Written by John Roberts

by John Roberts

The Duke Endowment’s recent $22.3 million gift to Furman University will have a resonating, long-term impact on student quality, student access and the University’s competitiveness.

The funds, to be used to enhance the James B. Duke Scholarship Program, will help Furman continue to attract the most academically talented students. In an increasingly competitive higher education market, it ensures the University will continue to be competitive with the nation’s very best private liberal arts universities.

It also means talented students, regardless of their financial resources, will have greater access to higher education. And it will energize Furman’s alumni and friends, laying the groundwork for future success under second-year Furman President Elizabeth Davis.

“We are grateful for the Endowment’s continuing confidence in Furman’s direction going forward,” said Davis. “It’s a strong signal to others who want to support excellence and the next generation of leaders, particularly at a time when access to higher education is more important than ever.”

The grant, which ranks among the top five gifts given to Furman, can be linked to a 1924 train ride with Bennette Eugene Geer and his friend James Buchanan Duke.

Duke, one of the South’s leading businessmen, was founder of the American Tobacco Company and the Southern Power Company (now Duke Energy). Geer, who had taught English at Furman and would later be the school’s sixth president, was at the time president of Greenville’s Judson Mills, of which Duke was the leading stockholder.

During the train ride, Duke told Geer of his plans to give Trinity College (which would become Duke University) a large gift. Geer responded that he hoped Duke would also do something for “a little school, Furman University, down in Greenville,” in which he was deeply interested. Duke said something to the effect of “certainly, I will.”

Later, Duke invited Geer to spend the weekend at his home in Charlotte, where he outlined his plan to create The Duke Endowment, a philanthropic organization into which he would initially place $40 million. Remembering his promise about Furman, Duke said he would include the University for five percent of the income from the Endowment.

When the time came to set up the actual indenture, Mr. Duke apparently forgot what college he was supposed to include and had to ask someone present the name of “that little college in Greenville that Ben Geer is such a fool about.”

Furman President William J. McGlothlin foresaw the gift’s impact when he said, “Mr. Duke’s generous gift has changed the whole face of things for us, so far as endowment is concerned.” Indeed, without income from The Duke Endowment, Furman might not have survived the Depression years.

Today, The Duke Endowment ranks as one of the leading philanthropic foundations in the country. Through the years, Endowment gifts to Furman have totaled $161 million. In addition to the Duke Scholarships, the grants have supported faculty development, study away programs, information technology, the library, and, fittingly enough, an academic chair of literature named for Bennette E. Geer.

Moreover, the prestige provided by the University’s association with the Endowment and the educational advances that the Endowment has contributed to have helped Furman qualify for many other gifts and grants.

Laura Thompson, Biology Professor at Furman, discusses how
The Duke Endowment has supported the University’s academic mission.

The most recent gift represents the Endowment’s single largest to Furman. The grant includes $22 million for the University’s endowment to augment the Duke Scholarship Program.

The remaining $300,000 is operational funding that will augment the University’s ongoing initiatives to integrate the Duke Scholars’ academic experiences with four years of individual mentoring and advising to prepare them for post-graduation opportunities ranging from careers and service work to graduate and professional education. These initiatives will also include opportunities for summer research, internships and study away, as well as annual events and activities that will help create a more cohesive intellectual community for our Duke Scholars, something that the students have supported for several years. Dr. Scott Henderson, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Education, will coordinate the mentoring and academic programming for Duke Scholars.