Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Town Gown Relations

I’ve always wondered where the stigma comes from that Duke and Durham relations are “strained.” It just isn’t supported by any facts I can find. Never has been in my 20+ years here, nor in what I’ve read historically. It is quite the opposite.

But I can think of 5 conditions that may perpetuate the misperceptions picked up in news media or the Princeton Review:

  • Outspokenness and Activism: Part of Durham’s overarching community brand is activism, and activists are outspoken and a bit “rough and tumble.” So when Duke, as one of the largest employers in the state, blinks an eye, there is bound to be debate. That’s just Durham. Members of the Duke community are part of this activism. But that doesn’t equate to strained relations. On the contrary, it means there is trust enough to be open and direct.

  • UNC Alums: Duke’s archrival is a public university, many times larger in student body located in Chapel Hill, a close neighbor of Durham’s. Surveys show, about 20% of Durham residents are UNC fans and 5.4% of Durham’s adult population are graduates of UNC. The racket made when some carry these athletic rivalries and “put-downs” into other conversations can create the illusion that Durham isn’t true (dark) blue.

  • Non-Residents Working in Durham: Three out of every five jobs in Durham are held by non-residents. Only about a third of these non-residents are negative about Durham, but one in ten are virulently negative. To those unfamiliar, these comments appear to reflect a rift between Durham and Duke.

  • Contrasts: Durham is at or near the top as a place where Duke graduates settle. Durham is very socio-economically diverse. Not all Durham residents are poor and not all Duke students are rich. But to some, including the news media in particular, exaggerating the contrasts is irresistible. Add to that a good deal of envy from other parts of the state because Duke and Research Triangle Park are based in Durham, and there’s a little tension, not infrequently misattributed as tension between Duke and Durham.

There just aren’t many facts that support that there is strain between Duke and Durham nor are these the only reasons for the illusion there is.

But in my opinion, I see no other community where officials and neighborhoods and a major world-class university work so closely together. I see no other where the students are more likely to be involved in community service. I see no other where the university makes such huge investments to support community initiatives.

I’ve looked for this so-called town-gown strain and it just doesn’t amount to much. But we all know stigmas die hard.

No comments: