A historian by discipline, Professor Rice gained a first class MA from the University of Aberdeen, and completed his doctorate at the University of Edinburgh before pursuing much of his professional life at Yale and New York Universities. Sir Duncan was a Associate Professor of History at Yale University, and Professor and Dean at Hamilton College in New York State.
From the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, as New York University’s Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, and then University Vice Chancellor, he shaped and enhanced its academic core by the significant expansion of the Arts and Science Faculty and the establishment of a major research presence in the natural sciences.
He made a major contribution to the internationalisation of NYU and was instrumental in building the League of World Universities.
At NYU, he played a key role in one of the most successful US higher education fund-raising campaigns to date. In 1996 he returned to Aberdeen as Principal and Vice Chancellor.
Described as "the quiet revolutionary" of Scottish higher education, he has been a leader in encouraging large-scale systematic fundraising.
He led a successful fundraising campaign for £150 million attracted to the University during his tenure. Professor Rice’s public service is reflected in his board memberships, past and present, including the Heritage Lottery Fund Committee for Scotland, Scottish Enterprise Grampian, Scottish Opera/Ballet, and the National Trust for Scotland.
Within the education sector, his commitments have included Chairmanship of the Circumpolar Universities’ Association and the UK Socrates-Erasmus Trust.
In 2007 his philanthropic leadership was recognised by his appointment as Trustee-at-Large for the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), and also as Chair of CASE Europe. Professor Rice was knighted for his services to higher education in 2009.