Duke trustee emerita Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke ’67, one of the first five African-American undergraduate students to matriculate at Duke and a professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s (UDC) David A. Clarke School of Law, is this year’s recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award. Sponsored by the Duke Alumni Association, the award honors Duke graduates who have made significant contributions in their fields, in service to the university, or for the betterment of humanity. It is the highest honor granted by DAA.
The daughter of academics— her father was president of Morris College in Sumter, South Carolina, and her mother was a professor and subsequently, dean of academic affairs on the faculty there—Reuben- Cooke always has placed a premium on education and service to one’s community. Before joining the law faculty at UDC, she was the university’s provost and vice president for academic affairs. Earlier, she was a professor and associate dean for academic affairs at Syracuse University College of Law and directed its academic program. As associate director of the Institute for Public Representation (IPR) at Georgetown University Law Center, she was responsible for litigation before the Federal Communications Commission and the federal courts, including the Supreme Court.
Reuben-Cooke was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and has been a Woodrow Wilson Scholar. Her honors include the Sojourner Truth Award from the Syracuse University chapter of The National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, the C. Eric Lincoln Distinguished Alumni Award from Duke’s Black Alumni Council, and the Black Citizens for a Fair Media Annual Award for Public Interest Advocacy. She serves on a number of boards, including that of The Duke Endowment.
But she says her Duke connections have a special meaning for her. “Duke is a top priority for me because my identity as a person was formed by the experiences I had there as a student,” she says. “I feel that when I work with Duke, and for Duke, and through Duke, I create possibilities and opportunities for other people, so it has a multiplier effect. I’m proud to be a Duke graduate because of the institution’s values— its commitment to diversity, the presence of the divinity school and chapel, and the quest to make ethics and the humanities a central part of the university community.”
As an undergraduate, Reuben-Cooke was involved with a number of student organizations, including the YWCA and the Freshman Advisory Council. She was elected May Queen by earning the most write-in votes of any female student in her class. She also sought opportunities to address inequality. In 1967, she signed an open letter protesting the membership of key administrators and faculty members at the then all-white Hope Valley Country Club.
Reuben-Cooke has continued her involvement with her alma mater through service on the Annual Fund Reunion Committee, the DeWitt Wallace Center board of visitors, and the Black Alumni Leadership Summit, and as a two-term trustee. In the latter capacity, she says, “one of the things that always struck me was how Duke was constantly working through its emerging identity, while making sure that it articulated and stayed true to its core values. At the time, Duke was competing for national and international stature. We wanted to be among the top universities, so we consciously asked questions about what we should emulate as best practices from other institutions. But we were always aware of what made us special and looked for the unique contributions we could make as an institution.”
From her dual perspectives as an alumna and former trustee, Reuben- Cooke says she is particularly pleased with the way Duke’s intellectual, interdisciplinary environment fosters conversations among people who might not otherwise connect. “Bringing together people from different academic, ethnic, or socioeconomic backgrounds can facilitate learning,” such as how to shatter stereotypes and be more empathetic and respectful of other viewpoints, she says.
Reuben-Cooke says she enjoys interacting with younger members of the Duke community. “Duke students love Duke with a spirit and sense of community that you don’t always see at other institutions. They are intellectually talented but they also are engaged in communities” through initiatives such as DukeEngage. And through her alumni activities, she says, she’s been impressed with the number of African-American alumni “who are really claiming the university as their own. They are working for it while challenging it to be the best it can be.”
Reuben-Cooke will receive the Distinguished Alumni Award at the annual Founders’ Day ceremonies on September 22.
Alumni award recipient
October 1, 2011