Douglas Knight, Duke's fifth president
Douglas Knight, Duke's fifth president

Jousting with History

The tumultuous tenure of Douglas Knight, Duke's fifth president, was characterized by entrenched, behind-the-scenes power struggles and an emerging era of student civil disobedience.
January 31, 2004

Doug Knight calls them the dark years: a troubled time of soul-searching and redefinition that followed hard on the heels of his forced resignation as Duke University's fifth president and turned into a permanent break from his lifelong commitment to an academic career. Swept up in the roiling political and social currents of the late Sixties, the Yale-educated scholar and former president of Lawrence College found himself exiled from a community that had brought him emotional sustenance and intellectual joy since he was a child.

The memories of what had happened at Duke were so painful that Knight could not bear even to visit a college campus--not even for the graduation of his third son. He was neither the first nor last university president to suffer from the chaos of the period. In fact, more than seventy colleges and universities lost their chief executives in the late Sixties and early Seventies, including Rice, Penn State, Columbia, and Dartmouth. Civil-rights and antiwar protests on campuses led to riots, arson, and, at Jackson State and Kent State, the deaths of students.

But, in some significant ways, he and the institution itself--not just the times--were out of joint. Despite Knight's exceptional academic pedigree and his ambitions to make Duke a nationally recognized institution, his leadership drew harsh criticism from conservative alumni, student activists, and powerful trustees. He proved to be no match for the forces that led to his resignation in 1969: entrenched, behind-the-scenes power struggles that had forced out Duke's third president, Hollis Edens, only three years before; The Duke Endowment's unprecedented financial and political authority over and meddling into the university's affairs; the nonviolent yet disruptive Silent Vigil of 1968; the takeover of the Allen Building by black students the following year, during which reactionary Durham residents with shotguns circled the campus, and state police arrived with tear gas; the bomb scares and death threats.

In another era, Knight might have left a legacy of erudite gentility. Instead, he was "thrown into waters he couldn't swim in, and there were quite a few sharks swimming there with him," says William Anlyan, chancellor emeritus of Duke Medical Center. Terry Sanford, who followed Knight as president, brought to the job sharply honed negotiating skills and political experience as governor of North Carolina. Sanford's sixteen-year run as Duke's president eclipsed Knight's many accomplishments.

1968: Students protesting the death of  King march to the President's House with  a list of demands

Students protesting the death of King march to the President's House with a list of demands; Knight invited them in, but negotiations stalled.

Photos: Duke University

In a new memoir, The Dancer and the Dance (Separate Star, Inc.), Knight explores 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," he writes. "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. It was a schizophrenia with only one inevitable outcome, and I would reflect on its meaning for years, always in the recognition that my whole career had put me in a place and point of time from which there was no honorable escape."

The Dancer and the Dance

Time has healed some of the deepest wounds. Enduring relationships with Durham friends and colleagues helped, he says. So did writing a cathartic chronicle of his presidency and the era, Street of Dreams: The Nature and Legacy of the 1960s, published in 1989 by Duke University Press. Last April, Knight and his wife, Grace, came back to Durham for the renaming of the President's House, which was built under Knight's leadership. Now called the Douglas M. and Grace Knight House, it was designed by Alden Dow, a protÈgÈ of Frank Lloyd Wright, and is used to entertain thousands of guests a year.

At the dedication ceremony, President Nannerl O. 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."

Despite the messy ending to his tenure as Duke's fifth president, Knight launched an impressive number of initiatives. When Ernest Brummer's widow donated much of her husband's collection of medieval art to Duke, Knight made a home for it by transforming an old science building on East Campus into the Duke Art Museum. The move was not without controversy; some in the Duke community criticized the initiative from both financial and philosophical standpoints, arguing that the university shouldn't spend money on something as frivolous as the arts. But Knight recognized the collection's importance and quietly persisted.

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.

On the academic side, Knight established the joint M.D.-J.D. and M.D.-Ph.D. degrees, the School of Business Administration, and interdisciplinary programs in biomedical

engineering and forestry management. He secured an $8-million, Ford Foundation matching grant, the terms of which required the university to approach fund raising in a more sophisticated and strategic way. It worked: During his six year term the university brought in $195 million in gifts and grants, triple that of the entire preceding six-year period.

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans '39, Hon. '83, the great-granddaughter of Washington Duke, attended the naming ceremony for the Knight House. She says she is a "great admirer" of Knight. "Doug had not been honored in a way that he should have been, and a great deal of credit goes to Nan Keohane for recognizing his contributions to the university."

During Knight's presidency, Semans served on the boards of trustees of both Duke University and The Duke Endowment. She says it is hard to imagine in this era of twenty-four-hour media coverage the level of secrecy and the number of back-room deals that were the norm at Duke and other institutions at the time. The relationship between the university and The Duke Endowment was particularly complicated because of the overlap in governance on the institutions' trustee boards, as well as Duke's position as a designated beneficiary of the Endowment. From the moment he was inaugurated, "Knight was in a bad situation made worse by the crossover of power" between the two, says Semans.

In Lasting Legacy to the Carolinas: The Duke Endowment 1924-1994, Duke history professor emeritus Robert F. Durden chronicles the establishment and growth of the charitable trust created by James B. Duke. A bylaw passed in the mid-Thirties during William Few's presidency called for at least three Endowment trustees on the university's executive committee. As a result, figures such as Norman A. Cocke and Thomas L. Perkins simultaneously served on the boards of Duke University, The Duke Endowment, and Duke Power Company and exerted tremendous personal and political power. Cocke and Perkins were among those on the executive board of the university's trustees who were instrumental in forcing Hollis Edens to resign as president of Duke after a bitter internal dissent over his leadership led by chemist Paul Gross, Edens' vice president for education. (During Terry Sanford's administration, there was a deliberate move to put distance between the two boards. At Sanford's request, the composition of the university's board of trustees was reconfigured to include alumni and students. In addition, Endowment chair Archie Davis recommended that Endowment trustees should not also serve as trustees of any of its beneficiaries, which include academic institutions: Duke, Davidson, Johnson C. Smith, and Furman.)

Man and manuscript: Knight today, at his desk
Man and manuscript: Knight today, at his desk
Photo: Rebekah Wade

 

Although Knight was aware of the situation that had led to Edens' resignation when he accepted the job at Duke, the presidential search committee told him that the internal wrangling had ended. In retrospect, Knight says, it was clear that, even though there were people "who were desperate to believe the worst was behind us, the terrible virus of conflict was still in the university's bloodstream."

When Knight was named president, the public mood was upbeat and excited. The respected academic's pedigree included serious scholarship, administrative expertise, and a genuine love of learning. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1921, Douglas M. Knight was an only child. After his father's death five years later, he and his mother moved constantly to be near various relatives. By the time he entered junior high school, Knight had attended thirteen different schools.

Education was his harbor; he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy at fifteen and earned his bachelor's, master's, and Ph.D. degrees from Yale, each in only two years. He married Grace, whom he had met his freshman year, and taught eighteenth-century literature as a member of the Yale faculty from 1946 to 1953. He gradually became immersed in various administrative posts. At the request of the dean, Knight worked on the Ford Foundation's faculty grant program to provide fellowships for senior faculty members. He was later named by the president as executive secretary of a committee to review educational programs in the arts and sciences.

In the fall of 1953, at the age of thirty-two, Knight was approached by Lawrence College (now Lawrence University) in Appleton, Wisconsin, which had just lost its president, Nathan Pusey, to Harvard University. Knight decided to walk away from an assured future at Yale to take on myriad responsibilities and pressures at Lawrence. His starting salary was $11,000 a year, twice what he had earned at Yale, and he would go on to serve as Lawrence's president for nearly a decade.

Looking back, Knight characterizes his Yale and Lawrence experiences as "intoxicating in pace and variety." But such rapid advancement would have repercussions in the years to come. "Upon reflection, I see the degree of luck involved in the events that took me so far so fast," he writes in The Dancer and the Dance. "I see the inevitable egotism that encouraged my acceptance of this frenetic life. And I see the possibility of conflict, the almost inevitable backlash against so much visibility and success."

As Duke University sought a replacement for interim president Deryl Hart M.D. '64, who had been installed after Edens' departure, Knight became an obvious candidate. A respected scholar and gifted administrator, Knight appeared to possess the perfect blend of aptitude and ambition. Another plus for the members of the search committee: Knight's two immediate predecessors at Lawrence had been recruited to lead Ivy League schools. "The securing of a man with the character, qualifications, and attainments of Dr. Knight gives me some pride in personal and institutional accomplishment," wrote Hart on the occasion of Knight's selection, "since the combined and fruitful efforts of the entire university committee over the past two and a half years have enabled trustees to take the time necessary to bring their search for a new president to such a satisfactory conclusion."

Knight was inaugurated in 1963. His self-proclaimed mandate was to make Duke "one of the greatest universities in the world." Knight, Grace, and their four sons were embraced by many in the Duke community, who saw the new president as pivotal to transforming Duke from a regional gem into a strong national presence in higher education.

The honeymoon period was brief. Despite his professional credentials and graceful civility, Knight soon found himself pulled into the explosive social movements of the Sixties. The first five black undergraduates to attend Duke had matriculated the fall before Knight came, and there were still people within the university community--trustees, alumni, students, and faculty members--who vehemently resisted integration. Three months after the Knight family arrived in Durham in August 1963, John F. Kennedy was shot. And the ongoing, upper-level management tangles continued to be a distraction.

Early in his post, certain members of The Duke Endowment executive committee gave Knight a list of people they wanted him to fire. The list included the provost, the executive secretary to the president, and the business manager, among others. Knight refused, which didn't sit well. Neither did his recommendation that the university broaden its funding base so that it was not so dependent on The Duke Endowment.

Campus icons: the  president and  the philanthropist
Campus icons: the president and the philanthropist
Photo: Duke University Archives

William Anlyan, a surgeon who came to Duke in 1949 and is credited with making the medical center a major national institution, recalls meeting Knight in late 1962. "Doug was a humanist who was probably too gentle for the times," says Anlyan, whose own memoirs will be published by Duke Press next fall. Throughout Knight's presidency, Anlyan served as a personal friend, a professional colleague and, when Knight's health took a drastic turn for the worse at the close of the decade, as his medical advocate. "Doug felt as though he needed to please everybody every day. I didn't realize what a shock it would be to have him followed by Terry Sanford, who slept well if he pleased 50.1 percent of the people."

No matter how taxing his presidential responsibilities, Knight found solace in his teaching. Every other year, he taught a two-semester course in the European epic tradition; the first semester covered Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Virgil, Dante, and the Divine Comedy. The second semester included Paradise Lost, Don Quixote, War and Peace, and Ulysses.

David Guy '70, M.A.T. '77, now a writer, recalls Knight's brilliant intelligence and genuine enthusiasm for his subject. Standing at the front of the room smoking a cigar, Knight would ask students general questions about the text they had read and then help them probe the deeper subtexts and themes. "It was amazing to watch his mind work, because the epic tradition covers so many subjects--art, religion, politics," Guy says. "I remember reading War and Peace and thinking to myself that I could never be a writer. But Knight showed us how epics built upon ones that had come before. That course had a huge influence on me."

In the late Sixties, two events took place on Duke's campus that marked the beginning of the end for Doug Knight. The first followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Overcome by despair, students sought to make meaning of the loss by marching to Durham's wealthy, white, Hope Valley neighborhood. They hoped to persuade residents of the importance of King's death and to show solidarity with the black community. William Griffith '50, dean of student affairs, knew that many in that conservative neighborhood owned guns, and so he persuaded the students to go instead to the nearby Duke Forest community, where many sympathetic faculty members lived. "If you can't communicate your issues with your own family," he said to them, "how will you be able to communicate them to others?"

The group gathered and decided that its march would begin with a stop at the Knights' house in Duke Forest. They carried a list of eleven demands, including the creation of a black dorm, a fully accredited department of Afro-American studies, and "an immediate end to tokenism of black representation in university power structures." Tipped off that the group was en route, the Knights were ready when it arrived. They opened their doors and invited the nearly 250 students inside, out of the dark. The evening dragged on. A small group of student leaders negotiated with Knight while others sang songs and chanted protest slogans. The next morning, with negotiations stalled, the students left the house. Knight says he realized that, even though he agreed with many of the students' demands, the office of the president as it was then structured allowed him "authority but no power."

Students returned to the main quad for a memorial service in Duke Chapel, followed by what became known as the Silent Vigil--four days and nights of peaceful protest that attracted as many as 2,000 students and faculty members. Among their demands: that all nonacademic employees be paid the federal minimum wage and that a committee of administrators, faculty members, students, and workers be established to design a method of collective bargaining for the workers. (Local #77 was the union working on behalf of Duke's nonacademic employees and was involved in the vigil early on.) After long hours of delicate negotiations, the vigil finally ended when Wright Tisdale, chair of the board of trustees, announced that Duke would boost nonfaculty employees' pay to bring the university in line with the minimum wage of $1.60 an hour.

Meanwhile, Knight, who had been hospitalized eight months earlier with a severe case of hepatitis, suffered a relapse. After speaking at the Chapel memorial service, he was on the verge of collapse. His physicians strongly advised him to leave campus, and he went with his family to their vacation house on nearby Kerr Lake to recuperate.

 
Legacy of leaders: Knight, left, and Sanford flank the new president at Keohane's inauguration
Legacy of leaders: Knight, left, and Sanford flank the new president at Keohane's inauguration
Photo: Les Todd

Critics saw Knight's absence from campus as an attempt to dodge his responsibilities by concocting a medical emergency. But he wasn't the only one whose health suffered. Shortly after his declaration to the students about wages, Tisdale was admitted to Duke Medical Center to be treated for exhaustion, according to his son, Norwood "Boyd" Tisdale '68, M.A.T. '70, J.D. '75.

"I have always had a lot of respect for Doug Knight and felt that he was damaged so badly that he might never recover," William Griffith, who was assistant to the provost at the time of the vigil, wrote in Duke Magazine in 1998. "But I always felt that he was the right person at the right time. Knight was a very sensitive person; he was an administrator but also a poet and a scholar. He was sensitive to what was taking place. You really needed someone who had a feeling for the community, and I think he did. He had a special empathy for Duke."

The Silent Vigil turned criticism of Knight from a murmur to a din. A large faction of university constituents used him as a scapegoat for Duke's growing ills. Similar protests were happening all over the country, but there was a feeling among some of the older alumni and others in the Duke community that such lawlessness should never be allowed to take place on Duke's genteel grounds. Some of the same players who had covertly orchestrated Hollis Edens' departure were now pushing for Knight's. Anlyan recalls that, on more than one occasion, he and Barnes Woodhall, dean of medicine, were approached by some members of The Duke Endowment who wanted the men to help "get rid of" Knight. "We told them we were not going to play that game," Anlyan recalls.

Knight recuperated over the summer and, when classes started that fall, he felt strong enough to resume his hectic pace. But Knight faced the nadir of his Duke presidency less than a year later. Civil-rights activist Dick Gregory had scheduled a February campus visit to speak about black power. Swathed in what he calls his "white liberal innocence," Knight invited Gregory and sixteen black students--the capacity of the table--for dinner. The appointed time came, and, instead of dinner guests, Knight received a harsh note saying that if all could not come, none would come. Gregory's talk that night was characteristically provocative. Two days later, on February 13, 1969, dozens of black students took over the Allen Building, renaming it the Malcolm X Liberation School.

Carrying canisters they claimed were full of gasoline, the students blocked off all the entrances and negotiated through the windows with other students, faculty members, and administrators. Knight, who was in New York, flew back immediately. The standoff went on all day, with neither the university nor the students willing to capitulate. As dusk approached, there were reports of armed Durham residents circling the campus.

Concerned about the potential for bloodshed, Knight scheduled an emergency faculty meeting and asked the governor to approve the deployment of state police to make certain that violence wouldn't erupt after dark. Some faculty members sympathetic to the students' cause tipped them off that police were being called in and helped ferry them safely away. As the crowd of supporters and onlookers who had gathered in front of the Allen Building surged forward, police deployed tear gas.

Knight faced bruising criticism for his actions in the days and weeks that followed. Opinion was divided between those who thought his decision to call in state police was unwarranted and heavy-handed, and those who saw the black students' behavior as evidence of the danger of integration and thought that Knight should kick them out of school for good. The alumni office received so many caustic letters about Knight and the black students that it was impossible to reply to them all. "Dump Doug" bumper stickers showed up on cars. Knight received death threats, and a security guard was assigned to patrol the grounds of the President's House. He recalls the nightly ritual of touring the yard with the guard at one in the morning before going to sleep, both men armed with pistols, making sure no one was hiding in the shadows.

Knight's family was deeply affected as well. To keep them safe, Doug and Grace sent their four children away in the evenings to sleep at friends' houses. One night, Knight recalls, Tom, who was twelve, looked up at his parents and said, "I don't like this going away from home."

By April, members of The Duke Endowment board, the university trustees, alumni, and others in the region were publicly expressing displeasure with Knight's leadership. The handwriting was on the wall. As Robert Durden notes in Lasting Legacy to the Carolinas, "When a number of trustees pressed for a specially called meeting where Knight's resignation could be formally demanded, [new university trustee chair Charles B. Wade Jr. '38] successfully took on the painful task of persuading Knight to resign before he could be formally asked to do so."

Exactly six weeks after the takeover of the Allen Building, Knight resigned, saying that he had an obligation to protect his family from "the severe and sometimes savage demands of such a career." When news of his decision reached the university community, Mary Semans recalls, one young woman turned to her and asked sadly, "What have we done to him?"

Even before he left the Duke campus, Knight was offered and accepted a position at RCA as the vice president for education. He later became the president of Questar Corporation, which makes optical lenses with a variety of applications. In 1982, he became chairman of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and oversaw the awarding of thousands of graduate fellowships. Involved again with higher education--though at a remove--Knight found meaningful work, while recognizing that each passing decade continued to alter the ways college campuses were run. "It was in these years, after all, that the corporate model became a truly aggressive influence in university design," he writes. "Equally it was a time when the great university financial campaigns began to perpetuate themselves, when the bidding wars began to create a new generation of wandering scholars, a time when the issues of political correctness began their divisive and litigious career."

Now living in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, with Grace, he has found a way to view his presidency--indeed, the whole first half of his life--with quiet acceptance. "We can see now, looking back, how different things were in the Sixties," says Knight. "The important thing to note is that, in spite of all the disruptions, we got so much done."