Former Duke President Knight Dies


Knight: led Duke during a period of protests

Knight: led Duke during a period of protests
Duke University Archives.

Douglas Maitland Knight, Duke's president during the turbulent 1960s, died in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, on January 23, of complications from pneumonia. He was eighty-three.

"Doug Knight was a consummate gentleman and scholar," says President Richard H. Brodhead. "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."

Knight attended Yale University, where he received his bachelor's, master's, and Ph.D. degrees in English. He went on to teach at Yale until 1953, when, at thirty-two, he was named president of Lawrence College (now Lawrence University) in Appleton, Wisconsin. In 1963, he was named Duke's fifth president, a post he held until 1969.

Knight launched a number of impressive initiatives during his six years at the university. 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. Believing 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.

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

A different kind of controversy followed Knight's decision to transform an old science building on East Campus into the Duke Art Museum, providing a home for a collection of medieval art donated by Ernest Brummer's widow. 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, and, in 1971, president of RCA Iran. In 1976, he became president of Questar Corporation, a manufacturer of high-precision lenses for various applications. The recipient of twelve 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 chair of the board of directors of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

Knight wrote more than ten books, ranging from scholarly works to poetry and personal recollections. He 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 Sixties and "how the forces that shaped the national debate manifested themselves during his tenure at Duke."

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, Robert Keohane. 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."

Knight was featured in the magazine's January-February 2004 issue.

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