Former UMass chancellor Duffey, remembered for dedication to human rights, world connections, dies at 88

  • Joseph Duffey speaks with Eugene McCarthy, whose 1968 presidential campaign he worked on, in this undated photo. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst Chancellor Joseph D. Duffey greets actor Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, in this photo from around 1990. UMASS FILE PHOTO

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst Chancellor Joseph D. Duffey speaks with Isaac King Amuah, husband of Nelson Mandela’s daughter Makaziwe, in 1986. UMASS FILE PHOTO

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst Chancellor Joseph D. Duffey, left, chats in his office with UMass President David C. Knapp in 1982. UMASS FILE PHOTO

  • Joseph Duffey was chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst from 1982 to 1991. UMASS FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/2/2021 6:18:22 PM

AMHERST — Distinguished guests from across the globe, including then Argentine President Raúl Alfonsín, missionary Mother Teresa and Sandinistas from Nicaragua, came to the University of Massachusetts during Joseph Duffey’s tenure as chancellor in the 1980s.

“One of the surprising things is he had such a tremendous number of international connections, bringing people of importance to UMass,” said Richard O’Brien, former provost and executive vice chancellor who worked alongside Duffey for seven years. “He kind of gave UMass an international angle.”

Duffey, whose participation in the anti-war movement of the 1960s brought him to prominence nationally, died of natural causes at 88 in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 25.

Appointed chancellor of the UMass Amherst campus in 1982, and leaving in 1991 to become president of American University in Washington, Duffey made sure all students had general education requirements, making them well rounded in their education, O’Brien said.

“The concept of gen ed was crucially developed and pushed by Joe Duffey,” O’Brien said.

Duffey also spurred development of the Isenberg School of Management, O’Brien said, which he observes has been a great success for UMass.

Former Chancellor David K. Scott, who two years after Duffey’s departure became leader of the Amherst campus, said Duffey brought an amazing range of leadership skills and talents to his many positions in the academy, in politics, in civil rights and at the international level, as well as being a minister of religion.

“He came to the University of Massachusetts at a time when politics were divisive, the students were demonstrating and taking over buildings,” Scott said.

But Duffey made sure he brought a caring and humane attitude toward those students, Scott said, such as making sure they were brought food during their protests.

“Joseph Duffey was a leader in turbulent times and for turbulent times,” Scott said.

In addition to revising the general education curriculum, Duffey argued that education should serve global civilization and values, initiating what was called Mass Transformation.

Born on July 1, 1932, in Huntington, West Virginia, Duffey was the oldest of five children. His mother died when he was 14 and his father lost a leg in a coal-mining accident, which forced him to raise his younger siblings and care for his father.

After graduating from Marshall University and attending Andover Newton Theological Seminary, Duffey, who became minister at the First Church of Danvers in 1957, organized Freedom Riders to go south and also met with dissidents in Communist countries of Eastern Europe.

As he rose to prominence as a civil rights activist, Duffey hit the campaign trail in 1968 for anti-war Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, leading a delegation for him at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Later, Duffey served as head of the Americans for Democratic Action, an appointment that came on the recommendation of economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

After his stint at UMass, during which time he established friendships with politicians in Massachusetts as well as human rights leaders, such as author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, Duffey was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993 as director of the United States Information Agency.

That appointment came more than two decades after Duffey made an unsuccessful run for a U.S. Senate seat from Connecticut.

In a post on Twitter, Clinton wrote that he missed about half his law school classes in fall 1970 to try to get Duffey elected as senator due to his “deep commitment to peace, economic fairness and civil rights.”

In his federal agency role, Clinton wrote, Duffey redefined the role of public diplomacy and bridged political divides.

“I loved him and I’ll miss him very much,” Clinton wrote.

Hampshire College alumnus and documentarian Ken Burns also expressed his views on Duffey via Twitter, calling him “one of the great ones, with an influence spanning many decades and an interest in helping people, including a young documentary filmmaker just getting started on his first film.”

Duffey was also the president of the university system in the early 1990s, a position that O’Brien said state leaders had to beg him to take, as he much preferred playing host and giving great dinners to dignitaries.

“Joe was a very friendly and pleasant man,” O’Brien said. “Everyone loved Joseph Duffey.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at

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