As The Graduate School celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2016, we are taking a look at various aspects of the school’s history. Visit https://gradschool.duke.edu/90 for more information about the 90th anniversary celebration, as well as other Graduate School history spotlights as they are published.
The early years of The Graduate School were a tale of humble beginnings, rival turned ally, and being overshadowed by a building that did not yet exist.
Created in 1926—two years after the founding of Duke University—The Graduate School did not receive high visibility or significant resources. It had no building to call its own, and its dean and small staff were housed in a few administrative offices, first in the East Duke Building, then in what became the Flowers Building, and later in the Allen Building before finally moving to its current location on Campus Drive.
What the school did have, though, was the strong support of Duke’s first president and some timely help from Duke’s fiercest rival.
Graduate education existed at Duke before The Graduate School, or Duke for that matter. From 1916 to 1923, Trinity College awarded 53 master’s degrees, and there were 41 graduate students enrolled during the first school year after Trinity College became Duke University. It was not, however, until The Graduate School arrived that Duke began awarding doctoral degrees.
In 1916, Trinity College created a committee to oversee graduate instruction, and when Duke was founded in 1924, the committee was already working to strengthen graduate education at the institution. In 1925, William H. Glasson, chair of the committee, suggested to Duke president William Preston Few that establishing an outstanding graduate school would be a crucial step in turning Duke into one of the nation’s top universities.
“Since there is no great graduate school in the South, we have an attractive chance to enter a field where competition is not so keen as it is in the North and West,” wrote Glasson, who would be appointed the first dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in September 1926.
The president shared Glasson’s opinion on the importance of a graduate school. In fact, as Robert F. Durden described in his book, The Launching of Duke University, 1924–1949, Few was one of The Graduate School’s strongest advocates in its early years.
“Though Few insisted that the undergraduate colleges were the heart of the university, he also realized that much of Duke’s reputation in the educational world would rest on its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the advanced students who were trained there,” Durden wrote. “… the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was, in fact, the absolutely essential component, literally the sine qua non, of Duke as a research university.”
Setback and Growth
In fact, if Few had his way, the resources that went into constructing Duke’s most iconic landmark might have gone toward building a larger graduate education enterprise instead. In 1928, Few proposed the creation of the Benjamin Newton Duke Institute for the Advancement of Knowledge as a memorial to one of Duke’s chief philanthropists. The institute would comprise the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, a research council to assist in scholarly enterprises, and other resources to support advanced research and teaching.
That idea, however, was rejected in favor of a proposal to raise money for “The Duke Memorial,” which would honor all three major philanthropists of the Duke family—Benjamin, his brother James, and their father Washington. That memorial turned out to be Duke Chapel, the construction of which was set to begin in 1930.
Although Few’s vision of The Graduate School as part of a larger center for advanced research and education did not come to fruition, he successfully steered the school through its early years, addressing issues both small (extending library hours to accommodate more students) and large (defending the right of American colleges to teach theories of evolution in the wake of the Scopes Trial).
Under the stewardship of Few and Glasson, the graduate student population at Duke grew steadily. In 1916, Duke had all of six graduate students. In its first year, 1926–27, the school enrolled 86 students during the academic year. By the time The Graduate School turned 10 years old, that number had ballooned to 241, and the school had more than 1,200 students in all when summer sessions are taken into account.
Duke awarded its first two Ph.D.s in 1928, and more than 150 men and women received doctorates from Duke in The Graduate School’s first decade. By the time Glasson resigned as dean in 1938, the school had conferred more than 1,000 degrees in 18 programs.
Welcome to the Big Leagues
At the same time Duke was growing its graduate student body, it was also trying to grow its reputation by getting into the Association of American Universities, which, by Few’s own admission, was “the one organization in the country to which we need admission and have not secured it.” Gaining membership in that elite group of U.S. research universities would serve as a seal of approval for Duke’s fledgling graduate programs.
“Unless we succeed in this, our degrees will be invalidated and we shall have to take a second-rate position as a university,” Few told trustee George G. Allen in 1930.
In this effort, Few got some help from Duke’s fiercest athletic foe. Duke and the University of North Carolina were already heated rivals in sports by the 1930s. Off the field, though, Few struck up a good working relationship with UNC president Franklin P. Graham, and the two schools were pooling their resources in a number of ways, including sharing courses, professors, and libraries.
To be considered for inclusion in the AAU, Duke had to be nominated by an existing member. UNC, which joined the AAU in 1922, played a key role in this process. In fall 1931, the presidents and deans of graduate schools in the AAU were slated to meet at UNC. Glasson, with the approval of his counterpart at the UNC Graduate School, took the opportunity to invite the group to Duke for a meal and meetings with faculty, laying the groundwork for Duke’s bid to join the AAU.
Then, in 1938, after Few had worked discreetly to shore up support for Duke’s admission, Graham nominated Duke for AAU membership and spoke to a group of influential graduate school deans about the cooperation between Duke and UNC. In November that year, Duke was officially approved for AAU membership, the only one of the four nominees that year to be admitted.
"I shall never cease to be grateful to you," Few told his allies at UNC after Duke joined the AAU, "and will try even harder if possible to make Duke University what it ought to be in the service of education and kindred causes."