Wynn hopes to notch Durham relations victory

Following a tumultuous year, University officials created the position of vice president for Durham and regional affairs in May to improve the Duke-Durham relationship. Phail Wynn, who is leaving his post as president of Durham Technical Community College after 30 years at the college, will fill the post at the start of 2008. Appointed by President Richard Brodhead as part of the University's strategic plan, "Making a Difference," Wynn will assume responsibility over local issues currently assigned to John Burness, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations.

In an interview with The Chronicle's Shuchi Parikh, Wynn discusses his ideas for economic development for Durham and his plans to better Duke's image in the local community.

The Chronicle: What are the top priorities for your agenda?

Phail Wynn: One thing that I want to do is to help define a new role for Duke as an advocate and partner for economic and community development. By that I mean to help identify some of the challenges and needs in the community, to work with community leaders as well as elected officials to build a consensus around priorities for things that need to be done... and then find a role for Duke as a partner in this.

Another part to begin is just having conversations. It's important to know what community leaders and elected officials are thinking.

TC: How long do you expect that assessment and those conversations to go on?

PW: I'm thinking six months. I may be overly optimistic because already there are many, many constituencies in the area that have things they want to talk about. A lot of my initial conversations will involve a wide range of topics, and it's important to spend time listening to those constituencies that feel it's important that someone from Duke hear what they have to say.

TC: How much will you be interacting with John Burness or is your position independent from his?

PW: I'll be interacting with John quite a bit, in terms of assuming that responsibility from his and also a couple of other things that we will be collaborating on. One is just to improve working on providing better communication to all of the employees of the far-flung Duke enterprise, to help them better understand the role and mission of Duke.

TC: How do you hope to improve Duke's image in the local community?

PW: One part of it is to increase the visibility and the awareness of the efforts already underway. So much of what has already been done by Duke to be a viable partner in the community... is not well-known and not well recognized.

Part of it is to help remind citizens of what Duke's role is, not only as the largest employer in the area, contributing a substantial amount to the overall economic development of Durham, but other engagement efforts that folks are not aware of.

TC: How do you believe Duke has lacked in interacting with local institutions and what do you plan to do to improve those relations?

PW: Certainly there has been engagement in the past, but the needs and the opportunities change very rapidly. Part of what needs to be done is again an assessment of what kinds of productive relationships can we work toward implementing now.

One of the things that's important for Duke as an educational leader is to work with public schools in strengthening math and science education and doing a lot with teachers to provide professional development opportunities for them to upgrade their skills.

TC: Do you feel that the position you're going to undertake is a necessary step by the Duke administration to address the negative media from the lacrosse case, or are there other reasons?

PW: Perhaps the lacrosse case has made the Duke administration aware of the need to strengthen its engagement with the community. Deep ties and a strong relationship with the community can provide that ongoing reservoir of understanding and support that's necessary when you run into a crisis like the one that's occurred. Part of the challenge is, with a dynamic and growing population the mission and role of Duke and the historical relationship between Duke and Durham will not stay explained or will not remain in the minds of citizens.

Having someone in the role that's always there to be seen as the engagement person and as the person that's not only advocating for what Duke has done but also looking for ways to strengthen the engagement relationship of Duke is very important.

TC: Why did you choose to undertake this position?

PW: I had fully planned to retire, work on my golf game and travel. This was not in my plans because my 30th anniversary at Durham Tech was Sunday, July 1, so I had planned to retire and take some time off and think about what I wanted to do.

One reason that I decided to pursue this is I've worked with John Burness over the years, I've worked with Provost Peter Lange, [Executive Vice President] Tallman Trask and President Brodhead. They're colleagues and I'm familiar with them and I felt that there probably was some contribution I could make in working with them. I think we all have a common vision about the importance of Duke's role and how it can be enhanced in the community.

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