Origins of the Kenan Institute for Ethics
In October 1993, Nan Keohane was inaugurated as the eighth president of Duke University. In the first few months of her presidency, Frank Kenan, a local businessman and philanthropist, reached out in his capacity as a trustee of the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust. The Trust was seeking Duke’s support for an economic development project it was launching in northeast central Durham.
The project included a college preparatory program for Durham youth, beginning in sixth grade. A planning document described the demographics of the targeted neighborhoods: 76% black, half the households headed by single mothers, unemployment and poverty double other areas of the city. In June 1994, Nan Keohane committed Duke to the project. In a letter to Frank Kenan, she said, “We are so pleased that the Kenan Trust has taken this step. We see this as an important component of our efforts to strengthen our city.”
Two months later, in August 1994, Frank pitched another idea to Duke’s new president: an institute for ethics, an idea the Trust had been working toward for more than a year. In March 1993, Frank wrote to Bill Friday, executive director of the Trust: “I sincerely believe that all the things the Trust has done and all the things we plan to do will be meaningless unless society returns to basic beliefs of what is good and what is bad, what is true and what is not. I don’t know how or what we can do but I hope the next big commitment we make will be something that will encourage society to insist on values that you and I were taught to believe at an early age.”
The shape of that next big commitment grew from months of conversation between Frank Kenan and Nan Keohane, each pulling in a wide array of colleagues as they fleshed out details. It materialized in May 1995, when the Kenan Charitable Trust committed to a $20 million endowment for the Kenan Institute for Ethics, contingent upon a five-year trial period during which Duke would experiment with an ethics program. To support this work, the Trust created the William R. Kenan Jr. Fund for Ethics, a separate 501c3 with its own mission.
The mission statement of the Kenan Fund for Ethics bears the imprint of Frank Kenan, for whom ethics was principally a matter of character and its expression in public life. In May 1993, in a letter to the president of the Mellon Foundation, Frank wrote: “The problem with character in this generation seems to be that for a large segment thereof they had no early guidance or were molded by so many various forces that it seems hard for a large part of this generation to measure up to old-fashioned standards.”
I am old-fashioned. … Don’t take things that don’t belong to you, and if you say you are going to do something, do it. Your word is your bond.
Born in 1912, Frank was, by his own admission, old-fashioned. In 1994, at the age of eighty-one, he addressed a gathering of Future Business Leaders of America and opened by saying, “You have asked an old man who really represents an earlier generation to speak to you on ethics. The words ethics was seldom used when I was your age. I think you could substitute honor.” Speaking a few years earlier to the graduates of Woodberry Forest, his high school alma mater, he told the young graduates that the greatest thing he learned from this Woodberry education was “the meaning of honor and integrity. A man without honor is worth nothing.”
Frank once said that ethics was easy to define. “It simply means don’t take things that don’t belong to you, and if you say you are going to do something, do it. Your word is your bond.” Frank’s understanding of ethics as principally a matter of character made it into the mission statement of the Kenan Fund for Ethics as an emphasis on the role of “personal behavior” in “the wellbeing of society.” To determine the best way to enact this mission, the Trust charged a consultant to make recommendations about the ideal shape of an ethics institute at Duke.
In April 1995, the consultant submitted a report that recommended faculty seminars, lectures, conferences, and national and international symposia, all anchored by an annual fellowship program that would bring a dozen scholars and distinguished practitioners to Duke for year-long residencies, during which they would participate in seminars and write and lecture on ethical topics. These recommendations largely replicated new programs in ethics then underway at Harvard and Princeton, and the Trust rejected them as off course. What the report had missed was the Trust’s ambition to leverage the resources of a university to solve a problem that was not simply “academic.”
Frank Kenan stated the problem in a letter to one of his colleagues at the Trust. “I truly believe that society is in danger of falling apart because of lack of the moral fiber that has held the nation together for these many years.” The question, Frank added, was whether the Trust “could do something to reverse that process.” The Kenan Institute for Ethics was an answer, or, as stated in the founding documents, would be an answer, if five years of experimental programs gave shape to an institute dedicated to developing the character of the next generation and to shoring up the moral fiber of public institutions.
Announcing the Kenan Program in Ethics in 1995, Nan Keohane spoke of ethics as a matter of community and character and of a program that would extend to “the general life of the nearby community and the nation,” providing not only “reasonable intellectual constructs but opportunities for commitment.” Over almost thirty years, the Kenan Institute for Ethics has taken shape from these origins.