September 28, 1981 12:00 PM

In nearly 12 years as president of Duke University, former Democratic Governor of North Carolina Terry Sanford has always won praise for the additions he has brought to the prestigious private school’s pine-stippled acres. Among them: a new business school building, a new hospital and a luxurious student union. But in early August, when he proposed adding a library for former President Richard Nixon’s papers, he set off the fight of his university career.

Faculty opponents protested that such an acquisition would forever brand Duke as the Southern “San Clemency,” and students and alumni appeared with placards bearing slogans like IMPEACH THE NIXON LIBRARY. Animating the opposition was the feeling that Sanford had not consulted the faculty before making his overture to Nixon. “In my opinion the controversy is just about Nixon,” Sanford says. But many faculty members report a nearly irreparable breach between Duke’s faculty and administration, and some feel Sanford has permanently weakened his authority.

His motives in courting the Nixon papers are entirely understandable. Nixon had not only gone through Duke’s law school (class of 1937) but also gave several key government positions to a former Duke law professor and close friend, Kenneth Rush. There is little debate, moreover, that the Nixon White House and personal papers, now stored in the National Archives, represent a formidable body of documents which will be of lasting interest to scholars. (Duke’s only involvement would be to donate land to the National Archives, which would run the library.)

But on August 18, when Sanford sent letters to 65,000 students and alumni telling them what was going on, the reaction was explosive. Since Sanford had originally informed only two of the 11 university trustees in the Executive Committee, the others responded to his idea with some consternation; though they eventually voted 9-2 for the library, they qualified their support with “serious restrictions” meant to ensure that the project could not become a Nixon shrine. Then the academic council, which represents Duke’s 1,400 faculty members, weighed in, voting down the library 35-34. Says an unofficial spokesman for the faculty foes: “We just don’t want this to become a memorial to one of the country’s greatest rogues.”

Sanford himself is no stranger to controversy. He was born in rural Laurinburg, N.C. (pop. 11,480), the son of a hardware merchant and a school-teacher who scrimped to send him to the University of North Carolina and its law school. He fought his way through World War II as a paratrooper, then charged into North Carolina politics, becoming governor in 1961 at the age of 44. That year he riled his fellow Southern Democrats by rejecting their favorite son, Lyndon Johnson, and seconding John Kennedy’s presidential nomination at the Democratic convention. Sanford is perhaps proudest of his role as one of the first New South governors to “step out front” as a champion of civil rights. “I don’t mind controversy,” he says. “You’ve got to remain calm and never let it be personal. I’ve followed those rules and I’ve slept well.”

Though administrative decisions at Duke are made by the trustees and not the faculty, Sanford has given the teachers until October to reexamine his proposal. By then, he hopes, many of the dissenters will be converted to the views of English professor and novelist Reynolds Price, 48, a self-described “traditional yellow-dog Democrat” who hardly defends Nixon but favors the library. “If you tore down every building in Europe that bears the name of a morally reprehensible person,” he argues, “it would be a bare scene.” Moreover, he notes, Nixon “was one of ours. There’s a certain amount of owning up involved.”

Price concedes that the library would be an embarrassment “if we get into an awful lot of stuff—like Tricia’s wedding dress and Checkers’ flea collar.” But Sanford protests that he would never let that happen. “The library has to emphasize the scholarly aspects,” he says. “I think Mr. Nixon understands that and has come to the point that he is content to leave the judgment to history.” And if the Nixon library finally ends up elsewhere, says Sanford, life will go on. “An institution that cannot cope with controversy is a weak institution,” he says. “And Duke is not a weak institution.”

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