Duncan Rice Memorial Feb 28, 2023   

Thank you Susan for the honor of speaking at Duncan’s Memorial. Looking out at you, James, Beady and Sam- and their families- ignites the love I feel for Duncan and all of you. I first met Duncan and Susan over a half century ago when they came to Yale University. 

Duncan was an assistant professor of history in 1970 and soon became resident Dean of Saybrook College, a position he and Susan held for 8 years. I was chief of staff for the President and Associate Provost in those years. We became close friends as Duncan and I played squash every week and had vigorous conversations over scotch before delicious dinners in the Dean’s apartment. I keep on my dresser at home a picture of Duncan and James on Nantucket where I vacationed so I think of them every morning. 

When Duncan became Dean of Hamilton College and Susan Dean of Students at nearby Colgate College in upstate New York I would visit with them frequently. 

In 1982 I became president of the New School for Social Research in New York’s Greenwich Village. I was thrilled when Duncan became Dean of Arts and Sciences at neighboring NYU. They soon bought a weekend house in Fairfield Connecticut five minutes from our house. My wife Cynthia and I enjoyed family dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas in their rustic but beautiful barn house. We were family and I enjoyed watching the children grow, all smart sensitive, trusting with ambitions to make this a better world. 

Duncan and Susan had earlier introduced me to Aberdeen. I remember the long summer days as we worked in the beautiful garden at Cheverton. And later Cynthia and I came to the Isle of Harris every other summer, one of our favorite places in the world. It was a special treat to meet Duncan’s sister Alison and her husband Andrew.I well recall our boat excursions and Duncan’s love of fishing. 

Duncan and Susan were our closest friends and we share the deep sense of loss with Duncan’s death. But also celebrate his life. 

He came to Yale as a Professor. His book, The Rise and Fall of Black Slavery, was of particular interest in that period as the US civil rights movement gained momentum and Yale began to diversify its student body. Duncan was one of the best Deans of Yale’s twelve residential colleges. He and Susan cared about the whole student, both academic and personal lives. They welcomed students to their apartment and built a real sense of community. His colleagues described Duncan as personable, bright, good natured. In my years in the President and Provost office, I turned to Duncan to take the pulse of the student body during protests over social issues or strikes of Yale employees. He was a bridge between the undergraduates and the administration, trusted by all as he worked to build understanding and facilitate dialogue.

He was an outstanding, well respected and loved teacher. He had a laser focus on important moments in history but always placed them in the arch of history. That skill of putting present issues in context helped me and the students appreciate the need to talk, be flexible, open to compromise. To this day I credit Duncan with teaching me to see how factors that appear to be unrelated are actually connected- or can be- for good or bad. Skills and perspectives I learned from him at Yale- and over a lifetime- have made possible all I have accomplished in my various jobs and as chair of Human Rights Watch. 

Moving to Hamilton and Colgate was an adjustment for Duncan and Susan. Hamilton is a high quality but small liberal arts college that had recently merged with Kirkland, a small women’s college.

Duncan immediately set his sights on raising the quality of the faculty and setting the standard for what should be expected of a first rate college. He met some resistance from the faculty but marshalled his diplomatic skills to make some outstanding appointments. The former provost told me “Duncan was one of the most talented and likable academics that I knew- the best dean during my time.” Hamilton was good preparation for Duncan’s next challenge at New York University. 

I was thrilled when Duncan and Susan came to New York with his appointment as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at NYU. 

In 1985 I was in my third year as President of The New School which included Parsons School of Design and the Graduate Faculty begun in the 1930s with exiles from Germany. Over the years we added an undergraduate college and an urban management school built on the adult education program begun in 1919 when the New School was founded. 

Even though NYU and The New School were blocks away they were not competitors. We even shared their library. I was taken with the vision of NYU President John Brademas who wanted to make NYU one of the best universities in the country. And that’s why he hired Duncan Rice. He gave Duncan the mandate and resources to add 88 new chairs to the Arts and Sciences. As Duncan said, “At major universities anywhere in the world, Arts and Sciences has to be at the center. The reason is that great theoretical questions which inform every discipline, including the professional disciplines, are the ones that get thrashed out in Arts and Sciences Departments.” 

So it was an extraordinary period in which NYU became the place to go as Duncan recruited young scholars from Yale, Princeton, Stanford and beyond. And not just in the humanities he knew so well. He understood the sciences were critical. But also expensive. So he focused on a few emerging areas, for example Brain Science by creating a Center for Neural Science which brought together molecular, cellular, developmental, cognitive, behavioral and computational approaches to understanding the brain. 

The Director of the Center Anthony Movshon worked closely with Duncan and deeply admired him. And understood his strengths as a Dean. “Duncan knew when to listen and when to speak, when to trust and when to be skeptical, when to act and when to wait.” 

As I think about Duncan the letter C comes to mind, competent, committed, collegial, cosmopolitan, creative, courageous and caring. 

Duncan lead a 5 year planning exercise at NYU. In conveying the plan to President Brademas, Duncan wrote: “An essential intangible is our sense of optimism about the faculty’s capacity to achieve the ambitious leaps in quality this report envisages.” 

Optimism is a quality that I associate with Duncan. A realistic optimist I would say. He saw the world as it is, flaws, challenges, the dark side. But he never lost hope and always turned his attention and energy to positive possibilities. He had a deep faith in our ability to come together and build a more just humane world at peace. 

And his optimism- and positive vision- excited donors. Duncan was a masterful fund raiser by attracting donors to the substance of the cause. He made friends with potential donors who trusted him as he gave meaning to their lives through the generosity they invested in his positive vision of the university. But also how the university’s research and teaching could improve our country and also build respect for other countries and cultures. 

In his time SAT scores at NYU moved from 1100 to 1200 in 5 years as NYU’s student body moved from just 18% outside New York to 73% outside New York. What a transformation, reflecting Duncan’s cosmopolitan vision. 

So Aberdeen made the right choice in inviting Duncan home. We have heard that inspiring story. 

And I am so happy that Susan’s career has flourished here. Senior positions in the Bank of Scotland, Lloyds, chair of Scottish Water, trustee of Sainsbury and more. Susan has been a loving and supportive partner for Duncan at every step of his career. And he returned her love and support and was proud of her accomplishments. How many people do we know where both spouses have become leaders in their fields? And at the same time nurtured a close family of 3 wonderful and successful children. 

Let me close with a reflection from Yale’s Chaplin William Sloane Coffin: 

“The one true freedom in life is to come to terms with death, and as early as possible, for death is an event that embraces all our lives. And the only way to have a good death is to lead a good life. Lead a good one, full of curiosity, generosity, and compassion, and there’s no need at the close of the day to rage against the dying of the light. We can go gentle into that good night.”

Duncan lived a good life and now has gone gently into that good night. 

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