PUBLISHED:February 01, 2012

Strategic Vision: Alumni gifts facilitate dean's quick action on Law School priorities

Dean David F. Levi calls Peter Kahn ’76 and John Yates ’81 “terrific exemplars of the Duke Law ideal of the citizen lawyer.” Both, he points out, are at the top of their games professionally, Kahn as an accomplished litigator at Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C., and Yates as head of the technology practice at Morris, Manning & Martin in Atlanta.

The two Board of Visitors members have each recently made — with their wives Debbie Kahn and Ellen Yates T’79, respectively — leadership gifts to further excellence, ambition, and innovation in the Law School’s teaching and scholarly initiatives. The gifts provide critical funds for immediate needs and offer a valuable show of support for Duke Law’s strategic goals.

“It would be easy for both Peter and John to do nothing else than attend to their very demanding law practices,” said Levi. “But these are people who give back to so many organizations, including and perhaps primarily, to Duke. They care about our faculty and our students, they help me make good decisions about programs that connect to the profession, and they reach deeply into their pockets to help us fulfill our dreams and ambitions.

“Just as it’s true that you can’t be a leading school without having a lot of faculty who are leaders in their particular fields, we cannot be a leading institution without the support of the leadership of our alumni community,” said Levi. “And these are two great examples of such leadership.”

Both the Peter & Debbie Kahn Strategic Priorities Fund and the John & Ellen Yates Strategic Priorities Fund were established with leadership-level, multi-year pledges. The funds are being used in the year they are donated to allow Levi to be proactive in financing opportunities, initiatives, and strategic priorities at Duke Law. In addition to these cash pledges, each couple has included a major bequest to Duke Law in their estate plans; the Kahns’ bequest will add support to the Kahn Family Scholarship Fund, established in 2006.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to the Kahns and Yates for these commitments, which place them in a small group of alumni who have supported the school at this level,” said Jeff Coates, associate dean for alumni and development.

“Any good manager or leader needs to have the ability to make strategic moves in short order,” said Kahn, a former BOV chair, of establishing the Kahn Strategic Priorities Fund. “If you’re not prepared to act quickly when an opportunity arises — when faculty become available or programming needs seed money — you may lose it.

“Because we have great confidence in David and share his vision for the Law School, we wanted to give him the ability, to the extent we can, to make those strategic moves.” A Duke University trustee, Kahn noted that Debbie became “a loyal Duke fan in every way” after she watched the Blue Devils come back from a substantial half-time deficit and win their 2001 NCAA Final Four game against her alma mater, the University of Maryland.

“And she has, of course, seen what the Law School has meant to me and my career, to the education of our daughter Alyssa [T’09, L’12], and the enjoyment I get from my involvement at the Law School and the University,” he said. “Debbie is 110 percent behind all of that and she is a true partner in these gifts.”

Yates, whose volunteer commitments include leadership of Atlanta’s host committee for the 2013 NCAA Basketball Final Four and service as a Furman University trustee, also cited Levi’s stewardship as a factor in establishing the Yates Strategic Priorities Fund when he and Ellen were contemplating a gift to the Law School.

“Ellen and I enjoyed our Duke education and have come to value the ever-increasing prominence of a Duke diploma. We wanted to continue supporting the school and, in particular, innovative programs the dean has initiated,” said Yates, who heads the BOV Development Committee and has a special interest in Duke’s Law and Entrepreneurship program.

“We were impressed with what Duke had done since my 1981 graduation — the development of clinics, recruiting world-class faculty, and focusing on students and scholarships. And we were most impressed by Dean Levi and the direction he was taking the school. To have someone of his reputation become dean at a major law school, to us, was remarkable.

“We had such confidence in the dean and support for his vision that we were very pleased to seek his guidance on how the gift could best further the Duke Law School mission.”

Kahn and Yates hope their inclusion of Duke Law in their estate plans will motivate others to follow suit.

“If enough of us make bequests, it effectively becomes an annuity and, as such, the annual cash flow to the Law School will become significant because, unfortunately, we’re all going to die sometime,” said Kahn. “Practicing lawyers only have their time to sell. They may not have the immediate liquidity that those in business may have to make a major current gift. But they can accumulate wealth, and it’s certainly easy for alumni to write the Law School into their wills.

“We hope the estate-planning component sends a positive message to others,” said Yates. “It underscores to our family the importance that Duke has played in our life and legal career. And at the Law School we are pleased to be supportive and provide sustainability for the center for entrepreneurship and the many clinics to allow them to become self-sustaining.

“We hope other alumni will be encouraged to consider their ability, at a later time in life when they may be more comfortable, to give back to the Law School that has had a positive impact on their lives,” he said.

“I think it’s so important that we give back and in a sense ‘pay ahead’ for the next generation with the hope that they will do the same going forward,” said Kahn. “With this gift Debbie and I have reached. It certainly wasn’t easy,” he added, “but I’m hopeful that others also will reach. There’s just a tremendous feeling you get when you’ve done something good for an institution you strongly believe in and for those who will benefit from it in the future.”