Duke to use $20 million Gates gift to stimulate geniuses N.C. university wants to encourage interdisciplinary work


For nearly two decades, the MacArthur Foundation has rewarded genius by giving grants to creative individuals.

Now, Duke University, with the help of a $20 million grant from Melinda French Gates, a Duke alumna and trustee, and her husband, Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, hopes to seek out similar creative geniuses among students and give them free rein within the university.

The school, in Durham, N.C., is one of the most selective private research universities in the United States, one that competes with the Ivy League and Stanford for students while also being known as a party school.

Duke officials say they are looking for the rare students who show intellectual brilliance and fearlessness at an early age, whose interests range across many fields. A young Leonardo da Vinci would do fine, for example, or a Virginia Woolf or Thomas Jefferson.

Rather than boxing these budding geniuses into the traditional confines of academic disciplines, Duke wants to encourage them to pursue their intellectual curiosity across disciplinary boundaries.

"A lot of universities function like silos, each silo with its separate disciplines," said William Chafe, dean of Trinity College at Duke, who first thought of this program. "We want to build bridges between those silos."

The program drew praise from Catharine Stimpson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University and a former director of MacArthur's "genius" grants.

"It's a wonderful dream," she said when the Duke program was described to her, "that if you take the best and the brightest and put them together, they will inspire each other to think in new and different ways."

She offered a caution, however: "To do interdisciplinarity properly, you have to know something, or you risk superficiality. I hope they find a way for the students to be deep as well as broad."

Duke officials say they expect that the students will be well hTC grounded in traditional disciplines while they reach across them, although the officials say they have not worked out details such as graduation requirements.

Cathy Davidson, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies at Duke, said she thought the risk would be that students would want to take too much, not too little: "This is the kind of student where you have to say, 'Slow down. Yes, it would be fascinating to learn Ukrainian, but 10 courses a semester is not a great idea.' "

Duke is one of many universities that are trying to encourage more interdisciplinary work by both faculty members and students. At Duke, for example, freshmen are encouraged to join the school's "Focus" program, in which they take multiple courses related to a common theme.

Like many universities, Duke also allows undergraduates to pursue interdisciplinary majors.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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