Town-Gown Relations on Trial

Duke lacrosse scandal points to need for academics to better understand histories of their ties to their localities, writes Eric Moyen.

June 8, 2006

If ever an American campus personified “trouble in paradise” it’s Duke University. Rape accusations against three lacrosse players, documentation of repugnant student behavior, a slow administrative response, and a local election fueled by the controversy promise to keep one of the nation’s elite universities in an embarrassing spotlight it would desperately like to avoid and that keeps on returning with new developments, such as the reinstatement of the lacrosse team. The charges brought by an African-American student from North Carolina Central University have evoked discussions of race and privilege, as well as those of violence against women, as they should. At the same time, the often ignored saga of problematic town-gown relations between elite universities and their host communities demands a reinvigorated discourse of its own.

Unfortunately, the dialogue generated by the press provides an oversimplified and ahistorical characterization of town-gown relations, leading to poor policy decisions and hackneyed press releases. More than likely the months ahead will include announcements and initiatives by Duke and other elite universities about better serving their host communities, and more than likely most professors, students and town residents will see few meaningful changes.

However, if educators at Duke and elsewhere want to promote good relations with their home towns, they must understand that town-gown relations go much deeper than rowdy students, zoning disputes, and the snobbery of looking down at townies. Of course, many reports on town-gown troubles implicitly suggest that such issues comprise the totality of tensions.

A recent New York Times article highlighting the strained relations between Duke and Durham, for example, argued that the Trinity Park neighborhood bordering Duke University’s East Campus “got its first taste of infamy in January of last year” when police busted a party featuring bikini-clad women wrestling in baby oil to the delight of numerous Dukies. While the incident somehow warranted comment in the national news media, it was hardly a “first taste of infamy” to the residents of the neighborhood. A decade earlier a Duke community relations committee noted the need to address the persistent problems of “student parties which frequently last until 5:00 a.m. and the attendant problems of noise, trash, abusive language, greater levels of debauchery then [sic] in past years, excessive drinking including underage drinking.” The neighborhood meeting report also noted the surrounding residents’ irritation with Duke’s perceived lack of action.

In another article, a Raleigh News & Observer journalist opined that Duke would flee Durham if given the opportunity and the Bull City would be happy to see the institution go. Such an argument fails to consider the fact that Duke possesses the resources to retreat even further into the secluded Duke Forest (albeit still within the Durham limits) if it so desired. The comment also ignores the current economic impact of the university on the local economy (over $3 billion annually). Duke employs nearly 15 percent of Durham’s resident work force, and another 18,000 commute into Durham to work at Duke. The mean annual salary of “hourly” or non-professional staff amounts to nearly $40,000, while the mean professional salary exceeds $72,000. So, even the most vociferous Duke detractors would not want to see the institution leave. Finally, such characterizations fail to properly inform both locals and Duke employees of the institution’s original reasons for moving to Durham.

The old cliché that those who refuse to study the past are destined to repeat it might apply here. Reporters are misrepresenting the Duke-Durham situation largely because they do not know about its town-gown legacy. Duke’s town-gown story began over 100 years ago when both Raleigh and Durham fought to bring Trinity College, a Methodist institution located 70 miles west of Durham, in rural Randolph County, to their respective towns. Durham, an unkempt tobacco and textile town, needed some cultivation. Keenly aware of its image, Durham’s “Bull City” boosters outbid the state capital for the small college (which would become Duke University in 1924). The institution, argued many, would bring not only academic resources to the community but would provide the civilizing and refining influence needed in a town of the New South. Trinity would offer the town an opportunity “to enjoy the best available talent in furnishing a class of entertainment of high character” -- something the next lacrosse coach at Duke might want to reiterate to the new recruiting class.

John Crowell, president of Trinity College when it moved to Durham, believed an urban landscape was essential to the work of any truly great American university. It provided the best location to study and develop solutions to the great challenges facing America’s cities. He believed Durham offered the opportunity to study “sanitation, pauperism, crime, mortality and morality.” Without the guiding principals of scientific inquiry and the quest for truth, Durham was “doomed to cankerous decay.” In this comment Crowell echoed Daniel Coit Gilman who, as the first president of Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, envisioned universities that would “make for less misery among the poor, less ignorance in the schools, [and] less bigotry in the temple.”

In the early 20th century, Trinity’s town-gown relations were characterized by isolation. Strict rules of conduct guided by an in loco parentis philosophy led to the prohibition of “alcohol, ... theatricals, sleight of hand, natural or artificial curiosities, or any performance in music, singing or dancing within two miles of the campus.” Locals often criticized the university's lack of involvement in the town’s affairs. Despite Crowell’s intention help solve Durham’s social ills, he lamented the fact that “the general burden of the college was to make good in the estimate of the community.”

Now, several decades removed from Crowell’s idyllic vision, many national writers have noted the parallels between Duke and Tom Wolfe’s depiction of DuPont University in his latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. The fictional university, which resembles Duke in many ways, demonstrates the preeminence of sex, alcohol and athletics over serious academic studies. Much earlier, however, another Tom Wolfe (the late Thomas) detailed his own collegiate experiences in North Carolina. In his autobiographical fictional work, Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life, originally published in 1929, the author chronicles the life of a student in “Pulpit Hill” who heads to a house of ill repute in a nearby tobacco town (presumably Durham) where he loses his virginity to a prostitute -- even before flappers, Durham offered the taboo temptations.

All of the town-gown developments during the first half of the century occurred during the Jim Crow era, when white leaders of both Durham and Duke did not seriously consider that the community’s African-Americans would fight to gain their own seat at the table. When the fighting did begin, it solidified the already negative image of the university among many local residents. At the same time, university students nationwide successfully challenged rules set in place generations earlier that had at least kept more licentious behavior under the radar. As students and townsfolk asserted their views on civil rights and rules of student behavior, town-gown issues became increasingly complicated.

As a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Duke hosted the 1942 Rose Bowl. In response to an article in the town’s African-American newspaper titled, “Duke Athletic Officials Bar Negroes from Bowl Game but Will Allow Japs,” the university allowed a small segregated group of black spectators to attend. In the following decade, Duke’s administration moved slowly to admit African-Americans, arguing that its private status exempted it from complying with the 1954  Brown decision. While Durham’s urban renewal divided and devastated parts of the black community, the university acquired more properties and forced the removal of low-income residents to make way for its expansion.

At the same time the university avoided unwanted development and continued to acquire more property. Duke’s actions were no different from those of many successful American universities, but this did not justify the behavior and has left a strain on the collective mind of many African-American people. Further, the university’s growth coincided with the demise of the textile industry that had built Durham, bolstering the view of Duke as the wealthy ivory tower in a struggling working-class town.

Long before today’s traditional undergraduates at Duke were born, the town-gown legacy had been put into motion. Terry Sanford, a politician-turned-university president, managed to assuage some Durham leaders through his own personal initiatives and appeal. Not until the early 1990s, however, did Duke’s administration realize that an intentional good-neighbor policy needed to be implemented to combat the characterization of Duke as “The Plantation” or the “800-Pound Gorilla.”

President Nannerl Keohane’s administration first formalized a town/gown policy through the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership. The initiative is representative of many similar projects across the nation aimed at bettering town/gown relations. For example, Yale instituted its Office of New Haven and State Affairs, while Penn developed a Center for Community Partnerships in Philadelphia. While Duke’s program continues to help local neighborhoods surrounding the campus through low-interest loans, involvement in educational and recreational programs and student volunteer efforts (to name just a few), it has failed to address student behavior, a point that has been made by Duke administrators and Durham residents for years. Failure to do so only perpetuates a saga that does not help Duke as it tries to maintain its leadership post in academe.

And now, as the relatively new administration of President Richard Brodhead deals with its first major crisis on a national stage, Duke has a distinct opportunity. Will it expand on what former President Crowell suggested by examining social issues of racism, sexual violence, and class issues by first looking inward? Will it ask if the “dangers” of unruly students are as much of a threat as the danger of an urban locale?  Will Duke couple the current discussion with the now-out-of-vogue dialogue of personal virtue, morality and responsibility no matter what class, race or gender a student represents? The institution would be well served to do so. However, indications from Duke professors such as Houston A. Baker, who have criticized the administration’s slow response, suggest a reluctance on the part of the institution to accept the challenge.

Duke is rich and many of its surrounding neighborhoods are poor. Will it expend its vast resources at levels beyond those necessary for positive press releases, and will it intentionally direct its immense amount of intellectual resources toward helping its neighbors? More importantly for the larger academy, is it the responsibility of an elite university to do so, and does this aid or diminish the essential mission of teaching and research? In sum, Duke is an affirmative-action employer. Will it now become more intentional about being an affirmative-action neighbor?

With Duke’s history of strained town-gown relationships, the current scandal already is another devastating setback, regardless of the trial’s outcome. For example, Newsweek quoted one North Carolina Central Student hoping for a prosecution because, “whether it happened or not. It would be justice for the things that happened in the past.” Duke’s Neighborhood Partnership Initiative is a start, but it must do more. If Duke is to make a marked change in its legacy, it would be wise to study its history and heed former president Crowell’s argument that if the institution was ever to achieve what it was capable of, “We shall have to build a town and college both” -- a colossal task to be sure but one that could become a model for other elite institutions to emulate.


Eric Moyen is assistant professor of education at Lee University. His doctoral dissertation at the University of Kentucky examined town-gown relations in Durham and Chapel Hill, N.C.


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