University Community Saddened by Passing of Dr. John B. Duff, Past President

By Marty Meehan

The UMass Lowell community is saddened to learn of the passing this morning of John B. Duff, president of our campus’s predecessor institution and a distinguished American historian. 

Dr. Duff became the first president of the then University of Lowell in April 1976 and was charged with the task of guiding the new institution formed from two longstanding predecessors. Today we honor the contributions of John Duff to the university and our city. His wisdom and energy in those pivotal start-up years set this school on a course for success. We offer condolences to his family, friends and colleagues, and share their emotions.

The flags across the campus will be flown at half-staff this week to honor his memory and his life. As we learn more about the funeral arrangements, we will share the details with the campus community.

With good spirit and deft management, President Duff led the university to new prominence in the region and city. Under his leadership, enrollment and the faculty grew and research expanded. When Durgin Hall opened in late 1976 with a gala performance by Sarah Caldwell’s opera company, President Duff said, “Lowell has never had a night like this.” He loved being in the historical city of Lowell, and admired its story so much. In 1978, President Duff was elected to chair the new Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, a federal agency charged with assisting the development of the new Lowell National Historical Park. After five years at the helm of the university, John Duff was named the first chancellor of public higher education in Massachusetts.

As a student at the university, I had an opportunity to work closely with then-President Duff, and I appreciate the vision and enthusiasm he brought to the job every day. In the years since, I have welcomed his guidance and insight about higher education leadership.

John Duff’s notable career began as a history professor at Seton Hall University, where he rose to become executive vice president before coming to Lowell. In 1985, he was appointed commissioner of the public library system in Chicago, where he oversaw the building of what was at the time the largest public library in the nation. He was named president of Columbia College Chicago in 1992, and later chaired the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities.

He was the author of several books, including “The Irish in the United States” (1970), “The Structure of American History” (1970), and “Slavery: Its Origins and Legacy” (1957).