This story is part of our coverage of the 10th anniversary of the lacrosse case. Our other coverage can be found here.
In the decade since the lacrosse case, the University has redesigned its efforts to improve relations between Duke and the city of Durham.
These efforts, which began in 2006, have ranged from more routine conversations with local leaders to funding economic revitalization programs to the creation of a new administrative position specifically interacting with Durham and the surrounding region.
Phail Wynn, who came to Duke in 2008 to fill the newly created position of vice president for Durham and regional affairs, acknowledged that there was substantial work to be to be done to improve Duke-Durham relations in the wake of the case.
“It’s not just a matter of reading in the newspapers the fact that there is a live case—you’re listening to and watching the district attorney [Mike Nifong] make all these accusations that we found later to be groundless, essentially condemning the whole culture of Duke as being responsible for that happening,” Wynn said. “That really created some seriously negative perceptions that it took some time to diffuse even after the matter was resolved.”
Need for restructuring
In the months after the lacrosse case broke, Duke worked to manage both its local connections and national reputation.
Its local efforts were challenged by a history of mistrust between the community and the University, which was exacerbated by the national media’s coverage.
One headline in The New York Times read, “New Strain on Duke’s Ties with Durham.” Another in Inside Higher Ed declared, “Town-Gown Relations on Trial” and ESPN wrote, “Turbulent Times for Duke and Durham.”
John Burness, former senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, was in charge of dealing with the media controversy surrounding the case. After 17 years at the University, he stepped down from his position in 2008 to focus on writing and teaching.
A Board of Trustees’ 2006 strategic plan titled “Making a Difference” split Burness’ duties between two new administrative positions, Wynn said. Michael Schoenfeld became the vice president for public affairs and government relations, and Wynn took on the role of vice president for Durham and regional affairs.
Wynn said the creation of a separate office was important in fostering greater engagement between Duke and Durham. He noted that during the lacrosse case Burness had many competing duties, which he said detracted from his ability to devote as many resources toward forming connections with Durham.
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“I doubt that John [Burness] would have had the time to devote an entire year to conversations in the community about perceptions of Duke in Durham with all the other responsibilities he had,” Wynn said.
‘Aloof, arrogant and uncaring’
Wynn came to Duke after serving as president of Durham Technical Community College for 28 years. He said he often heard the University characterized as “aloof, arrogant and uncaring” during early conversations following the case in the Durham community.
He noted that he did not perceive Duke as a particularly welcoming place during his time at DTCC. He said that the reputation of Duke as a relatively distant institution complicated local relations in the years following the lacrosse case.
“They said, ‘Oh Duke must’ve bought [the players] off because the DA said they’re guilty,’” Wynn noted. “One of the challenges I had coming here, even after [the players] were exonerated and the case was called out, there were still lingering doubts that there really was exoneration.”
Annie Thornhill, former president of the Burch Avenue Neighborhood Association, noted that community members in the neighborhood, which borders Central Campus, were “skeptical and wary” after the case.
“I think that we have a lot of strong ties. but there’s also a lot of experiences—lacrosse being one of them—where the relationship with the University has been spotty,” she said.
In his first year, Wynn said he made it his goal to engage in community conversations with Durham residents to gather information about actions Duke could take to be seen as a more accessible community asset.
Engaging the community
Following his arrival at Duke, Wynn conducted meetings with local governing officials, community stakeholders, business leaders and neighborhood association presidents of the 12 central Durham neighborhoods closest to Duke’s campus.
He explained that these conversations went on to shape the Office for Durham and Regional Affairs’ strategic plan—which expanded on involvement that had begun with the Durham Neighborhood partnership under Nannerl Keohane’s presidency.
He noted that his goal was to help improve community perceptions by promotion so that Duke’s “invisible hand” was not just seen a financial partner but also as a collaborative partner.
In addition to the 2008 initial year of community conversations, Wynn now holds quarterly meetings with the presidents of neighborhood associations in close proximity to campus as a way of seeking feedback about the University’s position in the community.
Jody White, former president of the Trinity Park neighborhood association, noted topics in meetings often include safety involving automobile traffic, collaboration on neighborhood events and complaints about fraternity housing parties.
Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield has served in his current role since 2008, the same year Wynn entered his position. Bonfield said he has seen a number of productive connections between Durham and Duke, noting that since so many of the institutional partnerships are relationship-based, it will be important for Duke staff and Durham city government officials to maintain these relationships in the future.
“I think over the next five years I would expect that a number of senior people at the University probably will retire,“ Bonfield said. “It will be important as those transitions occur for us all to keep the level of commitment that we have had.”
Although more collaborative conversations between Duke officials and Durham residents have happened in the wake of the lacrosse case, Duke’s social culture continues to be a source of concern for neighbors.
Community members formed Durham Neighborhoods United in 2014 in an effort to communicate concerns about disruptive off campus behavior.
Last year, the city of Durham launched an investigation into several fraternity houses located near campus, including homes on Vickers Avenue and Chapel Hill Street, for violations of city ordinances.
“It’s really troubling,” Thornhill said. “We’ve lived here 10 years and we’ll have people come in.. who act like this is just a temporary place to hang out and I’m raising my children here.”
Thornhill said that although the majority of her interactions with Duke students have been positive, she hopes the University will work with the neighborhoods surrounding campus to make sure the students who are not following neighborhood expectations experience real consequences for misconduct off-campus.
She also added that it would be helpful if neighbors had more information about Duke’s student conduct process.
In 2009, the Trinity Heights Action Committee convened a task force of city officials, community members, Duke administrators and students. The committee noted that one challenge of maintaining positive relations with students in off-campus houses is the temporary nature of student housing—which means neighbors have to reiterate their expectations at the start of each new academic year.
Wynn noted that although student conduct in off-campus houses has been and remains an issue that the University must address, it now has additional priorities—including creating affordable housing, addressing crime issues and continuing to expand the city’s economic revitalization.
Despite the challenges that have persisted in the relationship between Duke and the surrounding neighborhoods, Wynn expressed that he aims for the city to view Duke as a long-term partner in confronting new issues that arise.
“Part of being an engaged partner for the long term means as the priorities change, we have to continue making adjustments and maintaining our strong partnership efforts,” he said.