Malcolm Gillis, who began his career as a development economist at Duke University and helped guide the creation of the Duke Center for International Development (DCID), died Oct. 4 at age 74 in Houston, Texas.

He was president emeritus of Rice University, University Professor, the Ervin Kenneth Zingler Professor of Economics and a professor of management.

Duke Sanford School of Public Policy faculty remembered him for his keen intelligence, for his contributions to Duke and to higher education, and for his wit and warmth.

“Malcolm devoted his life to the field of development,” said Joel Fleishman, professor of law and public policy. “He was born in Dothan, Alabama, worked his way through junior college, then transferred to the University of Florida. His background growing up in the South gave him extraordinary feeling for people who are less well off, of all races. His whole career was oriented around improving life for people in the United States and around the world. He was salt of the earth.”

Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School, added, “Malcolm Gillis was a revered scholar, leader, and person who meant a great deal to Duke and Sanford. Prior to his passing, we had established, with support from the Provost and Trustees, the Malcolm Gillis Chair of Public Policy. When I informed Malcolm of this, he was deeply touched and discussed at length his affection for Duke. We will miss Malcolm.”

Duke, Harvard, Duke Again

Gillis began his teaching career at Duke as an assistant professor of economics in 1967. The following year, he went to Harvard as a research fellow and lecturer in economics. About 15 years later, he returned to Duke as a professor of economics and public policy. In 1986, he became dean of the Duke graduate school and vice provost for academic affairs.

“He did a terrific job as dean of the graduate school, in which capacity he helped Bill Ascher develop DCID and nurture it in a way that allowed it to have the impact it is having today,” said Sanford Professor Bruce Kuniholm, inaugural dean of the Sanford School. “He also was a big help to us when we were in the process of becoming a school,” Kuniholm said. 

“But for Malcolm, we never would have had DCID at Duke,” Fleishman added.

“The Public Finance Group (PFG) at DCID were deeply saddened by the passing of Malcolm Gillis,” said Graham Glenday, professor of the practice of public policy. “He will be greatly missed.” Glenday, co-director of the International Taxation Program (ITP) and other programs at DCID, met Gillis at Harvard. Glenday took Gillis’ public finance course and became his teaching assistant.

“He had been an important contributor to our academic and practical development of public finance expertise while he was a fellow at the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID) where the PFG was established,” Glenday said. “Malcolm was also involved in the ITP when it was housed at Harvard Law School and acted as a senior advisor to the ITP when it was transferred to Duke in 2006.”

Advised Developing Countries, Led Minority Recruiting

During his career, Gillis advised and trained government finance leaders in some 20 countries. He led a major tax reform project in Indonesia that was implemented starting in the early 1980s.

“It was a landmark reform program, being one of the first major comprehensive reforms undertaken in a developing economy,” Glenday said.

When Gillis became dean of the graduate school at Duke, he led an effort to improve the hiring of minority faculty members and the recruiting of minority graduate students.

He hired Duke’s first minority student recruiter, Jacqueline Looney, and received a $100,000 grant from The Duke Endowment to fund graduate fellowships for minority students. In 1988, he appointed Duke’s Black on White Steering Committee to address “the kind of environment Duke provided for black students here at Duke.”

“What Malcolm did was to make recruitment of students of color a team effort,” Looney said in a 2009 interview with Duke Today. “He made it everyone’s problem and gave everyone a role to play.” Looney is now senior associate dean in the graduate school.

Gillis was named dean of the faculty of arts and science in 1991 and led a university commission to revise the undergraduate curriculum. He left Duke in 1993 to become the sixth president of Rice University, where he led until 2004.

He returned to Duke for a final stint in 2004-2005, when he was a visiting Professor of Public Policy Studies and Distinguished Research Fellow in DCID.

“He was a vital, robust bundle of energy with a radiating intellect that brightened all our lives, made our work more productive and our purposes better, all the while sharing his great sense of humor and sharp wit,” Kuniholm said.

“I think the faculty were gratified that we could name an eponymous chair after him. We told him about it about a month ago, and I was really glad that he knew that.”

A memorial service is scheduled on the Rice campus Oct. 28, 2015, at 2 p.m. To learn more about Gillis’ life and work, please see In memoriam: President Emeritus Malcolm Gillis and the online Rice Presidents and Provosts exhibit.

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