managed to get the lowest score in the entire freshman class.

Since then, I have been afraid that if I attended a Founders' Day Speech, another quiz on University traditions might be given afterwards. And I might once again embarrass the Class of 1970.

Despite not being a faithful attendee of Founders' Day Speeches, I did recognize the invitation to give this speech was a significant honor.

And that promptly made me realize how fortunate I was to have been asked, and how unlikely such an invitation would have seemed when I graduated.

I came to Duke in 1966 as a freshman, never before having set foot at Duke or in North Carolina. I honestly came because Duke gave me the most financial aid.

Tuition was two thousand dollars a year. But that was really beyond my family's reach. My parents -- though giving me the unconditional love that all parents should provide their children -- were neither college nor high school graduates. My father worked in the post office, and never made more than ten thousand dollars a year.

But Duke took a chance on me and gave me enough financial aid to make my attendance at Duke possible. While a student here, I was sure that I had not adequately repaid Duke's faith in me.

I was not a great academic star; a student government leader; a fraternity officer -- I was never even invited to join a fraternity. And I was certainly no varsity athlete, or even an intramural athlete -- I managed to be cut from an intramural basketball team with only four other players on the team.

That I am here today is evidence that good fortune can occur in one's life after college; and that persistence, pursuit of what one loves doing, lots of luck and the grace of God can go a long way in life. And it is also evidence that God's plans for individuals are not readily apparent to them, or to others, while they are in college.

To those who are now doing well as Duke undergraduates, you will no doubt be rewarded in many ways in life -- especially if you do not let your success here reduce your post-Duke drive or ambition. To those who have less distinguished records here, do not despair. Life can readily turn in your favor. That clearly happened to me in ways that could not have been predicted, but for which I am now very much indebted to Duke for having taken a chance on me.

And I look forward now to repaying that debt to Duke to the extent my time, energy, and resources permit. And I look forward, as well, to repaying my debt to God for the good fortune He has bestowed upon me by dedicating the bulk of my energies and resources toward helping to make this extraordinary country a little bit better place for others, particularly those less fortunate and less blessed.

In some sense, a small part of the good fortune bestowed on me occurred when President Brodhead actually gave me several months to think about what to say today.

During that time, I decided to see if I might find my Muse for this speech by communing a bit with the University's principal Founder. I thought I would try to do so by visiting this Chapel, and getting close to the sarcophagus which bears James B. Duke's mortal remains. I hoped that some inspiration might ensue. So a few weeks ago, I visited the Chapel, and approached the site of Mr. James B. Duke's sarcophagus.

As I did so, I brought along my iPad to record any inspiring thoughts I might receive. As I entered the Chapel, I walked quickly to the sarcophagus, hoping that by walking quickly no one would stop me, either to ask what I was doing there with my iPad; or, worse, to ask me any questions about the history and traditions of Duke.

As I stood in front of Mr. Duke's sarcophagus, my iPad started beeping. I opened it and saw an email -- a very interesting, and somewhat unusual email. I thought I might read its contents to you now.

Dear Mr. Rubenstein,

Since my death in 1925, I have not had much of a chance to convey directly my thoughts about the University that my funds endowed, and that is now named in memory of my father.

To be honest, no one has really asked for my thoughts over the past eighty seven years. And even had someone done so, communicating from here has had its challenges. But with the technologies now available, it is far easier to communicate from here, with iPads being far more convenient than anything we've had before. Steve Jobs was much more of a visionary than anyone realized -- as he regularly reminds me.

Whenever one makes a charitable gift or bequest, there is no certainty that the beneficiary will do what the benefactor wants. Trust me, this place is filled with friends of mine who feel their beneficiaries used funds in ways never intended when the gifts were made. But we also have people here who feel their beneficiaries did far more with the gifts they received than even the benefactors imagined might be possible. John Harvard, Elihu Yale, Ezra Cornell, Nicholas Brown, Leland Stanford, John D. Rockefeller, Johns Hopkins, Cornelius Vanderbilt and William Marsh Rice are among this group.

And, proudly, very proudly, so am I.

I had always hoped that my funds would enable a small North Carolina-focused college to grow a bit, to expand its focus somewhat, to offer some new areas of instruction, and to show the better known, longer established schools above the Mason Dixon Line that North Carolina was indeed capable of creating a first-class university.

But I never imagined that this school would quickly grow into the greatest university in North Carolina; then into the greatest university in this region and then the whole South; and then, not long thereafter, into a great national university; and now well on its way to becoming a great international university.

And all of this with my family's name on the place. What more could one want out of life, or life after life? What greater legacy can there be than to have created a global center of learning and research, of teaching and healing -- a place of pride to all of those associated with it?

For these reasons, I am more than a little hesitant to offer advice on the future. For so much -- indeed everything- accomplished after 1925 occurred without my active involvement. Those who followed me and helped to lead this University -- including a number of visionary and talented Presidents -- deserve virtually all of the credit.

But from where I now am, I have been able to learn an enormous amount from those who had been great educators throughout the world. Perhaps of far greater importance, I now am often afforded a glimpse of the future -- it is one of the side benefits of where I am. Of course knowing where the world is going helps more than a fair bit in preparing for the future.

So please indulge me, and allow me to provide some thoughts about what my University -- but really your University -- might do to get ready for the future it will surely encounter. And let me do this in Ten Non-Commandments! I will simply call them Ten Friendly Thoughts:

1. Strive to be One of the World's Finest Universities but Also Strive to Maintain in that Effort Those Qualities Which What Make This University so Distinctive and so Different from Other Universities.

Duke has made greater strides toward becoming one of the country's and world's most respected universities in a shorter time period than any of the world's other leading universities. So Duke's relative youth should not be seen as a bar to Duke's moving further ahead into the pantheon of the world's finest universities. And that surely should be Duke's goal, and it honestly is a realistic goal given Duke's drive, spirit, unity, leadership, resources, and focus.

But as Duke moves onward -- or should say I say Forward -- it should remember to preserve and enhance the distinctive qualities that make Duke different from other leading universities, and that attracts outstanding students and faculty, and so many others, to be part of Duke. The world does not need two Harvard's, or two Stanford's, or two Princeton's. It needs one Duke. We do not need to chase these schools. Let these schools -- and others -- chase us. In time, it will be even more apparent to all that we actually have what many of them actually want. And in time, Duke can well become the role model for great 21st Century universities.

2. Never Lose the Focus on the Key Mission of Teaching Students and Preparing Them to be Responsible Citizens and Motivating Them to Help Improve Society

Universities have become large enterprises since I left the scene, for they now do so many things of importance, among them, searching for the answers to society's problems and needs; providing medical and health care; improving the cities in which they reside, fostering the arts, enhancing physical fitness, and preserving and disseminating our history and accumulated knowledge. But no one should ever lose sight of the fact that universities were initially created to educate students -- to prepare them for the challenges and opportunities of life outside of universities.

Duke's focus on educating its students must continue to remain paramount; doing so will attract the best students, which will in tum attract the best professors, as well as the other resources and talent needed to operate a university at the highest level. Duke needs to make certain it continues to educate its students not just in how to be ready to do well on GMATs, MCATs and LSATs, or to achieve traditional professional success. Rather, Duke needs to make certain it educates its students in how they need to think for themselves, how to reason, how to adapt to a changing world, how to communicate effectively, how to solve problems, how to lead, how to innovate and create, and how to improve their community, country and world. As part of this teaching effort, Duke needs to give its students the burning desire to actually do all of these things, thereby resulting in Duke's students playing a key role in changing the world and making it a better place for all. This is what a great education -- a Duke education -- needs to be. These are the essential qualities that Duke's graduates need to lead productive, meaningful and fulfilling 21st Century lives.

3. Embrace and Rejoice in the Future; see the Future as a Friend, not an Enemy or Something to be Fought or Resisted.

I am under some constraints in telling you what will be happening over the next few decades. We do have rules here. But be assured that universities will change more in the next five years than they have in the past fifty years--because of the advent of technology, the concerns over rising costs, the democratization of education, and the globalization of universities.

Duke can and must prepare for and embrace the technological, financial, and global demands that will increasingly be placed on it. And I am pleased that Duke has already recognized these demands, and is addressing them- better than most of its peers. Those universities that remain hidebound will shortly be left behind, condemned to a life of modest relevance. The need to make changes will not always be pleasant or easy--they almost certainly will be difficult. But changes are required if Duke is to be a great 21st Century university and not just a great 20th Century university. But in making these changes and adapting to the rapidly changing university world, as I noted already, Duke can and must maintain its distinctive qualities and its core principles and beliefs. These should never be sacrificed nor do they need to be. Duke can adapt and innovate, while remaining distinctive and truly unique. Progress made to date in this realm is already reassuring to me.

4. Maintain and Foster a Culture Where all of the University's Resources can be Brought Together to Teach Students, Enhance Research, and Solve University, National and Global Problems.

Duke has many outstanding attributes. But so do many other outstanding universities. One of Duke's truly distinctive and most appealing attributes is one which is the envy of virtually every other major university. This is the University's ability to channel all of its diverse resources and talents into meeting the University's larger needs and responsibilities.

As universities become bigger and more complex, the tendency will be to have individual parts of the university act independently from the whole of the university. Internal channeling of University-wide resources and strengths becomes more difficult. To date, Duke has largely avoided this problem, and indeed has made its interdisciplinary and University-wide mindset one of its greatest strengths and most appealing features. This cultural attitude is so distinctive and so valuable that Duke should make certain that this mindset is perpetuated, fostered and enhanced. Doing so will be the coin of the realm in the 21st century.

5. Communicate Your Goals -- and Your Intended Means to Achieve Those Goals -- Clearly and Continuously.

I learned in business that effective communication is indispensable if you are going to lead and attract followers. Universities are different in many ways from businesses, but they do share a common need to make their goals understandable and to show why and how the means to achieve those goals are realistic and attainable. Failure to do so can only lead to uncertainty and division. Leaders need followers, and followers want to know where they are being led.

Duke's ability to communicate what it is all about and where it is going has been and is today one of its great strengths, and efforts to continue this strength must always be kept a priority. Duke Forward is another important step toward this goal, and I applaud it and wish I could be actively involved.

6. Never Compromise the University's Integrity or Commitment to the Highest Ethical Standards.

Nothing has made me prouder of Duke than its recognition that a university must not only set the highest of ethical standards, but also must follow through on and abide by those standards. As universities, like all of society, becomes much more complicated, and ethical lines can at times blur, those universities which are seen as the ones with the highest commitment to integrity will increasingly be viewed as the real global leaders.

So I encourage you to, among other efforts in this area, continue to make certain that students -- and everyone at Duke -- realize that one's reputation in life will largely be a function of the perceived and actual commitment to honesty, integrity and high ethical behavior. There are some areas in life where short cuts can have benefits. This is not one of those areas.

7. Adopt World Class Excellence as the Universal Standard for all of the University's Endeavors, and Make This the Standard by Which Duke Judges its Accomplishments and Those of the Individuals who are Part of the University.

I recognize that it is difficult to achieve true excellence in all parts of one's life; I certainly did not meet that standard. And true world class excellence is no doubt an even harder goal for a company or a university to achieve all of the time in all of its disparate parts. But I believe that acceptance of less than this kind of excellence in any one area can breed an acceptance of the average or even worse in other areas.

While excellence -- certainly at the world class level--is difficult to achieve, that should always remain Duke's goal in all of its undertakings.

Duke has succeeded well in this regard to date, but the inevitable temptations to focus resources and talent on only a few areas will become greater in the future, as the demand for resources and competition becomes more intense. But please remain true to the standard of excellence everywhere. That mindset perspective -- that goal -- will surely ensure Duke's rise to the absolute top of the University world.

8. Continue to Foster an Environment where Diversity of all Kinds -- Gender, Racial, Behavioral, Religious, Geographic, and Economic -- is not Only Welcome but Encouraged.

I regret that my era did not place the appropriate value on diversity; just look at the composition of those who helped me run my companies or plan this University. It was a different world. I am delighted that Duke changed to meet society's changing values. But the effort to continue and to expand diversity must remain undiminished. In that way, Duke's considerable resources and opportunities can be readily available to those who merit and earn them.

This will further ensure that Duke is a leader in 21st Century university life. And that is not because this mindset and approach is politically appealing or correct; but rather because doing so ensures that the greatest talent and the greatest minds -- whatever their backgrounds, appearances, practices or beliefs -- will be available to in time address the world's greatest challenges and solve the world's greatest problems. We owe no less to humanity.

9. Measure and Reward Success and Achievement, But Remember the Virtue of Humility

It was certainly far easier to measure success and achievement in my business life than in my philanthropic life. And I thus recognize that it is not an easy task to define how Duke -- and its many parts -- should measure its successes and accomplishments. But Duke should continue to develop the appropriate means to gauge its relative performance; and when success and distinction are in fact achieved, the University should appropriately recognize and reward those responsible. Such recognition and reward are important elements of a satisfying life.

But however Duke and its many parts and individuals are measured, recognized and rewarded, the value of maintaining some degree of humility will be rewarded by those who observe Duke's behavior and demeanor. And teaching everyone at Duke the value of humility about their abilities and achievements throughout their lives is time well spent -- and will pay rich dividends throughout their lives.

10. Continue to Visibly Demonstrate that World Class Academics Can Co-Exist with World Class Athletics.

While I was never that ardent a sports fan, I must say few things have given me more pleasure over the past eighty years than Duke's unparalleled individual and team success in so many varied sports. But what has given me the greatest pleasure is not the many bets on Duke teams I have won here, but the reality that Duke's athletes are now women and not just men, and the reality that all of Duke's athletes are truly scholar athletes. As a result, they clearly recognize the real value of an education -- and not just a degree. And most importantly, upon graduation, these scholar athletes have become highly productive members of society outside of their athletic areas.

There are only a few universities that consistently show the world that academics and athletics are not enemies or rivals, but are intertwined friends and mutual supporters. Please continue to be one of these universities, and do what you can to keep showing how first class athletics can contribute to a university without detracting from a university's essential academic ideals and principles. And Mike, one more NCAA Championship would go a long way to making a very, very, very old man very, very, very happy.

That's enough from me. Please use these Friendly Thoughts as you see fit.


James B. Duke


As I finished reading this e-mail, I realized that I had found my Muse for today -- James B. Duke. And I realized that I had little to add. And so I won't even try.

So let me conclude my own remarks today by simply channeling the thoughts of another individual who, like James B. Duke, influenced my life, without living long enough to have knowingly done so.

When I was in the sixth grade, I watched on a black and white TV the inaugural address of John F. Kennedy who famously challenged Americans in his address to ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country. Like so many in my generation I took up the call -- when I completed my education -- and spent a good bit of my early career trying to help my country through public service. Regrettably, the country did not particularly benefit from my service -- as a young White House aide, I managed to help get inflation to 19 percent -- not an easy task, or one which has led to any more calls for me to re-enter public service.

But so many others in my generation did a better job than I did, and helped in that era to demonstrate that public service was a noble calling -- one that this extraordinary country deserved for all that it has provided, albeit quite imperfectly at times, to its citizens.

President Kennedy's call is surely as relevant today as it was then. And young Americans today are fortunate to have an array of options to pursue service to their country -- work in government is only one way. And hopefully, they will do so with the same passion that my generation--and earlier generations--did. And hopefully as well, Duke graduates will be at the absolute vanguard of this effort, as they provide the knowledge gained here in service to society. But it was another part of President Kennedy's speech -- a part perhaps less remembered -- that actually resonated with me even more than his famous call for public service. He ended his speech by saying: "With a good conscience our only sure reward, and with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His Blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God's work must truly be our own."

I am not sure that President Kennedy -- a loyal Harvard man -- would feel that supporting and working on behalf of Duke would indeed qualify as God's work on earth. But I suspect James B. Duke might feel otherwise. As would Washington Duke. As would Benjamin Duke. And as would so many others -- especially the many students, faculty, employees, administrators, alums, parents, donors and friends of Duke, all of whom who recognize the unique and appealing qualities of this University.

Of course, God's work on earth is never done, and can be achieved in many ways. But I have no doubt that one of them is doing what a person can reasonably do to help make a once small North Carolina liberal arts college blossom further into a global center of learning and research, healing and health, achievement and fulfillment -- a university where people from all parts of the world and all backgrounds and all perspectives can work together, cooperatively and harmoniously, in a setting of unrivalled beauty, academic freedom, equal opportunity, commitment to academic and athletic excellence, concern about society, intellectual curiosity, and school spirit. And all of this also in a place where life's most important, and elusive feeling, personal happiness, is possible, valued, cherished, and so frequently achieved by students and faculty.

A University with these attributes and goals can indeed play an indispensable role in helping to improve its community, its region, its country, and its world. And that surely is a mission worth achieving. And it is a mission that I think can fairly be called God's work on earth.

But whether or not one sees helping Duke achieve its highest potential as God's work on earth or simply as the peoples' work on earth, there can be no doubt that a stronger, enhanced Duke is something to be desired and valued, for the benefits to so many in this country, and in the world, are enormous.

So I hope everyone here, and everyone who ultimately hears these words, will agree, to do whatever they appropriately can - with their time, energy, ideas or resources -- however limited or great they might be -- to be of help to Duke. I know they will never regret doing so, and I know -- from my own experience -- that they will feel better about themselves for having done so. They will -- and should -- feel that way because they can rightly take pride in having had a role in helping to make the world a somewhat better place. What more could one want out of life?

God Bless this great university. And God Bless those who have helped, are helping, and will help make this university become the role model for all great 21st century universities. And thank you James B. Duke.