Rubenstein donates $20M to endow Duke scholarship for first-gen college students

Financier and Duke University trustees chairman David Rubenstein has donated $20 million to endow a need-based student scholarship program at the Durham institution.
Financier and Duke University trustees chairman David Rubenstein has donated $20 million to endow a need-based student scholarship program at the Durham institution. Duke Univesity

Outgoing trustee Chairman David Rubenstein has given Duke University $20 million to endow a year-old scholarship program that’s supposed to benefit first-generation college students who come from “under-resourced” high schools.

In announcing the donation Monday, Duke officials also announced they’d renamed what from its founding late in 2015 was known as the Washington Duke Scholars Program. Henceforth, it’ll be the David M. Rubenstein Scholars Program. The change was effective immediately.

Rubenstein’s donation was the latest in a string of seven- and eight-figure contributions he’s made to Duke since 2002. All told, he’s given the Durham institution at least $106 million.

A 1970 alumnus, Rubenstein noted he was himself a first-generation college student before going on to success as a lawyer and a financier. The son of a Baltimore postal worker, he said he “certainly could have benefited” back in his student days from the sort of help the scholarship provides.

Launching in time for the start of the 2016-17 academic year, the program offered full-ride scholarships covering tuition, room and board, books, a computer and other expenses for an initial group of 30 students. Duke is scaling it up to cover 60 students in each year’s incoming class, with the idea that eventually 240 will be in the program at any given time.

Participants also receive an assortment of counseling services, including mentoring from one out of a group of 10 faculty members or administrators that includes Dean of Undergraduate Education Steve Nowicki.

The program grew out of a proposal from Nowicki’s office that Duke President Richard Brodhead unexpectedly approved less than two weeks after receiving it in the fall of 2015. His OK triggered a scramble from the dean’s office to nail down some of the operational details in time for 2016-17 admissions, and also came before they’d figured out a way to finance the new scholarships over the long term.

“Dick just said we’re going to do it,” Nowicki told members of Duke’s Arts & Sciences Council shortly after the initial announcement.

Rubenstein’s donation will count toward the university’s “Duke Forward” fundraising campaign, which initially sought to bring in $3.25 billion and is now in the closing stages after hitting that mark last summer, nearly a year ahead of schedule.

His other Duke-announced financial contributions have targeted such things as the Sanford School of Public Policy ($20.8 million, spread over three donations since 2002), the campus library’s rare-books collection ($13.6 million in 2011), the university’s athletics program ($10 million in 2012), the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative ($15 million in the 2012-13 academic year), Jewish life on campus ($1.9 million in 2014) and the under-construction arts building on Anderson Street ($25 million in 2015).

Rubenstein has been a member of Duke’s trustee board since 2005 and its chairman since 2013. He is stepping down at the end of June in accordance with in-house policy that says trustees can serve no more than two six-year terms in a row.

But the billionaire’s not leaving the higher-education scene, as he’s slated to replace former Duke President Nan Keohane on the trustee board of Harvard University starting in July. He’s already a Harvard donor, having backed its Kennedy School of Government with major gifts in the 2000s that among other things supported a joint scholarship with the Kennedy School and the Harvard Business School.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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