Yes, I Will: An Enduring Commitment

Furman University

In 1922, James B. Duke changed the future of Furman University in Greenville, S.C., with three words: “Yes, I will.”

With that statement to Bennette Geer, a business associate and trusted confidant, Mr. Duke revealed his commitment to help Furman. Decades later, Geer, a Furman graduate, recounted that the pledge came after Mr. Duke had invited Geer and his wife to accompany him from Hamlet, S.C., to New York City on board the industrialist’s well-appointed private rail car, “Doris” (so named after his daughter).

“After dinner we were sitting in a little sitting room at the rear of the car,” Geer recounted in a 1963 interview, ”and he [Duke] was telling me ‘My brother and I are just giving (Trinity College) $5 million dollars to help their law school.’ That was before it was Duke University. So that is when I said, ‘Mr. Duke, I wish some time you might help my little school down at Greenville a little bit, Furman University.’ And he said, ‘Yes, I will.’”

“When we retired that night, my wife gave me the dickens. She said, ‘Why did you stop talkin’? I said, ‘I knew when to stop,” Geer remembered.

The substantial scale of Mr. Duke’s commitment would emerge only after the establishment of The Duke Endowment in 1924. Geer was named to the original Board of Trustees of the Endowment. Mr. Duke directed that Furman University, along with Davidson College, Duke University, and Johnson C. Smith University, should be supported in perpetuity by the Endowment, reflecting his belief in education as, next to religion, “the greatest civilizing influence.”

Dr. William McGlothlin, the president of Furman University in 1924, described the impact of the transformational gift to Furman’s board by saying, “Mr. Duke’s gift has changed the whole face of things for us.” Glothlin added that the gift “lay upon us grave responsibilities and afford us great opportunities.”

Dr. William McGlothlin, the president of Furman University in 1924, described the impact of the transformational gift to Furman’s board by saying, “Mr. Duke’s gift has changed the whole face of things for us.” Glothlin added that the gift “lay upon us grave responsibilities and afford us great opportunities.”

McGlothlin and Furman board leaders quickly began construction of needed academic and support buildings, and increased salaries for faculty members, who at the time were earning just over $1,000 annually. These investments led to promising growth, but unexpected challenges emerged during the period, too. In the late 1920s, national economic pressures presaging the Great Depression caused student enrollment to decline sharply at Furman. As a result, financial resources were stretched nearly to the breaking point. In three of the years between 1928-1933, support to Furman from the Endowment exceeded tuition revenue. But with careful management and bolstered enrollment through a merger with nearby Greenville Woman’s College in 1937, Furman held on.

Tragically, McGlothlin lost his life in 1933 in an automobile accident. Geer was named to succeed McGlothlin. From 1933-1938, it fell to Geer to continue fulfillment of the “responsibilities and opportunities” opened to Furman from Mr. Duke’s three-word commitment. It was a charge Geer undertook with passion and focus. During his tenure, the textile mill executive turned university leader succeeded in steering Furman out of survival mode onto a trajectory of thriving growth in the decades that followed.

As with the other three higher education institutions named in the Indenture, an early focus of the Endowment’s support centered on construction of key buildings and capital projects. At Furman, the James B. Duke Library was constructed, a key facility that continues to adapt to meet the changing needs of students, faculty members and community residents.

During the 1960s and early 70s, Furman was long past struggles for survival, riding a wave of growth across the national higher education sector. From 1945 through 1968, more than 300 new colleges and universities opened across the United States. Student enrollment nearly doubled on American campuses between 1960-1968. State funds for higher education increased about 215 percent in the same period, fueling spending of more than $3 billion by colleges and universities per year for capital expansion.

In 1965, Joseph Vaughn entered Furman as the university’s first African American undergraduate student. Lillian Brock-Flemming and Sarah Reese became the first African-American women students to enter Furman University in 1967. These students bravely broke racial barriers, and opened the way for Furman’s continued efforts to expand diversity and inclusion as core values across the institution.

In 2017, the Furman leadership, students, faculty, staff and alumni joined together to examine historical connections to slavery at Furman through a Task Force on Slavery and Justice. The task force’s final report, Seeking Abraham, included recommendations for substantive change in nearly all areas of Furman’s identity, curriculum, and operations. A statue of Joseph Vaughn honors this progression in Furman’s story and those who moved the institution forward.

As Furman continued to grow, the relationship between Furman and The Duke Endowment evolved into a partnership marked by strong collaboration. John Johns, President of Furman from 1976-1994, said there was an understanding between the two institutions for “schools to take the lead in developing programs and priorities for grantmaking. Foundations can… help by developing plans cooperatively with us. We’ll work a lot harder on a program we (emphasis original) developed, or at least helped to develop, so that it fits the foundation’s priorities, and our needs.” The emerging collaborative relationship gained strength from close dialogues, reliance on data to guide key decisions, and a shared commitment to building trust. These characteristics continue to the present day.

Today, Furman University stands as South Carolina’s oldest private university. Furman is a leader among liberal arts universities nationally, offering over 75 areas of study across 27 academic departments to 2,500 students. The University’s comprehensive curriculum includes fine arts, humanities, social sciences, mathematics and the sciences and select professional disciplines. Approximately one in five Furman students participates in study abroad opportunities each year. 495 Furman students studied in global locations in 2023. 52 Fulbright scholars and 5 Rhodes scholars are counted among Furman alumni.

Furman’s commitments to opening access to high-value education are clear from the substantial resources devoted to student financial aid, as well as recruitment, retention, and professional development of talented faculty.

Furman has further strengthened its leadership position among liberal arts universities through innovative programs centering student well-being, and on scholarly research opportunities. These programs include emphasis on student physical and mental health, and the creation of four institutes that advance knowledge through research and experiential learning in the areas of community health, sustainability, innovation, government and education. The institutes also connect Furman to the surrounding community, linking students and residents in shared work to meet community challenges and opportunities.

Many students participate in research opportunities with faculty, a rarity for undergraduate students on most campuses. In 2023, 231 research fellows worked with 81 faculty members on topics ranging from bacterial levels in vegetables to how parents speak to children about social inequality.

Data tell one part of an unmistakably impressive story about Furman. Added together with a pioneering program known as The Furman Advantage, the story offers a rich layer of added understanding about the university’s modern vision and identity.

“The Furman Advantage combines purpose-defining elements — rigorous classroom learning, mentoring, advising, engaging learning and leadership development experiences - that together create an individualized pathway to success for every student,” says Elizabeth Davis, president of Furman University since 2014.

The Furman Advantage shows up first for students through the Pathways Program, a two-year advising regimen for all incoming students. In the program, new students connect in small groups for on-going peer support, receive mentoring by older students and gain insights on the next four years of academic life at Furman. Beginning their first day on campus, new students are not only empowered to succeed as learners, but as leaders following their last day at Furman.

Gourgit Demian, a pre-med major in the class of 2024 and a Pathways Peer mentor, describes the Pathways program “as University 101, helping people scale from high school to college, showing them that they are not alone, and equipping them with support and skills to help manage all the changes, the pressures, and the expectations.”

Demian added that one of the most important lessons she has learned as a peer mentor is “the power of empathetic listening. How to really listen to somebody, and know when they may need you to just be a wall, and they can just vent to you, or when they need advice from you.” Demian plans to take these skills into her planned career as a pediatrician.

Students are encouraged to connect across fields of study, and with faculty outside their majors, to learn through cross-disciplinary opportunities embedded in The Furman Advantage.

Class of 2025 member and Health Sciences major Yaseen Echekki points to this aspect of The Furman Advantage as one of the most valuable for him. “When there are issues that we want to solve, being able to understand different kinds of specialties in addition to your own helps us make connections that can help solve real issues within our community, around the country, and around the world,” he says.

In January 2024, the Endowment announced a $25 million Centennial gift to the University. “The support from the Endowment is a catalyst for positive change, giving students the skills to excel academically and graduate as compassionate, innovative leaders ready to make a profound impact on society,” said Furman president Davis.

Looking forward into the next century of this special relationship, the words “Yes, I will,” connect the commitment of James B. Duke in 1922 with students, faculty, leadership, staff and alumni today, and generations to come.

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