Press Room

Press Releases and Statements



Melinda and Bill Gates Give $20 Million To Duke University To Launch Program Expanding Interdisciplinary Teaching And Research

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Cathy N. Davidson
Phone: (919) 684-5783, Email:

DURHAM, North Carolina -- A $20 million endowment gift from Duke University Trustee Melinda French Gates and her husband, Bill Gates, will launch a pioneering academic program expanding teaching and research across traditional disciplinary boundaries, university President Nannerl O. Keohane announced Saturday.

Keohane said she expects the new University Scholars program, which also will strengthen financial aid to students, to become known "as one of Duke's most distinctive achievements. The Scholars will exemplify our bold commitment to intellectual risk-takers and to crossing disciplinary boundaries in the search for truth."

A principal goal of the University Scholars program, which will begin in the fall of 1999, is to identify intellectually gifted undergraduate, graduate and professional students and provide them with the resources, curricular freedom and extracurricular forums for cross-fertilizing each other's ideas in creative and novel intellectual collaborations, officials said.

Students selected as University Scholars will be characterized by a rare level of "intellectual brilliance and intellectual fearlessness," said Cathy N. Davidson, recently appointed vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, who heads the planning for the new program and will lead its initial phase. "A University Scholar will have demonstrated early signs of brilliance combined with an edge of individuality, independent thinking, risk-taking, iconoclasm, and even intellectual fearlessness," Davidson said. "He or she will value dialogue and thrive in combinations of an individualized curriculum and collective, interactive thinking, linking learning and research. We expect our University Scholars to inspire each other, to examine and challenge implicit disciplinary constraints -- assumptions, values, methodologies and prejudices -- as imposed on even the most interdisciplinary of projects."

Keohane said the program is unique, one that "will provide for interaction between 19-year-old undergraduates and 28-year-old students pursuing the Ph.D. or professional degree and 45-year-olds at the peak of their scholarly study."

"This splendid gift from Melinda and Bill Gates joins two of Duke's highest priorities -- strengthening our financial aid endowments so we can provide a Duke education and experience for the best students regardless of their ability to pay, and creating innovative programs that will stretch the minds and enhance collaboration among the very brightest students," Keohane said. "It is typical of Melinda and Bill to see the extraordinary potential for truly pioneering scholarly inquiry and to provide the resources by strengthening our endowment to support some of our most outstanding students."

Davidson said the program is expected to begin in 1999 with a set of at least eight undergraduate scholarships annually and eight graduate and professional students. Other support will be sought from alumni and friends of the university so that the program can grow to a steady state of between 75-80 students, with at least half being undergraduates.

The program will include students who have financial need, as well as provide research grants for those who do not. Officials said they expect that many undergraduate participants will qualify for need-based scholarships. The typical undergraduate University Scholar's financial aid award will average $15,000, with Duke making up any difference from its own funds to support students with greater demonstrated need. Duke's 1998 tuition for new undergraduate students is $23,220. Each graduate and professional student selected for the program will also receive generous fellowship support.

Duke is one of a small group of universities nationwide that admits undergraduate students -- based on an assessment of their academic achievements and ability to contribute to the life of the campus -- without regard to their ability to pay, and then guarantees to meet the full demonstrated need of each student. Financial aid is an essential component of the university's need-blind admissions policy.

University officials said robust financial aid programs are a central component of Duke's efforts to make attending the university affordable for many exceptional students. Approximately 45 percent of Duke's undergraduates qualify for financial aid, and the university is currently spending more than $30 million annually in undergraduate student support from its own funds, with $24 million coming from the operating budget and the balance from income from the university's endowment.

Because Duke's $1.4 billion endowment (as of June 30) is considerably smaller than the endowments of most private research universities and several public universities with which it competes, a greater portion of Duke's financial aid support must come from its operating budget.

The University Scholars effort builds on Duke's pathfinding FOCUS program, which enables first semester freshmen to enroll in one of 13 thematic programs that explore broad subjects from different perspectives bridging academic departments and schools at Duke.

The University Scholars program will be tied together by an interdisciplinary theme to be chosen annually or biannually. Davidson said the first set of priority themes likely will be developed by the university faculty planning the program, but she expects that as the programs evolve, the University Scholars themselves will select the themes and organize the seminars. Examples of possible themes might be the role of ocean basins as connecting links of popular culture, capital and political ideas; or democratic institutions and the relationship between different forms of societal governance and different economic and cultural systems. A third might be the changing economics of health care and policy, and related ethical and legal issues.

"Bill and I hope that our gift will ensure the best and brightest students have access to an outstanding university experience without regard for economic status," said Melinda Gates. "Some of the best years of my life were spent at Duke University and I look forward to sharing that experience with other young people through this gift."

Melinda Gates, who lives in Medina, Wash., was elected to Duke's Board of Trustees in 1996 and serves on its Academic Affairs Committee. She earned two degrees from Duke -- a bachelor's degree in computer science and economics in 1986, and an MBA from The Fuqua School of Business in 1987. From Duke she joined Microsoft Corp., serving as both product manager and general manager with oversight responsibilities for the development of many of Microsoft's multimedia products. In 1994, she married Microsoft founder, chairman and CEO Bill Gates. After the birth of a daughter in 1996, she resigned from Microsoft to devote more time to family as well as charitable interests, including her roles as co-founder of the William H. Gates Foundation and trustee of the Gates Library FoundationThe gift to Duke is one of the largest in the university's history. Entrepreneur J. B. Fuqua announced a $20 million donation in April to the business school that bears his name, and trustee Peter Nicholas and his wife, Virginia, in 1995 donated $20 million to the Nicholas School of the Environment. The university was named after James B. Duke, who created the Charlotte, N.C.-based charitable trust, The Duke Endowment, with $40 million in 1924 and left $67 million to the endowment when he died in 1925. Duke University is a principal beneficiary of The Duke Endowment. In April 1998, the university announced a $30 million donation from The Duke Endowment to support financial aid for Duke students.

Visit Our Blog