Nan Keohane portrait
Centennial Spotlights

Nannerl O. Keohane

Duke raised a few eyebrows in 1993 when it named for its eighth president Nannerl “Nan” Keohane, a political theorist and president of Wellesley College, a women’s liberal arts college only a fifth the size of Duke.

Keohane was the first woman president in Duke’s then 70-year history, and only the third woman nationwide to head a major research university.

“There were quite a few people who thought, ‘How can this woman from Wellesley run Duke?’” she said in 2018 interview.

But she knew she could do the job. She likened the pivot — from managing a small liberal arts college to presiding over a research university with more than 10 schools and hospitals and big-time athletics — to being the “admiral of a flotilla” instead of captaining a ship.

On the heels of her 12-year Wellesley presidency, she led Duke from 1993 to 2004, for a total of two decades in academia’s top post.

Keohane raised record amounts of money, leading a $2.36 billion fundraising campaign for Duke that was the fifth largest in the history of American higher education.

Under her leadership, Duke launched the first-of-its-kind University Scholars Program, the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, Bass Society professorships to recognize faculty dedication to undergraduate teaching, and the Robertson Scholars Program to encourage collaboration between Duke and the University of North Carolina.

Keohane was also instrumental in making East Campus home to first-year students, extending health benefits to same-sex partners, expanding Duke’s international reach and diversifying the student body.

Reflecting on the link between her background as a political theorist and her life in leadership in a 2000 interview, Keohane said her scholarship focused on “how power is used, how interests are combined, and how people come together to get things done.”

“At one level, that’s what I’m now doing with my life, and I find it really fascinating.”